Lindsay Clarke's neo-Victorian-cum-alchemical-romance novel, The Chymical Wedding, appeared in the same year as A. S. Byatt's Possession, and there are some vague resemblances between the two: both are parallel-plot historical novels, both feature poets, and both involve various Thwarted Passions. That being said, The Chymical Wedding revises the parallel-plot structure in an interesting, if not altogether successful, fashion. In most parallel-plot novels, the characters in the present play out, consciously or unconsciously, events from the past; what happens in the present normally transcends and somehow "heals" that which went awry in the past. The effect is somewhat akin to a ghost story, in that the present-day characters work through the past in order to lay it to rest. Clarke, however, energizes his parallels differently: the modern characters embody certain principles or characteristics of the Victorian characters, rather than reenacting their life-narratives per se. The plot's alchemical/Blakean philosophy, which posits that man can undo the effects of the Fall by recognizing, through symbolic resonances, the true unity of all things, also guides the narrative's structure. While, as Suzanne Keen notes, "[t]he reconstruction of the Victorian hermeticist's lost work leads to bodily takeover, in which the characters lose control even as they enact scenes of sexual magic," I'd add that the "ruined relationships" that result do not repeat those that came before (136). Edward Nesbit, the failed and drunken poet, is the modern counterpart to Henry Agnew, failed poetic Hermeticist, while Edward's lover Laura similarly echoes Henry's daughter Louisa. But Edward's drunken rages bring him closer to the cruelty of Henry's much-loathed father, another Henry; moreover, his former lover, Ralph Agnew, eventually challenges him to reenact the self-castration practiced by Louisa's beloved, the married Anglican clergyman Edwin Frere. Edward's name echoes Edwin's, but Edwin's primary echo is the present-day narrator, the blocked poet Alex Darken. Alex's writer's block itself echoes Edward's and Henry's--but, just as Edwin responds explosively to Louisa, so too does Alex to Laura. Edwin Frere's unhappy wife, Emilia, reappears (somewhat oddly) in the form of the rejected Ralph--but Alex, in some ways, is also Emilia, the woman who yearns for her beloved Cambridge. (Alex's nickname is "Cambridge.") In other words, Clarke disperses the Victorian characters into the modern figures, thereby enacting the novel's dream of symbolic unity: with the important exception of Laura, who in many ways is Louisa, the characters are all, in some way, already each other.
While this structure is enjoyably complex, the novel's style leaves much to be desired. This is especially true in the last one hundred pages or so, where Clarke loses control of both his plotting and his dialogue. At one point, Laura complains that men like Alex think too much: "Do you know how many times you've used that word? You think this, you think that. It's like a leaking faucet--think, think, think!" (428) Laura's complaint inadvertently describes Clarke's problem, for his characters spend this last chunk of the novel a) thinking about their feelings, b) talking about what they're thinking about their feelings, and c) talking about the problems caused by not talking about what they're thinking about their feelings. As a result, the plot loses steam just when it's supposed to get tense; the narrative's climax is supposed to make us go "numb with dread" (453), like Laura, but the urgency remains solely a matter of adverbs and adjectives.