Wednesday 3 October 2012

Wordsworth's French Lover

My Virago edition of 'Fair Exchange'. Personally
I'm not keen on the cover, but I often whinge
 about front coverss, so feel free to disagree!
I've always been fascinated by William Wordsworth's youthful espousal of revolutionary French politics, and his love affair with Frenchwoman Annette Vallon, who had his child in 1792. Somehow it's hard to reconcile this passionate, young man with the more familiar, older poet., who always comes across as a rather reactionary, quiet and isolated man – the two selves seem at odds with each other.

Writer Michèle Roberts was equally intrigued took inspiration from the story for a novel, creating characters, places and events based on the romance. But there's a twist in her tale, and things are not quite as straight forward as you think, for the worlds of England and France overlap as two women, both unmarried, both expecting a child, seek sanctuary in the same small French village. And, as we learn in the opening sentence, a crime has been committed: a 'wicked and unusual crime' that took place in 1792...

In an author's note at the start of 'Fair Exchange' Roberts is at pains to stress that her novel is not about Wordsworth, but about his 'compatriot and friend' William Saygood who is, she assures us, 'a wholly fictonal character'. Even so, it's clear that Saygood and Wordsworth are one and the same – although, with tongue in cheek, she actually has the poet make appearances off-stage. And she tells us: “Similarly, although Mary Wollstonecraft appears in the novel, I have plundered aspects of her life for my character Jemima Boote.” Throughout, names are changed: Annette Vallon becomes Annette Villon, Wordsworth's wife Mary Hutchinson is Fanny Skynner, while his sister Dorothy is Polly.

And there's a whole raft of purely fictional characters, including Daisy, the slip-shod maid of all work at both Fanny's childhood home and the cottage where she lives after her marriage. Then there's Louise, the pragmatic French peasant who looks after Annette and is the perpetrator of the mysterious crime.

The female characters really came to life - I felt I knew them. And I liked the way the perspective shifts between them, from Louise, to Jemima, to Daisy, back to Louise, to Annette and so on. But we never see things from William's point of view or learn what motivates him. He may be rather charming and, presumably, rather good-looking, but he comes across as a bit of wimp, a man who goes out of his way to avoid confrontation, rather weak-willed, and selfish, with no sense of responsibility. Frankly, I think his women would have been happier without him, but I've never been a huge Wordsworth fan.

It's the women who dominate, and the themes about their role in society, apply as much to the 21st century as they do to the Georgian period. Louise, Fanny, Jemima, Annette, and Daisy all have different expectations of what life has to offer - and they all make very different decisions. 

At heart Annette, the cosseted daughter of a doctor, is very conservative, but it's easy to understand how she fell in love with an English poet during the upheaval of the French revolution. When her convent school is ransacked she escapes to friends and meets William. Alone and afraid, far from home, she is entranced by the young man, and offers to teach him English. And, of course, love blooms during the lessons. When she returns home pregnant, her parents are only too happy to pack her off to the village of their maid (Louise) so she will be out of the way. Abandoned by William, who marries his childhood sweetheart, she is unable to cope on her own, accepts a proposal of marriage from her wealthy landlord, even though she doesn't love him, and settles down to lead a respectable life.

Jemima is probably the character modern women will identify with: tall and robust, with big feet, she is 'all too obviously a young woman with an independent mind and an active brain', and is a free-thinker who refuses to be tied by convention, and is determined to carve out a career as a writer. In contrast, her friend Fanny is a small, pretty airhead, set on catching a husband by fluttering her eyelashes and acting helpless. Actually, I feel rather sorry for poor Fanny, because she should have married a wealthy man who would have kept her in style. But she weds William, and instead of living in a big house, wearing fine clothes and holding a good position in society, she ends up in an overcrowded, grubby cottage, with hardly any cash, and a husband who spends more time with his sister than he does with her and the children. No wonder she takes to her bed and imagines herself ill!

The novel also raises questions about 'nature versus nurture', which was a popular subject for debate in the late 18th and early 19th century, with some philosophers claiming children were born innocent, and others maintaining that man was essentially brutish and cruel.

'Fair Exchange' is also a wonderful portrayal of Georgian life – not just the social divisions and manners of the day, but the way middle-class households were run, and how poor agricultural labourers got by. Housework and food figure large. In England Jemima enjoys fresh, sweet oily walnuts dipped in salt, sultana studded buns, twists of cheese pastry, and mushroom ragout. In France, as you might expect, people seem more concerned about what they eat and there are delicacies like roast woodcock, soups made from home-grown vegetables, and cabbage leaves, stuffed with chestnuts, breadcrumbs and herbs, and cooked in cider.

William Wordsworth painted by William Shuter in 1798
 when he was 28 years old.
As an aside, I'm thinking of trying this last recipe, because it sounds so delicious, though I'm not sure which herbs would be best – sage, perhaps? Does anyone else ever want to eat dishes which feature in novels? Or am I being light-weight, and do you all consider more serious matters?

Anyway, on that note (or almost) I shall finish. I loved this novel: I loved everything about it, the story, the characters, the setting, the way it was written, and the revelation of the hidden secret. Years ago I started reading 'The Daughters of the House', and didn't get along with it all, and never finished it. So I've never tried anything else by Michèle Roberts, until I spotted this in a charity shop, and now I feel I have missed out on a great author. I need recommendations for her other work - what shall I read next?


  1. I've read a couple of novels by Michele Roberts and quite liked them though I can't say they have stayed with me. I am a huge Wordsworth fan having spent a long time studying his poetry, and so am not sure how I would react to this. It does sound intriguing though so maybe I will read it one day... who knows? Nice review, anyway -- thanks.

  2. You've made this sound fascinating. I'll put it on my list.