This story by English/French author Michèle Roberts starts with a woman dying, she has a secret to confess. We must wait until almost the end of the book to find out the truth. In a village near Paris, Louise is dying, it is the early 1800s, after the French Revolution and during the subsequent English/French war. Fair Exchange is the story of that secret, of Louise’s part in it and how she impacts on the lives of two other women, one English one French.
In an Author’s Note, Roberts explains the inspiration for the story: William Wordsworth’s love affair, at the beginning of the French Revolution, with Annette Vallon. This is not a true account, it is historical fiction about the romances of two couples – English poet William Saygood and Annette Villon [note the mis-spelling], and Jemima Boote [sketchily based on Mary Wollstonecraft] and Frenchman Paul Gilbert. Roberts’ telling of the story combines the detail of poverty at that time – the grinding daily life of Louise and her mother Amalie in the village of Saintange-sur-Seine near Paris – with sumptuous description. Louise is picking plums: ‘The plums were so ripe that they fell into her hands. They smelled fragrant in the warm sunlight, as though she were biting them off the tree and tasting their sweet juice. Flies rose up in clouds as she pushed into the web of branches and she beat them away from her face in clouds. They had got there first, settling, in blue glints of jewelled wings, on minute cracks in the fruit that oozed gold.’
This is a period of history about which I am ignorant. First Annette, and then Jemima, arrive in Saintange-sur-Seine, single women, and pregnant. Louise is drawn into their lives, caring for them, supporting them, observing them. Fascinating stuff.
For more on other books by Michèle Roberts, click here.
‘Fair Exchange’ by Michèle Roberts [UK: Virago] Buy at Amazon
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