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The Sunday

OK, this is me officially getting back on track with my reviewing. I read this about a month and a half ago, and I blame it entirely for getting me hooked on French Revolution novels. Well, that and the OBCR of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

The back cover says that Fair Exchange is “inspired by the lives and affairs of two of the most famous figures of the late 18th century – Mary Wollstonecraft and William Wordsworth.” Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft themselves actually make the occasional cameo in the novel, but two of the protagonists, Jemima Boote and William Saygood, are based fairly obviously on them. Jemima is an orphaned charity case whose involvement with the Skynner family draws her into the political word of 18th C England, and William is the charming but rather feckless (aren’t they always?) poet who crosses her path.

The story is told from multiple points of view, the framing device being Louise Daudry’s deathbed confession of the secret she has been carrying for most of her adult life.

In the days before the Terror takes hold of France, Jemima is living as an unpaid governess to the Skynner’s children, whilst nursing an unrequited passion for Fanny Skynner, her old schoolfriend. Tired of her indentured servitude, she follows her mentor Mary Wollstonecraft to Paris to observe the burgeoning Revolution. Before leaving, she meets William Saygood who is also headed to Paris and they banter, flirt a little and jokingly agree to meet at the barricades. Annette, a young French girl, falls in love with Williamwhilst they are both in Paris and Jemima in turn takes an American poet by the name Paul Gilbert as a lover. The two women do not meet until, seeking privacy to write her novel and give birth to her illegitimate child, Jemima rents a former convent in Blois and takes on Louise as a maid and Annette – also pregnant out of wedlock – as a companion. Their lives converge until the birth of their daughters Maria and Caroline when Louise agrees to make the bargain with Paul that will irrevocably change the lives of everyone on the house.

Roberts’ see-sawing perspective and occasionally non-linear narrative isn’t for everyone. I suspect she’s one of those authors that you love or hate. I first read Impossible Saints when I was about fifteen, and then The Wild Girl as an undergraduate. I’ve got a feeling I’ve read more, but no other titles are coming to mind. If you like religion, feminism, sex and death, you’ll probably like her. Her conflicted relationship towards Catholicism is fascinating, although it doesn’t come out so strongly in Fair Exchange, and her favourite trope seems to be communities of women and the effect of the eventual, inevitable penetration of men into a sisterhood. This isn’t a sugar-coated version of sororal bliss, but neither are her love stories simple and painless. Roberts gives us human nature at it’s complicated best, and Fair Exchange is one I’d recommend, although it isn’t my favourite.

Further Reading

I re-read Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman after this, and it makes a good follow-up. By coincidence, I picked up Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo in the same second-hand bookshop haul, which deals with Wordsworth’s poetry.

I don’t appear to have updated since the summer, and now the leaves are falling and I have to wear a jacket when I leave the house. I still take it off when I enter that godforsaken circle of hell known as the London Underground, but it’s the principle of the thing.

Anyway. The reason I haven’t ben updating is that I’ve been reading a lot. And I mean, a lot. The past few months have ben a serious book-binge on my part, and taking time to blog about one book would mean having to wait before starting the next. Ain’t gonna happen.

A sample* of the delights I have been…well, sampling: (links go to the reviews and will be updated as and when I write them)

There was also some random self-help books that I found in the library, but this blog is dull enough without my wittering about my issues, don’t you think? I’m currently reading The Elusive Pimpernel, and I’m about two thirds of the way through. For the record, Orczy’s Marguerite is an IDIOT. A principled, passionate idiot, but still an idiot. We’re expected to believe that this is “the cleverest woman in Europe”? SERIOUSLY? Anyway, Marguerite Blakeney gets several posts to herself when I get round to doing a proper update.

Books on my TBR pile include more historical fiction, some historical non-fiction and a couple of classics that I keep picking up and discarding – Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical being one. I’m also planning on getting stuck in to my annual re-read of The Woman in White – September is usually my preferred month, for some reason – and I’m hoping this will tide me over until next payday.

That said, I’m off to Berlin with my inamorata in a few weeks, and although I’ve been to Germany before I know next to nothing about the city itself. Can anyone recommend me anything – fiction, non-fiction, travel guides?


*AKA, ‘what I can remember of a really large pile of books’