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.
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.