Books: Bliss was it in that dawn to be a wife!

Fair Exchange by Michele Roberts Little, Brown pounds 15.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Bringing marginal female figures from the outskirts of history and placing them in the spotlight is something that most of Michele Roberts's readers will be familiar with by now. In her latest novel, she has focused on another rather shadowy female figure, Annette Vallon, French lover of poet William Wordsworth during his sojourn in Orleans, who subsequently bore his child, a daughter named Caroline.

This real-life story has all the stuff of romance - Wordsworth was forced to return to England after running out of money, and England's declaration of war with France meant reunion with Annette was impossible. They were to be separated for a further nine years, by which time he had married Mary Hutchinson. However, friendly contact was maintained between the two families throughout the years - Mary and Annette even met on one occasion in Paris, and Caroline always referred to Wordsworth, who helped provide material support throughout her married life, as "father".

Roberts states in an author's note that the figure of William Wordsworth is not represented by the fictional character William Saygood, lover of the novel's Annette Vallon. And yet, she has stayed unerringly close to the physical details of Annette's circumstances and the fact of the birth of her daughter Caroline. Roberts is so expert at the chronicling of daily life, the hard grind of village life that it's easy to take this skill for granted, but it provides an irresistible background to and convergence with the story of her, as well as history's, Annette.

The novel is told in flashback by Louise, a poor country woman who wants to absolve herself of a terrible sin before she dies. As a young girl, employed by Annette's family, her life is entwined with Annette who returns from Orleans, pregnant and unmarried. Hidden away in Louise's village, Annette stays with a young English woman, also pregnant and unmarried, Jemima Boote. Annette and Jemima give birth on the same day and their lovers, Saygood and an inferior American poet, Paul Gilbert, visit the women and their daughters for a short while before departing. Jemima later follows Paul, but Annette waits for William to return and marry her. He does return, but only after he is married to someone else. Alone with their child, she marries to keep a roof over their heads and dies years later, only to unleash a painful legacy on her daughter. Louise's sin is hinted at in the novel's title, and the loss Annette feels at William's betrayal of her is not only a judgment on those men and the abandonment of their women and children but is also an intensely moving tale of sacrifice and loss.

What is puzzling though is not so much that Roberts has chosen the real- life figure of Annette Vallon to fictionalise, but more how she has chosen to fictionalise her. The real Annette emerges through history more as a survivor than the victim she becomes here (in her author's note, Roberts anticipates the possible ire of Wordsworth fans). As fictional victim, Annette represents the female sacrifice to men's notions of art and their political ideals, but of all the abandoned women from this period Roberts could have focused on, there are many real victims (one only needs to think of women cast aside by Byron or Burns). Roberts makes wonderful play with notions of lineage and history, recalling Joyce's famous declaration that "paternity is a legal fiction", to show a fond theme, the bond between mothers and daughters, but in this beautifully written novel, it is a play strangely placed in the life of Annette Vallon.