Fair Exchange by Michèle Roberts: a Book Review

Fair Exchange by Michèle Roberts is from my to-be-read pile. I’ve had it for years and had started to read it once (it still had a book mark in it, but I had to begin again as I’d completely forgotten it) and stopped. I can’t remember why, because this time round I found it very readable. It’s historical fiction set in England and France in the late 1700s/early 1800s during the French Revolutionary period.

The Author’s Note at the beginning of the book explains that although she began with the idea of writing a novel about William Wordsworth’s love affair at the beginning of the French Revolution, with Annette Vallon, but as she wrote it, it turned into a novel about William Saygood a fictional friend of Wordsworth’s. Mary Wollstonecraft appears in the novel but Roberts has ‘plundered various aspects of her life’  for the character, Jemima Boote.  I like the fact that upfront you know that some of the events, places and people are fictional and that she hopes readers will forgive her ‘for the liberties’ she has taken. Well, I do.

It begins in France in 1792, thus:

In her youth Louise Daudry, née Geuze, had committed a wicked and unusual crime. At that time, autumn 1792, she wanted money very badly, so she put aside her knowledge that what she was doing was wrong and would hurt others. She told herself that virtue was a luxury the poor could not afford. She let herself be persuaded that no one would ever find out. (page 3)

Then it goes back in time and place to England years earlier when Jemima Boote met Mary Wollstonecraft. As you would expect there is a fair bit in this book about women’s rights and their place in society, and about the question of nurture versus nature in bringing up children. Jemima is a strong character, a free spirit but her life doesn’t turn out how she expected, affected not only by the Revolution but also by events in her personal life.

Intertwined with Jemima’s life are those of Louise, who works for the Vallons,  Annette Vallon, who falls in love with an English poet, and William Saygood, and Polly his sister (based on William and Dorothy Wordsworth?). When Annette discovers she is pregnant, Louise takes her to live in her mother’s house in the countryside and it is there that Annette and Jemima (also pregnant) meet, thus setting in motion the events that change both their lives.

I liked the ambiguity in this book, the uncertainty of what exactly was the crime that Louise had committed. It’s well written and kept me guessing almost to the end of the book. It’s one I’d like to re-read (if only I had the time!) to see if I could pick up the hints about what happened.

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Virago Press Ltd; New edition edition (3 Feb 2000)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1860497640
  • ISBN-13: 978-1860497643
  • Source: my own copy (a Christmas/Birthday present)
  • Rating: 3/5

5 thoughts on “Fair Exchange by Michèle Roberts: a Book Review

  1. You might like to look out for ‘Paper Houses: A Memoir of the 70s and Beyond’, which is an autobiography by Michele Roberts. It was interesting to read about her background, and somewhat unconventional life in London at that time, especially for those like me who are of a similar age, and reading it gives extra perspective to her books.


  2. Sounds good. It’s good to go to one’s shelf and find the books we’d abandoned for what ever reason. For me that book is “Room”, I’m not sure why, I just can’t get into it.


  3. I hadn’t heard of this novel, though I have read other works by Michele Roberts. I run a blog on Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Mary), and will definitely add this book to my metaphoric bedside pile. It sounds a little like City of Darkness, City of Light by Marge Piercy.


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