Annette Vallon is three books for the price of one: a romance novel, an adventure novel, and a concise history of the French Revolution. Its common denominator is the brief love affair the poet William Wordsworth had with Annette Vallon, a Frenchwoman from Blois. (In December 1791, the 21-year-old Wordsworth, sympathetic to the ideals of the Revolution, had arrived in Orleans to witness events for himself.) This debut novel by English professor James Tipton is a well-researched view of life in the Loire Valley during the Revolution, and the book’s four sections are divided into spans covering the years 1785 to 1820. It has two classic themes: time and loss.
The half-page preface, evocative and elegiac, is by far the most powerful writing in the book. In it, we meet an older Annette Vallon on Jan. 4, 1821, sitting in front of three diaries, remembering things past. “My memories remain fresh and cool. I remember the feel of a silk sleeve on my skin, the lightness of taffeta when I danced, and the big riding cloak when I could feel the reassuring weight of a pistol in each pocket. ... I loved a young poet then.”
Though the novel is delightful in many ways, and Tipton a consummate storyteller, the biggest distraction is the persona of Annette herself. The author is not at his best when he tries to plumb the depths of his heroine’s heart. Her emotional dilemmas often ring of cliche, and most of her romantic interludes read like episodes in a romance novel: “I was vanquished by my tutor” and “the tiny red roses on my taffeta skirt were crushed.” And there’s this, when she and Wordsworth consummate their relationship: “A current thrummed deep within me. My lips lifted and swayed in a rhythm all their own. ...”
Annette is really a tomboy at heart. Her skilled riding comes in handy when she becomes a local Robin Hood, called the “blonde chouanne” with a green mask and a wig, holding up stagecoaches with pistols and stiletto in hand, and on her many near escapes and nighttime flights through the woods on her beloved steed, La Rouge. It’s not the lovelorn Annette but the high-spirited one who inspires the book’s best storytelling. Her frolicking adventures, including prison rescues, highway robberies, and cloaked escapes on horseback, bring to mind the adventures of Athos, Porthos and Aramis in The Three Musketeers.
Annette is also fond of describing male attire and military costumes. “I looked up to see a cavalry officer in his high-collared light blue jacket with gold lace, red cuffs, and red sash with gold cords and tassels, shining white trousers, saber, and black boots.” Her descriptions of women, however, are lackluster. Even Marie Antoinette’s sartorial splendors are given short shrift.
As for Wordsworth, he comes off as a bit of a milquetoast, seducing and abandoning Annette, though he writes her letters and blames his not coming to visit more often on the war between England and France. He’s a poor guy who likes to take long walks, and lectures her on poetry and Plato. But it’s his sister Dorothy who wears the pants in the family, making sure he marries a suitable English woman. Not Annette. He does write her poetry, but one almost wonders why Annette is so smitten with him when dashing counts are clamoring for her attention.
What’s best about Annette Vallon is the seamless blend of the political and personal. While the guillotine does its work, Annette tends to her child, kitchen, garden and knitting. This lavish and violent period of French history is nicely framed, with references to the music of Rameau, Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and the ubiquitous Rousseau, whose novels Emile and La Nouvelle Heloise are discussed by Annette and William.
Even Marie Antoinette was influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose views contributed mightily to the destruction of the ancien regime—and to the end of Annette’s fairy-tale existence, party-hopping from one grand chateau ball to another: “In a hundred glasses set in bright silver cups, gleamed strawberry ices. ... And at every pillar, under every arch, stood a sober servant holding a silver tray of tall glasses of sparkling white wine.” Tipton’s fine storytelling makes us wish we were at the ball with Annette, for danses a deux, a toast—and to whisper a warning about William.