In the early 1800s in a small village in rural France, a peasant woman named Louise summons her priest. Fearing she is about to die, Louise begins her final confession to the bored cleric and reveals a lifelong secret involving a famous woman writer, a young English poet, and a wicked and unusual crime. Inspired by the lives and loves of the eighteenth-century pioneer of women's rights, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her contemporary, William Wordsworth, Fair Exchange is a spellbinding and sensual novel of passion and guilt.
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By Michèle Roberts
PicadorCopyright © 1999 Michèle Roberts
All rights reserved.
The eighteenth century's end approached, and with it all kinds of upheavals. In America the spirit of liberty stirred people up to throw off the colonial yoke and demand radical change. In France, the Revolution began to gather momentum. Days of innocence, before the Terror began, when the young believed they could change the world. In England, rioting spelled desperate rebellion against the ancient tyrannies of the landed and the rich. Prophets arose to declare the coming of a new age of justice and enlightenment, or, alternatively, of the end of all things in hellfire and brimstone, lamentations and plagues. Saints who saw the Holy Ghost by night preached their messages in the streets by day. The world glowed like a lamp freshly cleaned, its light divine. Radiance streamed from the heavens and became embodied as angels who were to be seen on Hampstead Heath and Peckham Rye, in Bunhill Fields and on Hackney marshes. You could look up at a tree as you sauntered through Hoxton market and realise that what seemed like a crystallisation of golden fruits was in fact an angel shaking out its wings. Not only poets and holy men saw these cockney cherubim. Jemima Boote did too.
The blustery October morning was crisply blue and gold, the sunlight glittery as glass, smelling of chrysanthemums and horse dung and hops. Jemima, who had walked down to Hoxton on an errand for the school cook, heard the rattle of walnuts hitting the cobblestones. She looked up and saw an angel swinging her legs in a tree, pelting the stallholders' shoulders and backs. She was picking walnuts off the branches that framed her and aiming them at the people below, and laughing. When she noticed Jemima gaping at her she winked, then vanished. Not before the girl had committed her costume to memory: golden helmet, armour and sandals, feathered white wings with rosy tips. Jemima bent down and filled her pockets with walnuts. She ran back to school to tell the cook what she had seen. She was told off for forgetting to buy the fish for the teachers' dinner, which was the whole point of her errand. They would have to have pease pudding instead, with roast onions as a garnish. The cook set Jemima to peeling the onions. Their sharp tang soon set her weeping as she knifed off their skins, which was what the cook intended.
Later, when the dinner was all prepared, and cook was busy lowering the puddings by their cloth top-knots into the pots of rolling water, Jemima hid in the back pantry and ate her walnuts. Dipped into the crock of salt on the larder shelf, they tasted fresh, sweet and oily. Under their gold skins they were white as toddlers' teeth. When she cracked them they revealed halves tightly coiled as brains, a black membrane holding them together. She saved the shells for the little girls in the class below, who made boats with them. A splinter of wood for a mast, stuck into a blob of sealing-wax at the bottom of the shell, a triangle of paper for a sail, and you could voyage off across the waves of the rumpled tablecloth and be a pirate forcing the cook to walk the plank and drown in a sea of hot gravy.CHAPTER 2
The cook was never quite as unpleasant as she might be to Jemima Boote, as the child was an orphan and knew no better. She gave her a smack from time to time, in the heat of the moment, when she misbehaved, or a shake when she dropped a fistful of knives on the floor or got boot blacking all over her face, but she was equally capable of rough kindnesses. If Jemima got the washing-up done in record time she might receive a sultana-studded bun, hot from the oven, or a twist of cheese pastry. On her good days, the cook was fair. On her bad ones, Jemima tried to keep out of her way.
She was a fulltime boarder at the school run by Miss Mary Wollstonecraft and her two sisters at Newington Green. The brochures describing it as an Academy for Young Ladies made it sound very select. Jemima ended up there because it was cheap. Her parents' death from cholera meant that the family of children was swiftly split up. The younger children were packed off to relatives in Ireland. Ned, the oldest boy, was taken in by his widower godfather in Clerkenwell, who was a lawyer and promised to see to Ned's education, and Jemima was dispatched to boarding school. There was little money to pay for this, and so the arrangement was struck whereby Jemima did her lessons at top speed and helped out with household tasks in between. The pupils were graded by age, into great ladies and little ladies, and Jemima, as a sort of pupil-servant, was in a category all of her own. She did not mind her low status because she had Fanny Skynner to love, and this devotion, into which she poured all the ardour of which she was capable, consoled her for the loss of the parents and siblings she had loved before. Their faces blurred. The pain of remembering them became less. To her surprise and shame, she forgot them quite quickly, for she fell in love on the very first day she arrived at school.CHAPTER 3
She was the newcomer, and to her child's mind everybody else had got there long before her. She hoped she would be able to catch up, and viewed the front door of the school, with its large knocker, with some alarm.
The establishment was housed in a respectable-looking building shaded by tall plane trees. From their dormitory on the second floor the great ladies could look out on to the Green and the sheep that were pastured there. Miss Everina showed Jemima the view, and the bed allotted to her, which she would share with Fanny Skynner, and pointed out to her the drawer of the chest in the middle of the room in which she could keep her clothes. She indicated the dormitory next door, into which she was forbidden to go, where the little ladies slept. Then she bustled her downstairs, to the classroom. Miss Everina was a thin, anxious woman, with dark brown hair frizzed out around her head, and a nose reddened by a cold. She whisked Jemima to a place on the end of a bench, then took up her own position behind a high desk, rapping with her knuckles on its sloping top to quell the noise. There were only ten girls in the room, Jemima discovered when she surreptitiously craned her neck and counted them, but they made enough noise for twenty. They seemed as cheerful and loud as her little brothers and sisters back at home had been, and were just as ignorant. When called upon to recite their geography lessons they giggled and wriggled and hung their mouths open and groaned. Miss Everina scolded them and sent the worst ones to stand, in turn, on the stool in the corner, the dunce's cap pulled down firmly over their foreheads giving them a very odd look.
— Fanny Skynner, called out Miss Everina: name the principal rivers of England.
The girl next to Jemima stood up. Jemima peered at her with interest. So this was Fanny Skynner, with whom she was to sleep. How pretty she was. Long fair curls fell round her rosy cheeks. Her blue eyes danced. She shot a sideways grimace down at Jemima, a little moue of amusement and helplessness mixed. Jemima, instantly bewitched, whispered her the names of the rivers, one by one, so discreetly that the impatient teacher did not hear. When she sat down again, Fanny gave her a grateful pinch, and afterwards shared with her, at recreation, a piece of ginger cake from her tuckbox.
Lesson succeeded lesson at high speed. The ladies were like talking books. Everything had to be learned by heart and repeated out loud. Sometimes they chanted together, like many copies of the same book, and sometimes singly. The teachers picked them out at whim. Miss Everina drove them through geography, parsing and history. Miss Evelina, a plumper and worse-tempered version of her sister, whipped them through scripture and arithmetic. From time to time throughout the day a servant poked her head into the room to report on various misdemeanours of the pupils. So-and-so had left her dirty clothes in a heap under her bed. Someone else had left her pelisse in the hall cupboard rather than putting it away upstairs. These culprits were sent off to bed as a chastisement. Miss Wollstonecraft had expressly forbidden the use of corporal punishment because it did not accord with her principles. She believed in making the punishment fit the crime. Untidy girls had their badly folded clothes pinned to their backs. Girls with sloppy deportment who let their heads poke forwards had to walk round the garden twenty times at recreation. Girls with dirty faces were forbidden to wash for an entire day. But no one was ever hit. There was no birch propped in the corner of the room. No strap. No cane.
Miss Wollstonecraft came in to read evening prayers. Her hair was light brown, and not frizzed like her sisters' but scooped back in an untidy bunch. Her face was pleasant and expressive. She wore a fashionable high-waisted dress in dark blue, with a white muslin fichu around her shoulders. She held the prayer book between big, capable hands, and pronounced the psalm in a deep voice. She said goodnight to the girls as they filed out past her, one by one, and she shook Jemima's hand, welcoming her to the school and hoping she would do very well.
Upstairs, Fanny slithered in under the covers next to her, exclaiming at the coldness of the bed. She curled close to Jemima to get warm. Clasped together like spoons, they were soon fast asleep.
Miss Wollstonecraft's academy was an ambitious one. Not only did the pupils learn enough smatterings of the major subjects to turn them into what Miss Everina called useful women; not only did they receive a thorough grounding in the essential skill of plain sewing; they were also exposed to the revolutionary thinking of their chief preceptress. She spoke with open approval of the approaching end of the tyrannical ancien régime across the Channel. She made them study French with her, since she yearned to go to France and see the revolution in the making there with her own eyes. She also talked passionately about the need for enlightened female education, and taught them to imagine the rights of women, which were not yet in existence. She urged them to think less of husband-chasing than of living active and independent lives.
— She's a spinster, of course, Fanny explained to Jemima: we all feel sorry for her because she's so eccentric and lonely. She only talks like that because she can't get a man, my mother says.
They were sitting crosslegged, in their nightgowns, on the floor in front of the schoolroom fire, which they had coaxed back into life. They were making dripping toast. The room was in darkness apart from the small red glow of the fire. Their faces were scorched as they leaned forwards, holding the bread, pierced with forks, to the flames, and their backs were freezing. Draughts knifed in from the ill-fitting window sashes and hustled across the bare wooden planks of the floor.
The other girls were all asleep upstairs. The midnight feast was an adventure: something forbidden. Jemima, forgetting all her resolutions to be good, had fallen in with Fanny's idea. To be singled out by her heroine was so flattering she could not possibly have said no. So at Fanny's bidding she crept into the darkened kitchen to forage in the larder for dripping and bread, and she further earned her new friend's approval by demonstrating how she could get a slumbering fire going again.
The cold pork fat on the hot toast tasted earthy and salty. Its richness clotted their tongues. They licked their fingers, contented as cats.
— We'll get punished if we're found out, Jemima said.
— Yes, but we won't be, Fanny said: the Miss Wollstonecrafts are so busy with their books they've forgotten all about us.
Books to the eldest Miss Wollstonecraft meant philosophy and history. When she was reading she didn't remember where she was. The pupils had tested this on more than one occasion by creeping up to her desk and tying together her shoelaces without her noticing. Books to Miss Everina and Miss Evelina, on the other hand, meant doing the accounts. They would sigh and groan, while supervising the needlework class, over columns of figures which always seemed to add up with unhappy results.
— The thing about Miss Wollstonecraft, Fanny pondered: is that although she's so clever she's like a child. She's so passionate.
This was true. Their head teacher could lose her temper in a flash when teased too far and even burst into furious tears if the girls tormented her enough.
— And then her clothes, Fanny went on: they're far too fine for a schoolmistress. She looks ridiculous, my mother says. Mutton dressed as lamb. She shouldn't want to be thought well-looking, not at her age. She must be thirty if she's a day.
Miss Wollstonecraft was certainly too tall and too broad-shouldered to be called pretty, too quick with her opinionated replies to be called sweet, too fond of the sound of her own voice to be especially pleasing to the parents who occasionally visited the school to see after their daughters' progress. She was learned; she qualified as a bluestocking, and was therefore fit to have charge of the young; but she had few accomplishments and no polite conversation. The people who appreciated her were the local clergymen, high-minded Dissenters who approved of women with noble minds who read serious books and had ink-stained hands. There were several Dissenting families living around the Green. The school attended the services in their austere little chapel, and the clergymen and their clever wives came to tea with the Wollstonecraft sisters in the evenings.
— Oh, she's not so bad, Jemima said: she could be worse.
— Oh Lord, Fanny said: I didn't realise you admired her.
— Don't be silly, Jemima said: of course I don't. She's much too peculiar.
Jemima had fallen in love with Fanny because the other girl was everything that she was not. Fanny was pretty, easygoing, careless. She was a favourite with everybody. Her blue eyes and long blonde curls drew sighs of admiration from all the visitors to the school. She was generous with her things and gave away her sweets and cakes with a free hand. She was not too clever.
The art of femininity in her was like an essence, a perfume she distilled in complete unconsciousness for the benefit of passers-by. Pleasing others seemed to come naturally to her, part of the charm and spontaneity of her character. Jemima, studying these effects, discovered that hard work was, however, involved. Fanny lavished a great deal of thought and care on matters of dress, so that she always contrived to look, despite her relative poverty, not only elegant but stylish. She got up early every morning to arrange her hair in a seemingly careless mass of ringlets and curls. She adjusted her gowns just so, exhibited a neat ankle in a little boot, always wore discreet ornaments to set herself off. She knew exactly how to tie the ribbon of her straw hat in a bow just under her ear. She saved up and bought herself a pair of black lace mittens which were immensely dashing. She was kind to her daydreaming admirer. She taught her a more becoming way to dress her hair and showed her how to wet her finger with spit and smooth down her thick eyebrows. She bullied her to stop frowning so much and to smile more. She gave her several pairs of used and mended gloves. When Jemima was summoned one morning by Miss Wollstonecraft to accompany her on an errand, Fanny even lent her her new pelisse.
The great ladies and the little ladies alike had been given a half holiday while all the chimneys were being swept. They had to stay in bed, to keep out of the way. Miss Everina came into the great ladies' dormitory and read them Rasselas. Miss Evelina read Shakespeare to the little ones. Jemima dressed carefully, with Fanny's critical eyes on her, then ran downstairs.
Miss Wollstonecraft was standing in the entrance hall fastening up a leather satchel containing a fat parcel. It was heavy, so once they were on their way they took turns carting it along.
— I've got to take it myself, Miss Wollstonecraft explained: I could have sent it by the carrier, but it might have got lost. I hope you like walking. We've quite a way to go.
They were heading south along the dusty road lined with ditches that ran down into the City. Carriages clattered past at tremendous speed, forcing them to leap out of the way. Dogs ran out, barking, from the inns they passed. Straggles of cottages were grouped around ponds, under great trees. Then, as they got further in, the houses rose and jostled closer together, the streets became more turbulent and noisy, and it was harder to avoid the piles of filth dumped in the gutters. Miss Wollstonecraft marched rather than walked, lost in her own thoughts, while Jemima toiled along at her side. Once or twice she roused herself to point out a landmark, but mostly she was silent. Jemima was too much in awe of her to speak out of turn. She concentrated on hoping she would not get a blister. Already she could feel a warning warmth on her heel.
In St Paul's Churchyard they paused so that Jemima could admire the springing lines of the vast white cathedral that floated above them, indifferent and serene, like an enormous seagull lounging on the air. Miss Wollstonecraft, suddenly recalled to being a schoolmistress, listed types of columns and pilasters, forms of capitals, designs of architraves, but Jemima hardly listened. St Paul's frightened her. She felt as though she were flying up to the white face of the moon and that it would fall on her and crush her. She was relieved when the architecture lesson ended and they turned away and went into Mr Jackson's print shop.
Excerpted from Fair Exchange by Michèle Roberts. Copyright © 1999 Michèle Roberts. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Newington Green,
Part Two: Walworth,
Part Three: Blois,
Part Four: Saintange-sur-Seine,
Part Five: Calais,
Part Six: Saintange-sur-Seine,
Part Seven: St Paul's Churchyard,
Part Eight: Greydale,
Part Nine: St Paul's Churchyard,
Also by Michèle Roberts,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Michele Roberts has an engaging style that draws the reader into the world she creates. Don't be fooled by the publisher's blurb. From reading it, I expected a novel in which well-known figures of the late 18th century would be characters (the kind of thing Philippa Gregory does). That's not the case. Woolstonecraft never appears, so the 'inspired by' must refer to the fact that one character was her pupil and adopted her causes for women. I kept expecting that the young poet with a clingy sister, William Saygood, would turn out to be Wordsworth, but in fact, he knows and admires Wordsworth (who also never appears). The similarities get a little irritating but the novel succeeds desite them, but because of the other characters, women who face hardships and support one another through them.