Annette Vallon: A Novel of the French Revolution
Genre: Historical Fiction
Date Published: November 4, 2008
Number of Pages: 528
Print Price: $13.46
eBook Price: $8.89
(This review focuses on James Tipton’s fictional novel. Historical sources and further information about the real Annette Vallon are discussed in a separate section at the end.)
Annette Vallon has been marketed as a historical novel about English poet William Wordsworth’s youthful love affair. It has not generally been characterized as Catholic Fiction or as apocalyptic literature, yet it is both.
The title is accurate. Tipton’s book is about Annette, a remarkable woman who made of herself much more than a famous poet’s early muse. It is also about the French Revolution, including the Reign of Terror, which shaped Annette’s destiny.
Daughter of a respected physician from Blois, France, Marie Anne Vallon, known as Annette, spent her childhood in the final bloom of the French bourgeoisie. She wore silk dresses and attended elegant parties at aristocratic chateaus in the Loire River valley.
As a young woman she succumbed to a charming English poet’s desire for a “nature marriage” in accordance with his own religious views. She always believed they would marry because William Wordsworth promised to go with her to a priest for a Church wedding which would have fulfilled the requirements of her own religious views. William was forced to flee the Revolution before they could act on that promise. Annette was known in France as “Madame Williams” and “Widow Williams” for the rest of her life, in deference to the French inability to pronounce the name Wordsworth.
William Wordsworth spent most of his life in England, perhaps protected, perhaps spoiled, and manipulated by his sister, Dorothy. He visited Paris during the early stages of great change in French society. Young William admired the ideals of “liberte, egalite, fraternite.” He joined the Constitution Club in Paris; associated with the intellectual Girondins (most of whom later were sent by the Jacobins to the guillotine); and sincerely if foolishly believed his passionate essays could persuade the increasingly violent Jacobins to moderation. He claimed to be studying French in order to qualify for a position as a gentleman’s tour guide.
He would not have escaped France alive without the intervention of a strong woman, his French tutor and fellow poet, Annette Vallon. She learned that he had been denounced and warned him about the impending massacre of the Girondins.
Wordsworth’s most courageous act in the novel occurred during the course of that escape:
“Finally, the door splintered and . . . they dragged out a woebegone priest, in dirty robes, as if he had been in hiding for some time . . . one soldier hit the priest in the stomach with the butt of his musket. Then another did the same. Their officer looked on. They had free license to beat a priest . . .”
“’They’ll kill him,’” I said.
“’This is intolerable,’” William said. . .”
“He looked at me under those leaves, each muffled cry of the priest louder . . . I nodded – I don’t know now why I nodded. I think I was a fool for nodding . . . So with no words passed between us . . . he emerged from under the branches of the chestnut tree and shouted for them to stop . . .”
Thanks to Annette’s spontaneous gift of her legendary horse, La Rouge, William Wordsworth was able to outride the soldiers, escape France, and flee to safety in England.
The now pregnant Annette was forced to walk and was left to bear their child alone. She overcame her mother’s kidnapping of Annette’s “scandalous” and “illegitimate” daughter and engineered her sister Margaret’s escape with the family to England.
Annette remained in France to become acquainted with “The Mother of Orleans” who hid refugees from the Reign of Terror in secret rooms and crawled through a crypt to free prisoners condemned to the guillotine. She also came to know “The Fearless Blonde Chouane of Blois” who created a forest sanctuary where refugees could receive fresh water and food and who rescued innocent peasants from the “cargo” barges that would have drowned them without a trace in her beloved Loire River.
In one scene, she confronts her old enemy, a dancing master turned Jacobin, in the midst of blasphemy at a fountain on the public square: “Leforges took a wooden cup from his coat pocket and held it between the breasts of the statue. When the cup overflowed, he lifted it above his head and said, ‘Behold, the Chalice of Liberty. This . . . is your wine; I, Lieutenant Raoul Leforges, am your priest. Drink and be reborn!’”
Appalled, the quick-witted Annette spoke up, to turn Leforges’ own game against him: “’(…) mass, priest, chalice, and goddess sound like religious words to me. I’m sure the good lieutenant is aware of the law that grants him freedom of his conscience to believe what he likes, but not the freedom to express his religious beliefs. . .’ Some of the crowd actually dared to laugh. . .”
Again the man blasphemed, “Lieutenant Leforges took a small blue vial from his pocket and held it up to the crowd. ‘Behold’, he said . . . ‘What deplorable ignorance! If your Christ ever did shed a tear, do you honestly think it would still be here?’” Annette responded, “I shouted from the back of the crowd, ‘My own father, a learned doctor, was once aided by the Holy Tear! . . . It is not the superstition, but the compassion, Monsieur, that you cannot understand.’”
The confrontation continued, “Lieutenant Leforges raised the vessel above his head, held it aloft a moment, and dashed it at his feet . . . ‘Let it bring the stones back to life, if it can,’ he said . . . “The crowd rushed and shoved and knelt to touch the wet stones. Some brushed their fingers across the dampness and held their fingers to their foreheads or lips or eyes . . . Others tried to kiss the remains of moisture . . .And the Holy Tear of Vendome went forever into legend.”
Annette saw clearly that the value of a bottled tear lay not in its empirical history, but in the human compassion it represented.
She was, of course, arrested herself more than once. She was imprisoned long enough while pregnant to earnestly recall the sacramental value of a simple sip of water. When she was finally allowed a drink, through the intervention of an old family friend, she insisted that the people imprisoned with her also receive fresh water before she would taste her own.
Despite all her of trials and by Tipton’s remarkable skill throughout the first person narrative, Annette never lost her quintessential French subtlety. About Queen Marie Antoinette’s tragic end, she says: “Hebert wanted her head as his own political trophy. When he himself mounted the scaffold six months later, his screams were far different than the quiet dignity with which Antoinette lightly stepped up on onto it. Perhaps they both knew where they were soon bound.”
Annette survived. She lived through the Terror, Napoleon’s bourgeoning Empire, and his ultimate defeat. She lived to receive Wordsworth’s peacetime visit to finally meet his daughter. She lived to read his poem, “Ode, Intimations of Immortality,” with its eternal lines:
“. . . Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.”
Her summary comment about the man she had loved faithfully all her life was this: “So he was an exile in the lovely land of his youth. His youth, with its unbounded hopes, was forever around him untouchable. His personal sorrow he translated into world sorrow, and he came to believe that things not working out as he had wanted was symbolic of something larger.”
She even preserved the joie de vivre that was her birthright. At every stage of a difficult life, Annette delighted in her forests, her river, her daughter, her garden and her friends.
As Catholic fiction, Annette Vallon resonates with metaphors and portents for contemporary readers. As apocalyptic literature, it constitutes an inspirational parable for anyone who wonders what we may be forced to confront in our own increasingly fragmented and atheistic society.
Tipton’s canny itinerary of the French Revolution recalls an invaluable memory, one with important lessons for our times. His portrait of Annette Vallon offers a mythic model of heroic courage and human compassion that endures, even in the face of existential chaos.
Historical Notes and Resources
Whether a skillful and sensitive novelist can tap into more fundamental strata of human truth than a biographer, who might be blind to biases in interpretation, remains an open question. James Tipton’s Annette Vallon argues the case for fiction.
Relatively few historical facts are known about the real woman Marie Anne Vallon (1766-1841), called Annette. Her very existence was suppressed by the English Wordsworth family until the 20th Century. Any historical evidence they may have once possessed had long since been destroyed.
Novelist Tipton says, “. . . the only reason we do know at all of Annette is that, in the early 1920’s, Monsieur Guy Trouillard discovered Annette’s two letters, impounded by the Committee of Surveillance, in the records of a sub-police station in the Loire Valley . . .” (http://www.jamestipton.com/essayfactandfiction.html).
When Emile Legouis’ book, William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon (London, JP Dent & Sons, 1922, the earliest and most influential biographical interpretation of Annette’s life), was published, “. . . the story came out, and when it did . . . it rocked the British literary establishment, whom I think never forgave the French for discovering those letters.” http://www.jamestipton.com/essayfactandfiction.html).) See also http://www.jamestipton.com/essayhero.html.)
Wordsworth’s life has been more thoroughly documented, but biographers disagree in their interpretations. In Legouis’ view, William Wordsworth was a literary giant, a poet whose genius justified protection at any cost. Tipton’s William is a physically impressive but naïve youth, who blundered about in a French culture he did not understand, and ultimately chose his own English culture along with all its constraints.
The authors both agree that Wordsworth did acknowledge his daughter by Annette and that, impoverished as he was, he appeared to have sincerely intended to return swiftly for his French family. The Reign of Terror and then the war between England and France, intervened.
Annette, a woman portrayed with impressive insight by male novelist Tipton, was Catholic to her Gallic bones. Even Legouis, who condescends at times to Annette, notes the historical fact that she separated herself from two uncles (“constitutional priests” who had taken an oath to the Republic that superseded their prior oath to God). He notes as well that: “Her signature is found to a secret Roman Catholic marriage held in the private chapel used, instead of the parish church of St. Honore, on 14th July, 1795. This is the one and only time she signs herself William Wordsworth Vallon.” (Op. cit, pp. 50-51).
Biographer Legouis describes Annette as a Monarchist. Novelist Tipton portrays her as a member of the Catholic and Royal Army, who for the rest of her life courted ever-increasing danger to defend her fellow citizens (a documented historical fact, Legouis, ibid, pp. 137-140). She expressed ongoing Catholic responsibility to the impoverished and disenfranchised throughout the Revolution, the Directorate and The Second Empire. Twenty influential signatures petitioned the restored king in March-April 1816 to obtain royal commendation for her many heroic acts (Legouis, ibid.).
Tipton presents Annette as Wordsworth’s ideal poetic love. Legouis concludes that she could never have been the great poet’s soul mate. Legouis defends the quiet Englishwoman Mary Hutchison as William’s true love. He insists that Annette Vallon could not have understood Wordsworth’s genius. Tipton illuminates a bond which transcended culture and language barriers, focusing on precisely that poetic soul they both shared.
”The Holy Tear,” said to have been shed by Christ at the death of Lazarus, really did exist. According to The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, Volume 49, “On Relicks”, 1780, p. 365, it was preserved by monks at the Benedictine Abby of the Holy Trinity in Vendome, France; until that Abby, like so many others, was destroyed in the French Revolution.Publisher: Harper Perennial
Original Language: English
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