From The Chiron Review: November 2008
By Eric Paul Shaffer
Annette Vallon: A Novel of the French Revolution by James Tipton
Wit has long been appreciated as a grace in society and in writing. In our age of hyperbole, of the under-skilled, over-sexed shouting of poetry slams, and of the ever-increasing volume of commercial advertisements (oh, like you don’t watch TV), however, some deeper pleasures of wit are rarely encountered. If you read for pleasure, and can take your pleasure in the manner offered rather than only in the style to which you are accustomed, then sometimes a novel will do the job, and the best ones are rarely the ones you expect.
James Tipton’s Annette Vallon must be savored sentence by sentence. The novel is founded on history, but extra-literary: a tale recounting events in William Wordsworth’s life as recorded in the letters of the poet and his lover Vallon.
For those who claim to have forgotten Wordsworth, he is the man, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge of “Ancient Mariner” fame, at the fore of the literary period we call Romantic, which scholars agree began in 1798 with the publication of their Lyrical Ballads. As a central character in a novel, Wordsworth is, perhaps, unexpected, but Tipton presents Wordsworth with a flair. The plot begins with Wordsworth on an excursion to France in the late 1700s, seen through the eyes of Annette Vallon, yet another poor girl unsophisticated enough to bed a poet. Tipton imagines the life of Vallon and dramatizes the events of the French Revolution, the centerpiece and subtitle, for many of which Wordworth was present, and the consequent braiding of the lives of the lovers and their daughter.
Tipton’s sentences are rich in ironies, especially for writers and other astute readers. When Annette’s mother interrupts her reading, Annette notes: “I reflected, not for the first or the last time, that when you are reading, others think they can disturb you because you are not doing anything.” Such is the rueful truth for anyone silently and actively engaged in a book. When Annette reveals her attraction for the Englishman, she lets slip his occupation: “‘He’s a poet,’ I said. That seemed to silence everyone for a bit. No one knows how to respond to poetry.” Readers, ain’t that the truth? Nice to imagine that such lack of refinement is not just a failing of our days and times. Similar details lend much life to the narrative. A poet himself, Tipton instills poetry in a tale that seems to follow faithfully the events of those lives. His prose is appropriately and constantly lyrical; the force of the poetic line appears throughout, a fact that propels a long, complex story without slackening for nearly five hundred pages.
Wordsworth was a poet of the full flowering of the Romantic movement in England, and this novel, a vital and vivid renewal of the times which it recounts, is a good complement. Tipton repays our attention many times over, and should you read as I try to and not as I was taught, to wit, sentence by sentence, the dividends accrue.
From USA Today: January 2008
James Tipton’s marvelous novel Annette Vallon proves French women through history have been delectably soingée and self-confident, even when facing he blood-soaked terror of the Revolution. The drama centers on a well-born French woman named Annette Vallon, who had an affair with the English poet William Wordsworth while he was in France in 1792. Unmarried, she bore him a daughter, Caroline, but the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars separated them for years. No knowledge of the lake Poets is required to appreciate Tipton’s Annette. Living in a country in chaotic crisis, Annette is both an authentic free spirit and believably 18th century. You understand why Wordsworth was mad for her.
From Buffalo News (New York): December 2007
Enjoying some romance and a lesson in the French Revolution: FICTION
A book like this almost, but somehow not quite, fits into the sneaky-pleasure category of literature. It's a worthy read, well-written and researched; still, you keep wondering whether it's all right to devote 500 pages' worth of attention to a fictionalized account of the real-life (but barely known) love affair between a man we know well, William Wordsworth, and a woman we know superficially, Annette Vallon.
Relax -- it's OK. James Tipton's hands are capable ones, and his debut novel never -- or, rarely -- verges into Hallmark card territory or sensationalism. It's a well-done piece of work. Tipton's passion for his subject is evident. You'll leave the book feeling like you know a lot more about the French Revolution. His book takes as its specific subject matter the relationship in the early 1790s between a young Wordsworth -- single and fancy-free, traveling in France and interested in politics -- and an aristocratic young woman he meets and covets. In Tipton's story, Annette Vallon is smart, spirited and brave -- braver than the men who surround her, in fact, during the frightening and suspicious times of the Revolution.
She's also marriageable -- aren't they all -- and not interested in men, only in books, family, friends and politics. Ah, romance. In real life, Wordsworth and Annette Vallon carried on an affair and then Wordsworth returned to England, while Annette stayed behind in France and gave birth to a baby, Caroline, in 1792. Later on, Wordsworth married an Englishwoman, Mary, who bore him five children; he went on to write poems including "The Prelude." He still supported Annette and Caroline to some extent.
Tipton's Wordsworth is a friendly young man with big dreams and pockets full of marvelous verses. His Annette has a distinctive, confident voice that suits her period and place. She's a woman we grow to like, as we see her change through her association with the budding poet, childbirth, and her work as a resistance leader in the Revolution's Reign of Terror. She does, we come to realize, have a story of her own to tell.
Not much has been written about Annette Vallon as a historical and political figure in her own right; this book seeks to rectify that, and certainly deserves credit for going quite a way in that direction.
From Boston Globe: January 08:
Very little is known about the real-life narrator of James Tipton's first novel, "Annette Vallon." She lived in Blois, in the Loire countryside, the daughter of a well-to-do surgeon with Royalist sympathies. She met the English poet William Wordsworth when they were both young and, it's said, inspired some of his best poetry. They had a daughter, Caroline. Letters reveal that Wordsworth managed to return to France at least twice to see Annette and Caroline.
Because so little is known about Annette, Tipton is free to invent her, to use her to illuminate life during the French Revolution, and he does so very adroitly. As a convent-educated daughter of the haute bourgeoisie Annette is expected to marry well, but she has notions about romantic love, gleaned from reading novels. Unwilling to accept a marriage arranged by her mother, Annette allows herself to be seduced by her dancing tutor. Her mother knows she'll never make a good match and allows Annette to pursue her other interests. She learns to ride and hunt at her father's side and proves herself to be courageous and an excellent shot, qualities that will serve her well as the Revolution turns France upside down. At a party in Orleans she meets the young poet Wordsworth, who has traveled to France to witness the Revolution. They spend time talking about politics, poetry, and nature. They fall in love, and in the spirit of Rousseau, they marry on a riverbank, joined by nature. Soon afterward, Wordsworth is accused of being a spy and forced to leave France, leaving behind Annette, who is expecting his child. After her baby is born Annette decides she must do something to combat the new tyranny that has gripped France and turns into a kind of female Scarlet Pimpernel, freeing prisoners in daring raids, hiding refugees and helping them escape. Tipton uses Annette's fictional exploits to create a vivid portrait of a chaotic, violent, terrifying era.
From Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania): January 2008
The political meets the personal in revolutionary France in 'Annette Vallon'
"Annette Vallon: A Novel of the French Revolution" by James Tipton; HarperCollins
"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."
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."
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.
From poet and feminist critic Sandra Gilbert, coauthor of Madwoman in the Attic:
James Tipton has woven a complex and engrossing historical tapestry, centered on the radiant, rebellious figure of William Wordsworth’s first great love, the mother his ‘illegitimate’ French daughter, Caroline. Dashing and desirous, Tipton’s Annette is more than worthy of a Romantic poet’s devotion, while their romance, set against the turmoil of the French Revolution, will fascinate contemporary readers.”