Annette Vallon was not a historical figure; she was a literary footnote,” says James Tipton, author of the new novel Annette Vallon: A Novel of the French Revolution, based on the life of William Wordsworth’s French lover. Tipton, who has a Ph. D. in English from UC Davis, was discussing Wordsworth in a class one day when the professor leaned in conspiratorially and mentioned the relationship between Vallon and the poet as a tidbit of gossip. “I thought, there’s a story there. I started looking into it and then just got carried away,” says Tipton from his home in Novato.
Carried away for 500 pages of a novel that took nearly 15 years from start to finish. “I wrote it in about three years in the early ’90s but I wasn’t entirely pleased with it, so I put it away. I didn’t look at it again for a long time.”
The book, set during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror (1793-94), imagines the life of Annette Vallon, daughter of a wealthy and well-connected French family, who meets and begins a passionate affair with young William Wordsworth, an Englishman yet to publish his first poem. It’s a blend of the factual and the fictional. “I tried to keep with historical facts but the French Revolution was so crazy and many of the books are so contradictory that I was left with quite a range of things to make up,” Tipton says.
What we know from history is that Annette became pregnant with Wordsworth’s daughter, but the lovers were separated by the war. It’s also known that she became a powerful member of the resistance, saving many from the guillotine. But during his research, Tipton found little more than dates. “I knew they had quite a long relationship and correspondence, that they saw each other again after nine years and spent a whole month together. I thought there was a story there. I knew Wordsworth was such a serious and sincere guy he couldn’t have had just a quick little nothing relationship.”
Unfortunately for the sake of history and novelists trying to do research, the letters between the two were burned after Wordsworth’s death by an overprotective grandson. All that remains are a few letters from Vallon to Wordsworth written during the Reign of Terror and found more than 125 years later in a police substation that happened to be cleaning out its files after World War I. “There were these passionate letters that never got to him,” say Tipton. “It was heartrending. She was writing about hearing his voice in his letters and telling him that the baby looked like him and he never got them. He didn’t know what was going on.”
The novel is told from Annette’s point of view. Writing in the voice of an 18th century Frenchwoman was not always easy. “I’m not going to do it again,” Tipton says. “You know the last line from Huck Finn when Huck says ‘. . . if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it’. That’s how I felt.”
Not that Tipton, who teaches at the College of Marin, isn’t up for a challenge. His next book is another novel based on historical fact. It traces the lives of two young Miwok Indians kidnapped from Marin by Russians and taken to St. Petersburg to work as servants. They travel to France and then back to Gold Rush California, tossed on the waves of history. Explaining the undertaking, Tipton laughs. “It’s a good thing I don’t think about things too much because if I did, they’d intimidate me.”
James Tipton will be reading from Annette Vallon at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Monday, December 10.
The Local Type
The Seventh Daughter by Cecilia Chiang ($35, Ten Speed Press)
Tiburon resident and renown Chinese chef and cookbook author Cecilia Change tells the story of her journey from China to San Francisco in this memoir with recipes. It’s a passionate story of food and perseverance coupled with 75 step-by-step recipes showcasing authentic Chinese cooking.
Cheese & Wine by Janet Fletcher ($25, Chronicle Books)
San Francisco Chronicle food columnist and cheese connoisseur Janet Fletcher follows her best-selling book The Cheese Course with a book on pairing two of Northern California’s favorite food groups: wine and cheese. Yum.
Craft Inc: Turn Your Creative Hobby into a Business by Meg Mateo Ilasco ($17, Chronicle Books)
Are you the person who knits sweater sets for all your friends’ new babies? Do you love to design stationery? Maybe you’re a whiz with a sewing machine or a lathe. Well, local crafter and invitation designer Meg Mateo Ilasco can show you how to turn the product of your passion into a business. Includes interviews with successful crafters like Lotta Jansdotter and Jonathan Adler.
Booksellers Recommend Their Favorite New Novels
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (Algonquin Books, $14)
“It takes place in the 1930s during the Great Depression, a time when traveling circuses were crisscrossing the country. You just get swept away into a sort of bizarre world—there’s cruelty, kindness, romance—it’s really all of human nature. And, best of all, it has a wonderful ending.”
—Kate Larson, Book Club Coordinator, Book Passage
A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin (Harvest Books, $16)
“Old Italian professor and young illiterate worker miss their bus in Italy and have to walk to the next town. The old guy is telling his life story about the Turkish front in World
War I. I compare it to A Farewell to Arms. The writing is so good I didn’t want to put it down.”
—Lenny Jay, Book Depot
Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund (Harper, $16)
“It’s written as if Captain Ahab had a wife who was waiting for him. I loved the idea that it’s the perspective of the female waiting for her husband who is off at sea conquering male things. She is waiting but she has this whole life going on too. It’s really sweetly, beautifully written—a sea chantey, sort of.”
—Lisa Doron, Point Reyes Books