There is a certain poignancy in reading Birdcage Walk in the knowledge that this will almost certainly be Helen Dunmore’s final book. She was diagnosed with cancer while writing it, and it seems there is little hope of a cure. This then, will be the final curtain on a distinguished literary career that has included winning the inaugural Orange Prize and being shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year award.
In an afterword to the novel, Dunmore speculates that “a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant … and that a novel written at such a time … cannot help being full of a sharper light”. She continues, “I have rarely felt the existence of characters more clearly, or understood them more deeply – or enjoyed writing about them more”.
It seems a high price to pay, even for a novel that is a triumphant success. Its heroine is Lizzie Fawkes, daughter of real- life late 18th century pamphleteer and radical Julia Hawkes.
One of the things that intrigued Dunmore was that despite her renown, not one word of Julia Hawkes’ writing survives. The actual words of this influential radical feminist writing about equality, the rights of women and the poor, and about the damage done to society by hereditary privilege, have completely vanished. And yet she was an important influence on her times, and her ideas were an influence on the future.
“It seems to me,” writes Dunmore, “that this was the common fate of so many of our ancestors”.
Apart from giving a voice to the unheard, Dunmore provides two fascinating, interlinked strands of history.
The first is the French Revolution (1789-1799). Lizzie grows up in a household of radicals – her adored mother Julia and her mother’s partner Augustus are writers and public speakers, part of a network of thinkers seeking emancipation for women and a fairer society in Britain.
News of the French Revolution arrives to great excitement. But as the aims of the radicals are usurped by the brutalities of the mob, and the streets of Paris run with the blood from Mme Guillotine, their enthusiasm first wanes and then increasingly turns to horror.
For young, headstrong, clever but naive Lizzie, events in Paris seem far away. She is newly married to John Diner Tredevant, architect, designer and property speculator who is in many ways the antithesis of everything Lizzie’s background stands for.
If this is initially a somewhat unlikely union, once forged its progress has a disturbing logic and momentum.
Diner sees all too clearly that events in France will impact negatively on the economy of England. In one of the book’s most powerful and enduring images, the terrace of houses he builds overlooking the Clifton Gorge stands unfinished and unsaleable, “a black jagged line” against the snow.
As the revolution in France morphs into the “Terror”, Diner’s plans for a new and vibrant city climaxes in a shell of empty, half-built houses. Dreams are shattered, illusions destroyed. Diner seeks to become more controlling of Lizzie, resenting her excursions onto the streets of Bristol, her country walks, and her visits to her mother. The quality of their relationship first changes, then deteriorates, before becoming deeply sinister.
This could all be very bleak territory were it not so cleverly counterbalanced by the smallness of more beautiful things. Lizzie, for all that she seems to turn her back on her mother’s values, remains locked to her heart.
Julia is a source of strength and wisdom but most of all love. Philo, Lizzie’s maid, is a poignant creation, one of the “unwashed poor” who have no hope in life and who are so used to being ill-treated and abused that when shown kindness they do not know how to react to it. In one memorable scene, Lizzie gives a coloured shawl to Philo who is simply incredulous that it could be intended for her to wear.
Birdcage Walk is a hugely enjoyable and interesting novel. This is excellent material in the hands of a seasoned and highly skilled writer who knows how to keep pages turning. The strands that keep the novel moving are distinct but cleverly interlinked, and all of them have their own impetus.
There are standout scenes – burial, childbirth, flight – but also a depiction of domestic life that is utterly convincing. Radical ideas may get thrown around in an imperious manner but the slops for the night pots still need to be emptied and the coal fires need to be lit.
And it is beautifully written. “The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel,” writes Dunmore, a question unsurprising given the circumstances in which it was written. In her case, it is a fine legacy of work of which Birdcage Walk could hardly be a finer standard bearer.
Author: Helen Dunmore
Publisher: Hutchinson, historical fiction