Helen Dunmore is big news in the publishing world. Birdcage Walk is already the book at bedtime on Radio4, she has had a programme on the BBC to talk about her poetry and has received national coverage. That’s some doing, but then Dunmore is a multi-award-winning author whose book A Spell of Winter was the first Orange Prize winner. She has also just announced she “was diagnosed with a cancer that has a very poor prognosis“.
The title of the book is a graveyard, the prelude talks of death, the prologue includes a death, the historical parallel is the French Revolution with its guillotine-ahoy-solution to regime change, and the setting is Bristol but at a time when Clifton was not the provider of upper-middle-class comfort it is now, but a purveyor of destruction for those trying to build there.
Birdcage Walk is the first Bristol novel by prolific award-winning writer and long-time Bristol resident, Helen Dunmore, and it is the book that she was working on while being quite ill (although unawares).
The novel itself is eminently readable; I finished it in one night. Dunmore has cleverly taken some of the most important but seldom-talked-about aspects of Bristol and turned them into a story. (The half-built Georgian terraces in Clifton are also mentioned in the Devil’s Mask.)
A reading from the Devil’s Mask in front of the Royal York Crescent terraces, which in the story are half-built.
There is a lot there to combine, however, and coming out at the end of it all, there is a confusing sense of not knowing the unifying theme behind the story. What does the hero go through to emerge out the other end and how does she need to change in order to escape her fate? This is no Fair Fight by Anna Freeman, which is by far the best historical account of Bristol I have read so far and with incredibly well-written characters.
The point of the Birdcage Walk seems to reside in the phrase “Her Words Remain Our Inheritance” and the constant presence of death. Nothing else really unites the book apart from its author’s sense of impending doom.
The story is set in 1792 but begins with a modern-day ‘prelude’, which introduces an unrelated grieving character who stumbles upon the grave of Julia Fawkes, next to Birdcage Walk, and finds out little about her.
This prelude is meant to introduce the reader to Fawkes as someone whose (important?) work has been erased, but it’s a bizarre narrative ploy. It’s the equivalent of an unnecessary dialogue introduced for the sole purpose of relaying some information to the reader. It’s ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’. Dumore writes of Fawkes – the character/actual person – that “She writes with the confidence of one who knows that an eager readership is waiting for her. Her voice is original, persuasive and disturbing, for she is writing about equality, the rights of women and the poor, and about the damage to society caused by hereditary privilege.” This we are meant to take on faith because as Dunmore writes, “not one word of Julia’s writing survives.”
There is one writer, however, whose writing has survived and who spawned the feminist movement in Britain; Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published in 1792 – the same year the novel is set and with Wollstonecraft being about the same age as Fawkes is depicted in the novel. Wollstonecraft who also wrote about the French Revolution, is the mother of Mary Shelley who has quite a link to Bristol. Shelley was married to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who along with Coleridge and Wordsworth, would often meet in Bristol. She also wrote Frankenstein, which is set to have been inspired by what Shelley saw of the slave trade when she summered in Clifton in 1815. So it’s great that Dunmore wants to highlight people whose voice didn’t make it through the centuries but similar thoughts did make it to present time. Would Fawkes’ work be any different to Wollstonecraft’s in its essence?
Birdcage Walk is set in 1792 against the backdrop of Europe’s political turmoil and violence. There is a property boom in Clifton, which is about to come crashing down with the declaration of war in 1793 but while we follow our protagonist Lizzie, the doom is still impending. The freedoms that the French Revolution promises are slowly revealed over the course of the novel to come with death and terror. I’m not sure if there are meant to be parallels between the entitled who are toppled in the French Revolution and the austerity imposed around the world by the elite 1% but they aren’t hard to spot. But again, there is no real message that comes through about revolution and uprisings as a lesson for our protagonist.
There are feminist glimpses in the story – a bit overt – such as the inability of women to own property (until quite a lot later) and of everything belonging to their husbands. Lizzie’s ever decreasing sphere of freedom in a relationship that slowly turns potentially abusive is another exploration of the lack of rights of women.
Everything slowly seems to progress towards death and terror until the very end.
In 1792, there was no Clifton Suspension Bridge yet so Clifton houses may have overlooked Leigh Woods but to get there you had to cross by boat. Who was the ferryman in the story? Diner, the main character.
It’s a compelling premise – what happens after things come crashing down? I could not get into the spirit of what Dunmore suggests the book is about; writing “about people whose voices have not echoed through time and whose struggles and passions have been hidden from history.”
I also couldn’t quite understand how the main character, Lizzie, fit into that category since she didn’t really write anything.
I loved the Bristol mentions in the book and it was very local to me. My husband used to live on the Royal York Crescent and the dressmaker’s next to the surgery is a place I walk by frequently.
It’s an entertaining read and its timeline and plot make for compelling reading but its characters lack the depth that would have really made this novel stand out.
Birdcage Walk was published on 2 March, 2017. It’s currently being broadcast on Radio4.