Helen Dunmore’s fifteenth novel is a thoroughly enjoyable read, particularly for myself, a lifelong Bristolian. Events begin in Bristol in June 1789, with the bulk of the action occurring in 1792-93. Dramatic, tense and full of uncertainty, I couldn’t put Birdcage Walk down.
The novel recounts the lives and fortunes of a group of radicals, their daughter Lizzie and her husband John Diner Tredevant, a builder who wishes to conquer the landscape and make his fortune. As events in the south west unfold so too does the French Revolution, and the characters are helpless other than to look on with a mixture of disdain, triumph and despair.
Dunmore’s novel is at once political and personal, historical in context yet contemporary in tone. The issues dealt with, including political upheaval, a precarious economic situation, and the place of women could be easily transplanted into a novel about contemporary Britain.
Lizzie’s mother and stepfather are ardent radicals, calling for the abolition of hereditary privilege and the equal rights of all men, and women. Encouraged by events in France, those around them are not quite so pleased. Lizzie displays a cool lack of emotion toward what her mother has written tirelessly in favour of, while her husband ‘Diner’ takes a very dim view of events. His anger pervades the novel, glimpsed through Lizzie’s consciousness, until she finds herself stranded, cut off from those she holds dear.
If Lizzie displays any emotion towards the Revolution, it is that she is appalled at the violence employed. Several times throughout the novel, she ponders over the recently-invented guillotine in mixed horror and incredulity at the ingenuity with which people inflict death upon one another. As I wrote this yesterday, it seemed to me that Lizzie’s mix of shock and stomach-turning awe is similar to the way in which we regard vehicles turned into weapons not far from our shores. After the events in Westminster, this morning we differ from Lizzie in that the cause of our dismay is not only something that happens across the channel. Through her tale of a very specific period in history Dunmore has successfully held up a mirror to our present selves.
Dunmore writes in the afterword that she is greatly concerned with the idea of legacy, particularly the legacy of individuals that time swallows and forgets. Indeed, Lizzie’s mother, the radical Julia Fawkes, was a real person and yet none of her pamphlets, letters, or other writing survives. I think there’s more at work here though than concern purely for the individual. It is surely not an accident that Dunmore chooses to contextualise her story in the midst of the French Revolution, perhaps the most profound turn of events in western Europe, if not the world. The political, social and moral conduct of individuals and states are not abstract. These elements leave a legacy too; in the case of the French Revolution, the legacy changed the course of history. If the issues we face are not so very dissimilar to Lizzie’s, what then might our legacy be?
Yet Dunmore’s novel offers hope. The King of France was beheaded. Unthinkable, yet it happened. And we know what Lizzie and her companions don’t yet: that the bloodshed ceased and peace returned to France. If you’ve ever been to Bristol you’ll know that the spectacular terraces above the Avon gorge were completed, although it seems to Lizzie they never will be, and they cost Diner dearly.
The smiling windows now gleam in the sun, the crescents sit symmetrically in their right place; the architect not only orchestrated building materials but structure too. Order reigns. Perhaps Birdcage Walk shows us that legacy is not fixed after all, but something that becomes more or less important during times of great stress. Thankfully for readers, Helen Dunmore has left a novel of great enjoyment that makes for compelling reading whether you have any interest in history or not. And that is surely a legacy worth celebrating.
Birdcage Walk was published in hardback by Hutchinson on 2 March 2017