It is 1792 and Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence.
Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in Radical circles, where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. But she has recently married John Diner Tredevant, a property developer who is heavily invested in Bristol’s housing boom, and he has everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war.
As his vision of a magnificent terrace built above the two-hundred-foot drop of the Gorge is threatened, so his passion for Lizzie darkens. Her independent, questioning spirit must be coerced and subdued. She belongs to him: law and custom confirm it, and she must live as he wants.
Birdcage Walk is a novel about terror and resistance, set in a time of political chaos and personal tragedy.
My reading experience:
Having previously read The Greatcoat, I was interested in revisiting a novel by Helen Dunmore after reading her article in The Guardian about facing mortality and the inspiration for ‘Birdcage Walk’ published by Hutchinson in hardback, 2017.
In the summer of 1954, newly wed Isabel Carey arrives in a Yorkshire town with her husband Philip. As a GP he spends much of his time working, while Isabel tries hard to adjust to the realities of married life. Life is not easy: she feels out-of-place and constantly judged by the people around her. A terrifyingly atmospheric ghost story by the Orange-prize-winning Helen Dunmore.
Birdcage Walk has a depth of rich content that I was expecting from Helen Dunmore, however it was also rich on the human condition and nuances of every day life. The story is heavy with history – the French revolution and its social impact on Bristol, where the story is set. One of our main protagonists Diner (John Diner Tredevant) is a property prospector who loans money to build houses and sell on at a profit. With the advent of political upheaval in Europe, the clientele he was anticipating for his magnificent terrace of houses built above the Gorge are too uncertain of the future to make such grand purchases. This in turn delivers him and his wife new challenges. His wife Lizzie has been raised by a radical mother Julia Fawkes Gleeson, married to a member of the radical circles she moves within, and is more than familiar with the way the movements of a revolution are followed keenly. Two more socially opposed people could not have been found – Diner needing political conformity and stability, Lizzie with her background of radical thinking and support for free movement and speech.
This is where the fiction and history collide – the story’s strength lies in Diner’s possession over his wife Lizzie which increases exponentially as his control over his business affairs fails, until what is already a dark, passionate and vitreous relationship tips over the edge.
“Misunderstanding s so thick between them that it has become a third language which neither of them speaks.”
I enjoyed this book, although the tension built slowly I felt the sinister nature of Diner astutely, the suspense and sense of danger coming quickly almost at the end of the book. The characters colour came in and out of focus which surprised me, perhaps it was the realism within the tale despite the length of prose about the poetry of sedition.
The Prelude was magical in its introduction to Julia and Augustus Gleeson, and to the way of archivists and the search for information once interest is sparked. ‘In the bottom there lay a fragment of paper with writing criss-crossed over it. Most of the sheet had been torn away. The writing was smooth and flowing.’
I re-read the Prelude when I was about half way through, and then again at the end. I was also inspired to read the Afterword by Helen, talking the reader through the questions of a human legacy, how women have shaped the future even with little known about their lives left behind. I am also concerned with what I leave behind. In a digital age there is the question of immortality through code – our online profiles remaining where our bodies no longer live to update them. There is also what we have accumulated in the attic too – I have dozens of handwritten journals and letters from my youth right up to present day. Of course Birdcage Walk no longer remains in its entirety. Helen tells us the church has all but disappeared, and nature has all but overcome the graves. Time moves everything on.
“Maybe you can afford to wait. Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow. Maybe for you there’s one thousand tomorrows, or three thousand, or ten, so much time you can bathe in it, roll around it, let it slide like coins through your fingers. So much time you can waste it. But for some of us there’s only today. And the truth is, you never really know.” ~ Lauren Oliver, Before I Fall.
About the author in her own words: ‘Facing mortality and what we leave behind’ ~ The Guardian
I was born in December 1952, in Yorkshire, the second of four children. My father was the eldest of twelve, and this extended family has no doubt had a strong influence on my life, as have my own children. In a large family you hear a great many stories. You also come to understand very early that stories hold quite different meanings for different listeners, and can be recast from many viewpoints.
Poetry was very important to me from childhood. I began by listening to and learning by heart all kinds of rhymes and hymns and ballads, and then went on to make up my own poems, using the forms I’d heard. Writing these down came a little later.
I studied English at the University of York, and after graduation taught English as a foreign language in Finland.
At around this time I began to write the poems which formed my first poetry collection, The Apple Fall, and to publish these in magazines. I also completed two novels; fortunately neither survives, and it was more than ten years before I wrote another novel.