Birdcage Walk is the last novel by the incomparable Helen Dunmore who moved between subjects and periods with ease, setting the dramatic minutiae of people’s lives against the huge social events of the time. War, spies and, in Birdcage Walk, the French Revolution and how its impacts on a family in Bristol.
The novel opens as a walker and his dog discover a hidden grave in the undergrowth of a derelict graveyard. He reads the inscription to Julia Elizabeth Fawkes but subsequent research finds no information about her. This is followed by a short night-time scene in 1789 of a man burying a body in woods. We do not know the location, his identity or that of the body. How are these two things connected? For the first half of the book, I forgot these two short scenes until growing menace made me recall it and read faster.
It is 1792. This is the story of young wife Lizzie Fawkes, new wife of Bristol builder John Diner Tredevant and daughter of writer Julia Fawkes. Diner, as he is known, is developing a grand terrace of houses on the cliffs at Clifton Gorge, a development for which he specifies the best, borrowing against the potential sales. He is not keen on the company kept by his wife’s mother, seeing them as seditious socialists agitating in support of the French revolutionaries. He is aware of the potential cost to England, and his ambitious development, if the trouble in France turns into war. Lizzie is torn between two worlds, loyal to her Mammie and cautious about Augustus, her step-father and political pamphleteer, but aware her husband is under financial pressure. Diner is derided as a capitalist by Augustus and his writer friends. But Lizzie is proud, she chose her husband and remains loyal to him. But that loyalty and her young impressionable love for him are challenged. As news from Paris gets grimmer, Diner’s mood darkens. He must lay off workers, creditors chase payment, and he has night sweats. Insistent that independent Lizzie is his now, that he owns her and everything of hers, he is almost overpowering in his need to keep her close. She begins to fear he is having her followed and so disguises herself as she walks about town, lying about her visits home. And then there is the mystery of Diner’s first wife, Lucie, who died in France but of whom he does not speak. Lizzie fears he still loves Lucie.
This is a gently-written novel about tumultuous times in Europe, when the shadow of the unknown and fear – from the horrors in Paris to Diner’s secrets and his dark brooding nature – cannot be escaped. When the moment to run arrives, will Lizzie recognise it? If she does run, where to and who with? And will she know if she is running towards more danger? This is an expertly-written historical novel, rich in period detail, although the title is mentioned fleetingly and not referred to again.
Read my reviews of Dunmore’s The Lie and Exposure.
If you like this, try:-
‘The Walworth Beauty’ by Michèle Roberts
‘The Quick’ by Lauren Owen
‘The French Lesson’ by Hallie Rubenhold
‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore [UK: Windmill Books] Buy now
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