Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore: The rights of women

Cover image Here’s one I’ve been looking forward to ever since I spotted it in the publisher’s catalogue. Helen Dunmore’s new novel, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, who is intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge.

Lizzie’s mother has brought her up to be an independent woman, reflecting her own radical, egalitarian beliefs. Julia is often to be found scratching out pamphlets, sometimes dictated to her by Lizzie’s hopelessly impractical stepfather. Neither of them is fond of Diner whose speculative building plans run counter to their principles but Lizzie conceived a passion for him and was determined to have him. His first wife died in her native France: apart from those barest of bones, he refuses to talk of her but Lucie haunts this marriage.  When Julia dies in childbirth, Lizzie resists Diner’s annoyance, taking her half-brother into the show house that has become their home. Passion is cooling and Lizzie is unsettled by Diner’s jealous need to know her whereabouts. As the news from France finds its way across the Channel, Diner’s plans are undermined – no one wants to sink their capital in a house, no matter how splendid, with the possibility of war on the horizon. Mired in debt, he decides they must make their escape and a revelation is made.

Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Brought up to believe ‘that a woman must not be weak, but instead learn to fend for herself’, Lizzie has been made dependent on her husband by the law which prevents married women from owning property. It can be no coincidence that much of the action takes place in 1792, the year in which Mary Wollstonecraft published her seminal work, A Vindication of the Right of Women. As ever Dunmore’s writing is striking – ‘Do you really think that the storm in France will not blow my hat off?’ asks Diner; ‘Memory. What was that to set against the worms?’ reflects Lizzie in her grief – and her characters beautifully observed. She expertly pulls taut the tension that runs through this marriage between a woman used to freedom and a man who assumes it’s his right to control her. Not Dunmore at her absolute best – the sensuous prose of Talking to the Dead and the sharpness of Exposure remain my favourites – but an engrossing novel, made all the more vivid for me by its setting, a mere ten-minute train ride from where I live. I’ve often walked along the Royal York Crescent on which Diner’s vision is based. It’ll be hard to do that now without thinking of Lizzie, her half-brother wrapped tightly in her shawl, as she makes her way up onto the Downs.

It’s such a sadness to know that this will be Dunmore’s last novel. She has quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she is gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

24 thoughts on “Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore: The rights of women”

  1. A wonderful writer and, indeed, it is very sad that this may well be her last novel. I remember we were trying to invite her to come to give a fiction masterclass in Geneva a year or so ago and she declined. Now I think we know why.

    1. She’s one of my favourite authors, Melissa. Not exactly unsung but she’s never had the same level of acclaim as many of her male contemporaries.

  2. I hadn’t heard about her diagnosis. What a shame. These days 64 seems far too young to die, though I suppose it was the average age of many of last year’s celebrity deaths.

    For some reason I associate Dunmore’s fiction with the world wars, so it’s interesting that here she’s chosen the French Revolution as her time period. I think I’ll start with the two of her books that you recommend most highly, though.

    1. I hope you enjoy them, Rebecca. She’s such a fine writer, and you’re absolutely right – 64 seems no age these days. It’s very sad news.

  3. I didn’t realise Dunmore was so ill; it must add a layer of poignancy knowing that this would likely be her last book (I think Zero K is DeLillo’s last, but he hasn’t said so expressly. It affected my reading, I think). This sounds like the kind of book I would enjoy, except for that old chestnut of time, and I’m yet to read anything by Dunmore. If you could only read one of her books, which one would it be?

    1. I had heard a rumour but from the Guardian piece, it’s clear she decided to make it public. It’s very sad news. Extremely hard to pick just one but I’m going to plump for Talking to the Dead which has the most gorgeous use of language plus a taut thread of suspense running through it. It’s also one of her shorter novels which may help with your choice of a slower pace of reading, Belinda, although the suspense may not!

      1. Thanks Susan, I’ll add that one to my library list. It is a shame. I think it is one thing to read dead writers, in a way it is reassuring to make a connection to someone from a different era, but when a contemporary writer dies it is much more shocking and personal I think. I know Dunmore isn’t there yet, and whilst her prognosis doesn’t sound good that doesn’t mean she won’t recover, but it is still saddening. Maybe she’ll have the luck of Clive James, rather than Jenny Diski. One can hope.

        1. You’re absolutely right, Belinda. Clive James’ continuing survival is astonishing, even to himself it seems.

  4. Sounds excellent, Susan. I heard this being discussed by the panel on R4’s Saturday Review this year, very positively I might add. It’s so sad to hear of her diagnosis. I’m sure she will be sorely missed.

    1. It’s well worth reading, Jacqui. A quietly feminist novel, if you will, and very powerful with it. She’s one of my benchmarks for good writing.

  5. Oh, I didn’t know she was sick! How sad. I’d rather be behind in reading her books than have such a sad reason for the possibility of catching up someday. 🙁

    The French Revolution would make a good setting!

  6. It was a shock to get to the end of your review and see that mention about her diagnosis. reading the Guardian article i was struck by how courageous a lady she clearly is, to be able to write so eloquently about her situation.

    1. I agree, Karen. I met her many years ago when I was a bookseller and she struck me as quietly composed which comes through in the Guardian piece.

        1. The Siege is excellent as is Talking to the Dead, both very different from each other. The Great Coat was very slight, wasn’t it, her contribution to the Hammer imprint relaunch, I think. She’s only put one foot wrong for me and that was Counting the Stars.

  7. She is a writer whose works I’ve done a bang-up job of collecting and a terrible job of reading, but I still hope to adjust that balance. I’ve got some of her short stories here too…

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