Tag Archives: Bristol

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore: The rights of women

Cover imageHere’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.

The Fair Fight: Definitely comes up to scratch

The Fair FightYou’ve probably heard about this book by now. Even John Humphries sounded interested in it when he interviewed Anna Freeman on a Saturday edition of the Today programme and he hardly seems a fiction fan – that’s more Jim Naughtie’s territory. The hook is an eighteenth-century female pugilist – not something I think I’ve ever come across in a novel before – but what drew me to it was its setting in Bristol, just down the road from me. The eye-catching Sarah Waters puff adorning the jacket didn’t influence me but I bet it delighted Freeman – who wouldn’t want one of those on the front of your first novel. And it’s good, too.

The female fighter in question is Ruth, the ugly daughter of a madam whose brothel is frequented by the gentry. Dora, her other daughter, is a luscious if sharp-tongued prize sold dear and soon finds herself a ‘fancy man’ whose exclusive property she becomes. Or at least that’s what he thinks. The son of a local merchant, Granville Dryer has his eye on Ruth as well as Dora although for an altogether different reason. He portrays himself as a patron of the ‘noble sport’ as boxing is known but he’s really in it for the money: ringside betting is a lucrative business as his dissolute friend, George, knows only too well. George also frequents the brothel but is just as happy in bed with his old school chum, Perry, whisked away from school when his family is struck by the small-pox that leaves his surviving sibling, Charlotte, badly scarred. When their parents die, these two are left alone grief-stricken but still sniping at each other until George arrives to take over the duties of the estate. After Ruth’s young man steps in to deflect the punishing blows of a male bruiser at St James’ Fair, Dryer turns his attentions from her to him, grooming Tom to become the Champion of all England. Always with an eye to the main chance, George sees the opportunity to make his fortune. All is set for glory.

Freeman narrates her story through the voices of Ruth, George and Charlotte, getting things off to a stonking start with Ruth’s declaration of her passion for the ring and following it with colourful descriptions of life in an eighteenth-century brothel. Hard to follow such a strong, distinctive voice with a different narrator and the next two scene-setting sections from George and Charlotte almost inevitably seem a little slow in comparison. Once Dryer takes up Tom the novel hits its stride and you can’t help but root for Ruth and Tom in the hope that they will lift themselves out of squalor. Ruth’s narrative is strikingly vivid – ‘fart-catcher’, ’pug’, and ‘noddy’ are all useful additions to my vocabulary – and when Charlotte manages to belt out ‘”dumb-glutton scut”’…the closest I could come to running around unclothed’ – it makes you want to cheer. Freeman is particularly deft at conveying the material divisions between rich and poor: while Charlotte views The Ridings as a gloomy, down-at-heel establishment, for Ruth its gatehouse is the grandest thing she’s ever seen. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the added bonus for me was envisaging Queens Square teeming with visitors for St James’ Fair. It’s one of the few areas of Bristol that escaped the bombing of the Second World War then the Brutalist redevelopment of the 1960s. I’ll be remembering Ruth next time I cut through from the station on my way to Park Street.