Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk

birdcage walkWhen I read a book in order to review it, and it is a physical copy, I use slips of paper, torn from whatever junk mail I have to hand, to mark pages which contain something noteworthy, something striking. By page 50 of Helen Dunmore’s final novel, I had realised the pointlessness of this strategy on this occasion – all pages contained something I wanted to remember.

It was a bitter-sweet read, for this was my first Dunmore novel, and whilst I will now go back and find her other work, I’m all too aware, as are so many, that her collection has been brought to a conclusion far too soon. She leaves a body of work noted for its skill, for its erudition, and for her ability to make history live again. In this novel, she also considers the legacy a writer may or may not leave behind, the chance that creative and intellectual output may be irretrievably lost over time.

Birdcage Walk begins with the slightly formulaic opening device of a modern character stumbling across a ‘clue’, in this case a tombstone, which functions as a prelude to the late Eighteenth-Century narrative proper. The tombstone belongs to a Julia Elizabeth Faulks, and its final inscription reads ‘Her Words Remain Our Inheritance’. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that nothing of Julia’s public work has survived, and, perhaps tellingly, the only connection to be made is through a reference to her husband, Augustus Gleeson. Women, historically certainly, have been all too easily lost to public remembrance.

Birdcage Walk itself primarily follows Julia’s daughter, Lizzie, and the way she is torn between the radical household of her beloved mother, and her marriage to the politically conservative and ambitious widower John Diner, a man who wishes to make his mark on Bristol with his grand new building projects. Her mother is famous for her political pamphlets, has a devoted following of like-minded readers who study developments in revolutionary France avidly. Lizzie’s husband also has his plans and dreams, manifested in bricks and mortar, leaving hidden symbols and inscriptions in the house he builds for himself and his new wife. The significance of the lettering ‘ELDIN’ woven into the plaster in the ceiling rose is not lost on Lizzie, ‘It seemed more final than a marriage, for this house would be standing long after we were dead and buried.’ This concern with what is left behind, if anything, is notable. Thanks to the author’s note at the beginning, we already know that, following the collapse of the building boom in Bristol during this period, ‘Hundreds of houses were left unfinished for years, in a roofless spectacle of ruin.’ Like Ozymandius, the men who seek to leave an ever-lasting stamp on the city are to be proved wrong.

Elsewhere in the novel, other forms of evidence of lives lived are shown to be vulnerable. Letters from France are sketchy. Gravestones are either missing or there is debate as to what should be inscribed upon them. Questions about the death of Diner’s first wife, Lucie, add to the psychological-thriller element of Dunmore’s plot – something which is brilliantly done in itself.

For all this reflection on memorial and legacy, there are incredibly warm moments, particularly between Lizzie and the baby, Thomas. As with all aspects of this novel, Dunmore’s ability to provide a rich sense of the physicality of caring for a small baby is obvious, ‘I longed to lift Thomas, to hold his warm damp heaviness and snuff the smell of his skin.’ Lizzie’s relationships with her mother and husband are also narrated with an emphasis on the tangible, the sensory, rather than the intellectual – at several points, we are told that she is not destined to follow her mother and be a writer. This difference is perhaps Lizzie’s strength, caught as she is between two very opposing ways of seeing the world. It is only as the novel progresses that she begins to see the danger in her position.

It seems a trite point to end on, but for all the concerns within her novel, Dunmore’s work is so securely a part of our literary landscape now that she undoubtedly will not share Julia’s fate and be lost to future generations. However, her final novel serves to remind us that we cannot ever fully know what we have lost.

3 thoughts on “Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk

  1. Pingback: Links I Loved This Week – 01/21/2018 – Novels And Nonfiction

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