Author and historical consultant on witchcraft and magic

Birdcage Walk, by Helen Dunmore

Nov 28, 2023 | Blog

Birdcage Walk is set in Bristol, England during the French Revolution. Then as now, Bristol was home to lively debate about the rights and wrongs of political life. In the 1780s-1790s there was a particular focus on the rights of women to hold property, access education and be treated as the equals of men in legal and social life, as well as a growing demand for middle class men and working men to express political views through assembly and the vote. Those who believed strongly in these causes tended to be not just political activists but also creative writers: pamphleteers, poets, voluminous letter writers and novelists. One of the pleasures of the novel is its reference to these: Ann Radcliffe, the Gothic novelist, Tom Paine, the Coleridges and Wordsworths. Several of the characters of the novel are also writers: the pamphleteers Julia Fawkes and her husband Augustus Gleeson and their friend, the poet Will Forrest.

However, the novel’s main character Lizzie Fawkes is not yet a writer, and indeed she’s impatient with the endless word-generation of her mother and stepfather as well as their correspondents, whose self-important, breathless letters scatter the novel’s narrative. Lizzie wants to know what good words do. In France, words get people killed in the most gruesome ways. At home, they distract from the real issues of life as Lizzie sees them: the care of spouses and children, the management of a household, the price of goods, the building of new suburbs in her home city. Lizzie’s husband is a property developer and as the politics of revolution and war sap economic confidence his business teeters and folds. We know from the novel’s present day “Prelude” that this will happen. In her “Prelude”, Dunmore gives us tantalising and – as it turns out – very worrying glimpses of the characters’ futures.

Most concerning is the information that Julia Fawkes will die during the course of the novel, and that something terrible will happen to someone about whom she cared deeply during her life. We don’t know who, but we guess that it may be Lizzie. And in Chapter 1, we learn even more frightening facts from the viewpoint of Lizzie’s husband John Diner Tredevant. He has a violent secret. By the end of the first chapter we know it and Lizzie does not, and so the novel is fraught with fear from that point forward. As well as this sharp anxiety, there are also wistful sadnesses foreshadowed in the “Prelude”. We know, for example, that for all Julia Fawkes’ literary productivity none of her work will survive into the twenty-first century. All of those carefully-chosen words, all of the effort and self-denial, the neglect of family, the savage focus and the stress involved in writing anything worth reading – it will be lost to the oblivion of history.

The novel is about history: about the power of the past, the precious but always-ending present, and the uncertain future. History tells us great stories but its very essence is the passage of time and with that comes the certainty of loss. Death is one of the losses, but there is also the loss of the world of the past and the loss of the meaning of individual lives within that world. We can’t read Julia’s words, we fear what might happen to Lizzie, but Dunmore reminds us throughout that no matter what happens to these fictional women the lives of past generations blur and fade inevitably so that whether an eighteenth-century life was ended by murder, illness or accident is ultimately unimportant. All lives end. That’s the cage of Birdcage Walk.

When she finished the novel in 2016 – as Dunmore reveals in a moving “Afterword” – she was already seriously ill, although she did not know it. Within a year she would die and her novel would be lovingly published and rightly lauded as her memorial. Birdcage Walk’s preoccupation with loss was, as it turned out, the fitting closure to a career of writing fine historical fiction. And although the book’s ending offers a kind of resolution, through a melodramatic confontation that we have expected since Chapter 1, it is also an open ending. There’s no room for happily ever after, because there is no ever after. All we can expect is happily-for-now.

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