Article published on August 4, 2017.
It is 1792 and Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence.
Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in Radical circles where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. But she has recently married John Diner Tredevant, a property developer who is heavily invested in Bristol’s housing boom, and he has everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war.
Diner believes that Lizzie’s independent, questioning spirit must be coerced and subdued. She belongs to him: law and custom confirm it, and she must live as he wants.
But as Diner’s passion for Lizzie darkens, she soon finds herself dangerously alone.
We are so thrilled to present the paperback of Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk as the next in our series of nudge Recommended Reads. These are the online only version of the nb Recommended Reads you’ll find in our print magazine, although all recommended books can be ordered via the nudge shop (UK only; p&p charge applies; while stocks last).
Find out what our reviewers thought of Birdcage Walk:
This is another great book by Helen Dunmore. Hopefully this won’t be her last, although she has announced that she has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Her diagnosis has made her think about the concept of legacy: ‘what is left behind by a life’? This is one of the themes of this book. The novel looks at ‘memory, historical record, what remains, what is saved and what is lost.’ It begins with a man walking in a cemetery with his dog and discovering an overgrown gravestone. The inscription on it is dedicated to Julia Elizabeth Fawkes and it says the stone was raised ‘In the presence of her many Admirers’. But who was Julia Fawkes and why was she admired? His research leads him to information about a small group of radicals in Bristol at the time of the French Revolution. The novel then concentrates on their story and, in particular, on Julia’s daughter, Lizzie. She has rebelled against her radical upbringing and married into seeming comfort and respectability. Her husband is a successful speculative builder until the turmoil in France effects businesses in England too.
The women in the book are all strong characters. Julia, the radical campaigner and writer; Lizzie her strong independent though somewhat naïve daughter, and their respective maidservants, Hannah and Philo. In her afterword, Helen Dunmore comments that women’s lives often remain unrecorded, although they also ‘shape the future’. It seems apt that I should be writing this review on International Women’s Day!
There is a lot of historical background to this novel, as there is in all Dunmore’s books, which is part of what makes them enjoyable. But what also makes them good to read is the well developed characters and storylines. The writing just flows along – I very nearly read this in one sitting. This would be an excellent book group choice as well as a good personal read.
Maddy Broome 5/5
Helen Dunmore is so good at making you feel part of the historical period in which her novels are set. Here, she has turned to the end of the 18th century and the effects of the French Revolution. Lizzie has grown up in a radical household in Bristol. Her mother writes political pamphlets, but Lizzie has rebelled against this upbringing by marrying a property developer who is involved in the city’s housing boom. As war between England and France looks likely, the housing boom is collapsing. The tension of the political scene is mirrored in the increasingly taut relationship between the rather naive Lizzie and her husband, Diner, who becomes more and more jealous and possessive. The sense of unease and foreboding increases as the author draws you in with well developed characters and clever scene setting.
One of the themes underlying the narrative is that of what remains after us and how the individual can vanish from the historical record. No trace remains of Lizzie’s mother’s writing, but are Diner’s stone houses any longer lasting? We often know little about our ancestors, particularly the women, whose lives are not documented, but they have influenced the lives of their descendants.
As both a chilling story and an example of thought-provoking writing this book works well, although I found it perhaps appealed more to the head than to the heart. With the themes of coercion in marriage and the individual’s place in history set within a gripping narrative, I think it is certain to be a reading group favourite.
Berwyn Peet 4/5
Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore, published on 3 August, 2017 by Windmill Books, in paperback