I do love a Georgian drama, and Helen Dunmore has written a brilliant depiction of eighteenth century Bristol. Birdcage Walk is so authentic I could smell it. Dunmore’s city is one where women have agency without being too modern and she weaves historical fact into a dark tale of a marriage that is dangerously controlling.
The year is 1792 and Lizzie Fawkes is barely more than a girl. Recently married to John Diner Tredevant, a property developer and widower in his thirties, their relationship is one of passion. This was not an arranged or forced marriage, rather Lizzie tells the reader several times how she longed to be with him and ignored her mother’s advice to wait. It is only now, as he gradually becomes more controlling and demanding, that she wonders about his first wife, Lucie, and what really happened to her.
While Diner is concerned with making money from his most ambitious development, a terrace of fine houses overlooking the Gorge, Lizzie’s family are radicals, busy writing their pamphlets and spreading word of the French Revolution. Their ideals are the very opposite of Diner’s, and she defends him to them even as his scheme falters. In uncertain times, as the French bourgeoisie are being lead to the guillotine and there is talk of war, who will want to buy a fine mansion house? In turn, Diner sneers at the fanciful idea of women’s rights that Lizzie’s mother writes about, thinking of the radicals as clueless idealists.
The prelude of the novel is present day, a novice dog owner who likes to stroll along Birdcage Walk, a path that leads through a real graveyard in Clifton, Bristol, it’s church gone after being bombed during the second world war. Helen Dunmore wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian on the inspiration for the novel, and also her recent cancer diagnosis. Legacy is an important theme of the book. Diner hopes that his grand terrace will outlive him. Lizzie’s mother, Julia, writes pamphlets and is revered and reviled for what she publishes. These writings no longer survive, though in the present day her husband, Augustus, is still remembered a pamphleteer. Strange, when Lizzie tells us that it was Julia who wrote so compulsively, not her husband:
Hannah sniffed: her nose was red, with a drop hanging from it. ‘It’s rest she needs, not writing-boards.’
Sacrilege, coming from Hannah. Mammie’s ideas flowed most clearly at night, with one lit candle to speed her pen while Augustus slept on beside her. There was nothing more important than that those ideas of hers should be captured and set down. Hannah had always arranged our days for that purpose. Our rooms were clean, our clothes washed and our food cooked, but even so Mammie needed the night for her work. She would wake with her mind suddenly, startlingly alive. She’d sit up in bed, reach for her writing-board, prop it against her knees, and seize on her thoughts before they vanished. Who would imagine, from the clarity of her treatises, that they sprang from a warm bed?
Birdcage Walk is a masterclass in how to write historical fiction well. Using fact and fiction in equal measure, this is an involving story with a satisfying conclusion.