Suzi Feay

Perilous times

Political instability following the French Revolution causes havoc for the heroine of Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk

Perilous times
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Birdcage Walk

Helen Dunmore

Hutchinson, pp. 406, £

Helen Dunmore’s new novel concerns lives, consequential in their day, that pass away into utter oblivion. Appropriately, the ‘solitary and no doubt rather grim middle-aged man’ of the opening pages is unnamed and never appears again, once he discovers a forgotten grave near the pathway of the title. Bearing the image of a quill, the headstone commemorates a radical 18th-century writer, Julia Fawkes, who died in Bristol in 1793. The stone was ‘Raised… in the Presence of her Many Admirers’. But who was this Julia, wife of an equally obscure pamphleteer, and what is left of the works that, the stone optimistically proclaims, ‘Remain Our Inheritance’?

The historically minded 21st-century dog-walker disappears, and a new scene opens in June 1789, as an unknown male tramps through an idyllic woodland scene that swiftly turns nightmarish with the appearance of a woman’s corpse. Dunmore plays no tricks with the reader; a suspicious character soon appears with the main narrative. Julia Fawkes’s daughter Lizzie is the protagonist in a skilful tale of growing peril rooted in legal reality: as the wife of John Diner Tredevant, a ruthless and deeply sexy man, Lizzie is merely his doll and chattel.

Defying the prognostications of her feminist mother, Lizzie has spurned the high-minded intellectual circles of her youth to throw in her lot with Diner (as he prefers to be called), a property speculator, moving into a half-built terrace, succoured by her husband’s monomaniacal visions. With Julia, Dunmore has clearly leaned upon the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, so much so that a major plot development comes as no surprise. Much to the disgust of Diner, Lizzie takes on her new baby brother Thomas to raise as her own, with the help of Philo, a scrawny maid (Dunmore’s attention throughout to such minor and disadvantaged characters is scrupulous).

A cloud on the couple’s horizon is the political instability engendered by the revolution in France. Investment falters, and some of the eeriest scenes take place in the mansion haunted by dreams of the future: the modern reader knows that Diner’s hunch is correct, and this unformed mass of marble and brick will centuries later be one of the Georgian glories of Clifton.

The novel meditates upon the surprising actions of time that morph an entrepreneur into a beggar, an influential writer into a nonentity, a lover into a murderer. Perhaps there’s a hint of Dorothea Brooke and the famous conclusion of Middlemarch — that obscure lives may nevertheless exert an unquantifiable influence on the future. In an afterword, Dunmore reveals that while writing the book she was, without being aware of it, seriously ill: ‘a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light’. The result is a chilling work of domestic horror where no crust, candle nor cabbage goes uncounted.