We are often warned against allowing considerations of an author’s personal circumstances to influence our view of his or her work, but it is impossible to read Helen Dunmore’s Birdcage Walk without dwelling on the unhappy fact that she died last March, less than three months after the novel’s publication in the UK. What is more, Dunmore brings her death into the picture herself, offering a gloss to the book by including an afterword in which she says that, while she was not consciously aware that she was dying as she wrote this, the last of her fifteen novels, she nonetheless believes that somewhere in her creative self she did know. “The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel,” she tells us. And it is through the book’s several created individuals that she expresses her melancholy fascination with the way most human beings, despite productive, busy lives of consequence and influence in their own time, simply vanish from history.
Birdcage Walk is, in fact, marked by death and loss throughout — beginning with a brief note on Bristol’s late-eighteenth-century building boom, which collapsed when war broke out between England and France in 1793. It left unfinished hundreds of houses meant to constitute grand terraces on the slopes of Clifton, overlooking the river Avon, creating “a roofless spectacle of ruin” that lasted years. Dunmore moves then to our own day, to a lonely man strolling with his dog through an overgrown cemetery; he comes across a grave marker, raised on July 14, 1793, commemorating Julia Elizabeth Fawkes, its inscription reading in part, “Her Words Remain Our Inheritance.” Never having heard of this woman, our man’s interest is piqued, and further research reveals that she was a politically engaged writer married to one of Bristol’s almost forgotten, highly prolific, radical pamphleteers — and that not one word of her own writing has survived. Aside from her gravestone, the only relicts are two scraps of a letter mentioning her, written after her death. The letter, written in a state of high emotion during the harrowing days of the French Revolution, is by an unknown person. Sadness washes over the lonely dog walker: “It was all dead and gone, and no one left to know what any of it had meant.”
On that bleak note, we enter the eighteenth century itself. It is June 1789, and an unknown man — whom, alas, we shall come to know only too well — is digging a grave deep in the woods for the wife he has killed. Make that his first wife — for some three years later we find him, John Diner Tredevant, married to Julia Elizabeth Fawkes’s daughter, Lizzie. He is a developer and builder, deep in debt, trying to pay his workmen to finish the terrace of houses in Clifton by the Avon Gorge that will, he believes, make his fortune. Lizzie, swept up in sexual passion, married him against the advice of her mother, and she is beginning to see what a mistake this was. Diner, as he insists on being called, is moody, volatile, oppressively controlling, and pathologically jealous. He questions his wife’s every move, does not like her to have friends over or to leave the house, and, it emerges, sometimes follows her when she does go out. Most particularly he resents Lizzie’s mother and her second husband, Augustus Gleeson, the two of them outspoken supporters of the revolution in France.
Julia and Augustus bear a strong resemblance to Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin in their manner, interests, and work (Julia “working so hard she hardly had time to eat or speak,” and Gleeson writing away, “buzzing like a fly at a window through which he would never escape”). The similarity is further brought home in that Julia dies in childbed, from puerperal fever — horrifically described — as did Wollstonecraft, though in this case an infant son, named Thomas after Tom Paine, survives, rather than the future Mary Shelley. We are reminded that while Wollstonecraft and Godwin are famous, they were only two among the many men and women beavering away promoting radical causes — for the rights of women and of workers, for freedom of speech and assembly — during this time, writers and speakers who made a difference but whose names are now lost to history.
Augustus, cerebral and scribbling, is not much given to childcare. Thus Lizzie, with the willing help of her little maid, Philo, takes over the care of the motherless child, her half brother. This is a cause of further resentment and outbursts of temper on the part of Diner, who claims that the child will wear his wife out, squandering the attention she properly owes him, her husband: “I was careful not to inflame Diner’s suspicions by signs of tenderness for the baby,” she tells us. “Instead, I cleared away the feeding things, rattles and cradle as evening came on, and gave Thomas back to Philo as soon as I heard the door. I did not speak of the baby to Diner unless he asked. You would rarely have guessed, from our conversation, that Thomas was in the house.” Thee atmosphere in the house becomes increasingly dreadful, the women on pins and needles, creeping around trying not to arouse Diner’s ire. Dunmore is brilliant in evoking an atmosphere of domestic tyranny, the fear, the uncertainty, the impotence of the victims. It is exceedingly painful, all the more so as Lizzie has absorbed her mother’s views on the rights of women and yet must knuckle under to this monstrous bully for the sake of the child.
And, of course, Diner is no ordinary bully. He is also a murderer. Bit by bit Lizzie begins to detect something off about his explanation of what had happened to his first wife, Lucie, a Frenchwoman who, he had told her, returned to France and died there. In an ingenious maneuver that increases the nigh-unbearable tension, Dunmore presents Lizzie with evidence that Diner murdered the woman, but the clue comes in a manner that some readers will be able to understand, while Lizzie cannot. I will say no more about that unraveling, except to say that it’s real nail-biter.
The novel, which is animated by a current of gothic horror, depicts the social ferment, the ideological passion, and, ultimately, the smashed visions of the late eighteenth century; it is rich in details of material life — and death; and it powerfully conveys the emotional urgency of its characters. We feel that the lives of these fictional beings are just as real as those of actual people whose ideas and exertions contributed to the tenor of those times, lives that are lost to us now in the murk of the past. We feel, too, Dunmore’s deepened awareness of this and believe she did indeed have an intimation at some level that she, at least in body and mind, would soon be part of the past. Her finest books, among them The Siege, her last one, Exposure, and this one will, I hope, keep both her memory and those of her characters alive for as long as people read novels.