Imaginative tale of violence and political turmoil
In Helen Dunmore's new novel, set in 18th-century Bristol, one may find murder, destitution, death by guillotine and, described with merciless precision, anaesthetic-free childbirth gone horribly wrong. Yet one feels that, for Dunmore, no fate is more horrible than the one described in the book's preliminary chapter set in the present day.
One of the author's favourite haunts, a Bristol graveyard called Birdcage Walk, is the initial setting. A man out walking his dog stumbles across a handsome grave, adorned with a stone quill pen, of a Julia Fawkes (died 1793), evidently a distinguished writer. His investigations show that hardly any details of her life and not a scrap of her work survive: "Whatever Julia Elizabeth Fawkes's many admirers had cherished, it had disappeared as surely as the flesh from her bones." One can sense Dunmore shuddering as she writes; for a writer, to be forgotten is to die a second time.
Once the novel proper gets under way, we are introduced to Julia, a doughty pamphleteer and campaigner for equality who has a gift for pithily expressing the views of her radical husband and his circle: she "was the spinning jenny who span out words to clothe the ideas that burst and bubbled in their brains".
Much of the book is narrated by Julia's daughter Lizzie; the wilfulness, inherited from her mother, expressed in marriage to a wealthy property developer whose politics are anathema to her family. John Diner Tredevant is a sexily dour cross between Mr Rochester, Maxim de Winter and the murderous Duke in Browning's My Last Duchess, who hates his wife smiling at anyone other than himself. As the French Revolution rocks the British economy and people stop buying his houses, he becomes even more sinister.
Birdcage Walk, then, is a cross between a Gothic romance - Lizzie frequently feels that her life is starting to resemble a work by Mrs Radcliffe - and a less heady but highly entertaining look at the realities of 1790 radical politics. The attempt to bring to life the events in France through having the British characters discuss them at length is not entirely successful: the book still feels like a tale of only one city. But as an imaginative recreation of 18th-century Bristol - the differences and similarities with today - it is a triumph.
Helen Dunmore (64) recently revealed that she has been "diagnosed with a cancer that has a very poor prognosis". In an afterword to this book she notes that "the question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel", and reflects that, since she was unaware when she wrote it that she was already seriously ill: "I suppose that a writer's creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant."
Perhaps so, but although the theme of the legacy human beings leave, and how this is interpreted by posterity, may now seem especially pertinent, it is something that has preoccupied her throughout her career. In novels such as The Siege, House of Orphans and The Betrayal - among the best historical fiction of our time - she has sought to provide a voice for those who are unjustly forgotten.
She demonstrates not just the devastating effect of historical events on ordinary people, but how ordinary people shape those events: in The Siege, for example, we come to understand how the bravery of the supposedly powerless plain folk of Leningrad changed the course of the war. But their voices are drowned out by generals and potentates in official histories; the novelist must speak for them. It is a kind of ventriloquism, and needs a humility on the part of the author.
Perhaps it's why historical novelists such as Dunmore are now being recognised as the best writers of their generation, while their contemporaries, who noisily mind their own egos in their earlier years, look increasingly like spent forces. © Telegraph