Sunday 15 April 2018

Review by Elle Morgan of "Birdcage Walk" by Helen Dunmore

How many of us read historical novels, wondering how the events of the past can help us interpret those of today? Helen Dunmore blends the post-modern with the nineteenth-century: “a man doing t’ai chi” is perched next to “skeletal” Georgian architecture. Birdcage Walk opens in the twenty-first century, and then delves into old documents from the time of the French Revolution.

“I touched the paper as if the heat of their lives might come off on my fingers”: we are introduced to the period by a contemplative man who stumbles across the past while walking his dog; Dunmore used a real place in Bristol to concretise the present. Timothy Jones snapped the black-and-white photograph on the front cover “using a Nikon D300, in between a walkway in Clifton Cemetery.” Noir-like and ethereal, it suits the genre perfectly. 

Helen uses one close psychological portrait of a family to encapsulate a broader landscape, one of the revolutionary wars happening across the Channel. In the novel, the effects of the French battles are widespread, and divide British households into anti-Royalists, and the upper-class bourgeoisie. Lizzie’s household is no different. The author asks, why do we love the people we do, even in spite of our political differences? 

Before Helen Dunmore passed away, Oliver Hurst, a Bath-based illustrator, was commissioned to paint a piece for The Financial Times, that would highlight her novel’s themes. He painted the main female protagonist, Lizzie, in a cage. She is turned away from the eighteenth-century houses, presumably from her Royalist-supporting husband’s doomed enterprise, and I wanted to know what she was looking at. Upon being contacted for interview, Hurst said he’d painted her husband smaller and insignificant, and “all that was left to do was ‘hang’ Lizzie’s cage in Georgian Bristol.” Being based locally, like Dunmore and Jones, he did not have to do much research into the historical setting. But what was Lizzie looking at?

It's a compelling novel, which channels modern themes and feminist complexities with political undertones. Dunmore was an excellent researcher, and reading this will add to any knowledge on the treatment of women in the nineteenth century. Lizzie’s mother is a typically radical, freedom-supporting character who wants the working masses in France to win; Lizzie’s husband is the opposite, with a business to think of. He becomes more and more domineering as the novel goes on, and Lizzie’s sense of liberty is compromised.

Where is Lizzie looking? Towards freedom, perhaps. 

About the reviewer
Elle Morgan is a Creative and Critical MA student at the University of Sussex, who loves reading and reviewing, particularly 1920's Jazz Age fiction. Her website is

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