Helen Dunmore writes of “people whose voices have not echoed through time and whose struggles and passions have been hidden from history”. Most people in all ages are like that, of course; in time their names are effaced from gravestones – if they even had such a stone. In June 1789, in the first chapter of this novel, an unnamed man is burying a woman in a forest. There will be no stone over her grave, and one suspects he murdered her. It is a gripping opening and it will not be long before we know who the man is.
The date is significant. The French Revolution is about to break out, to be greeted with enthusiasm by English radicals. The novel is set in Bristol but events in France cast their shadow over its characters. The narrator and heroine, Lizzie, is the beloved and loving daughter of Julia, a radical writer and early feminist, now married to her second husband, Augustus, a kindly but ineffectual idealist. Lizzie is married to John Diner Tredevant, and is herself a second wife. Diner, as she calls him, has nothing in common with her family. He is a self-made man, a builder, ambitious and visionary, engaged on the construction of a magnificent terrace in Clifton overlooking a deep river gorge. Lizzie’s family talk; Diner acts. They are generous and welcoming; he is secretive and possessive. They welcome the Revolution; he detests and fears it. For them it opens the promise of a new age; for Diner, working on borrowed money, it carries the threat of upheaval, war, depression and bankruptcy. Lizzie is caught between two worlds, her loyalties divided. Moreover, while she is passionately in love with Diner, who resents her family and is distrusted by them, she will also come to fear him. She begins to suspect that there are dark, alarming things in his past. Moreover, if her mother preached of the rights of women, Diner wants to dominate her and control all aspects of her life. Yet he is also capable of moments of beguiling tenderness, and she recognises that his dominance conceals his dependence on her.
This is a historical novel and a very good one. The characters truly belong to their time and place. The influence of the Revolution as it careers from the optimistic idealism of its early days, when the Declaration of the Rights of Man was published and “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”, to the bloody horror of the September Massacres of 1792 and the Terror, is faithfully and persuasively traced. It’s part, too, of Lizzie’s moral education; she develops in the course of the novel, coming also to see merits in the tiresome Augustus of whom she had first been jealous.
But it is also a Gothic novel – suitably since the 1790s were the heyday of the genre – and one which acknowledges and plays off its fictional predecessors. The ruthlessly ambitious but doomed Diner, tormented by unacknowledged guilt, is Dunmore’s Heathcliff. The pervasive influence of the mysterious first wife echoes Jane Eyre and even more powerfully Rebecca. Indeed, in its assurance, rapidity and narrative zest, Birdcage Walk might be a Daphne Du Maurier novel. Like Du Maurier, Dunmore has the ability to evoke a sense of place and to write passages of thrilling and disturbing action – a tremendous voyage in a boat rowed by Diner on a turbulent winter river, for instance. But Lizzie is a fully rounded, intelligent and capable character unlike the pallid second Mrs de Winter, and therefore more interesting, while Diner is complete in a way that Max de Winter surely wasn’t. Still, Du Maurier would have appreciated the darkness of his character while it is evidence of Dunmore’s skill and understanding that she takes this harsh, monomaniacal Gothic-Romantic hero-villain and presents him straight without sentimentalising him as, for instance, Charlotte Brontë sentimentalised Mr Rochester. But then Lizzie, through whose eyes we know him, isn’t a timid mouse like Jane Eyre, but a self-reliant and thoroughly admirable young woman.
Dunmore is a remarkable novelist who sets herself very different challenges in each new novel. She meets this one triumphantly. It will surely be a great and thoroughly deserved success.
Birdcage Walk is published by Hutchinson, £18.99