Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk (2017)

birdcage walk coverWhen I first started this blog I wrote that I wanted to use my reading, cinema viewing, theatre and exhibition visits to help me with understanding the discipline of social policy and my place in the world.  This blog aims to be an inter-disciplinary space using culture to understand the practicalities of politics.  Helen Dunmore does something similar with her fiction.  She asks ordinary people to cope with the dramas of history and politics.  For example, The Siege (2001) focuses on the Levin family trapped inside Leningrad while Hitler’s army surrounds the city.  The Lie (2014) gives a raw portrayal of a soldier’s return from World War 1.  Exposure (2016) examines a marriage under the strain of the Cold War.  This novel does something different.  The big event is the French Revolution.  However, the triumph and horror of the ferocious events of Paris are experienced vicariously as the action of the novel is set in Bristol.

But civil war and revolution are not the only forms of violence.

The novel opens with John Diner Tredevant burying his murdered first wife in the dead of night.  The novel is about many things, but violence against women sets the tone.

Lizzie the second wife knows nothing of this.  Because of course there are many strategies to keeping male violence against women silent.  Diner, even as he “buries the evidence”, will not see it as murder.  He will euphemise, dehumanise, blame, psychologise, naturalise and separate himself from the act (Romito, 2008).  And of course, there is no stone to mark her life.  Lizzie is curious, about her predecessor but alert to the idea that to pry would be improper.

birdcage walkThe novel is an account of Lizzie’s marriage to Diner.  Lizzie is an intelligent, educated and capable young woman.  She has a rich inner life, a product of an unconventional upbringing by her radical mother and the circle of intellectual outsiders that have debated the political scene in her presence.  She is enough of her own woman not be won over by their enthusiasm and has developed a healthy skepticism for revolutionary politics.

“When I was a child and sat under the table to listen I believed that crowds would march behind her with banners while the sky flared with gold.  A child must hope that its parents are invincible, I suppose.  But I had admitted to myself some time ago that the number of those who followed her would remain few.” (Page 88)

Dunmore with taut prose, lets us know that Lizzie and Diner have an uneasy, menacing marriage.  This is not just a haunting of a previous wife, there is a deep discomfort in the dynamics between the two.  Whilst there is passion and signs of charm or romance, there is also distrust and one-sided compromise:

“I had realised a while ago that it was not only Hannah’s visits that Diner disliked.  He did not want any friend of mine to come to the house.” (Page 171)

We see Lizzie operate in what Kelly (2007) calls a narrow “space for action”.  In other words, she manages the threat of violence by restricting her own opportunities.  The reader understands this, because we know what Diner has done.  For Lizzie this must be an agonising situation, unsure of why she feels menace from a man she loves and who professes to love her.

“Don’t wrinkle up your brow, Lizzie.  I prefer it smooth.” And he stretched out and passed his hand across my forehead so firmly that it was an order not a caress. (Page 180)

clifton bridgeDiner is a property developer.  The action takes place at the point of revolution in France and a crucial stage of his housing development in Bristol. The property market requires a confident, greedy, rich public willing to invest large sums in speculation.  A revolution dilutes the confidence of the wealthy and reduces the desire to appear ostentatious. Lizzie must not only fear Diner, but face his fear of financial ruin.  And as his wife, at the time of the action, she is also part of his property portfolio.

In contemporary understandings of domestic abuse, it is possible to talk about Lizzie’s life as being shaped by “coercive control”.  This is phrase that can now be found in the legal protection of those (predominantly) women who experience domestic abuse. (A specific legal offence of “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship” came into force in December 2015 (Serious Crime Act 2015, section 76)). Coercive control is most associated with the work of US forensic social worker and sociology researcher, Evan Stark.  His work demonstrates how services for domestically-abused women have stalled because of a lack of understanding of their circumstances.  He argues:

“Viewing woman abuse through the prism of the incident specific and injury-based definition of violence has concealed its major components, dynamics and effects, including the fact that it is neither ‘domestic’ nor primarily about ‘violence’”.  (Stark, 2007: 10)

coercive control starkHowever, Lizzie is not just vulnerable to violence and manipulation because of the actions of one man.  Stark (ibid) is clear that coercion is available as a tool for manipulators because of structural gender inequality.  There is a sense that the economic circumstances that see her as dependent and him as (failing) provider also contribute to the menace and threat of her position.

I also want to draw attention to Lizzie’s mother.  Julia is a renowned, critical thinker and writer and is buried with the inscription: “Her words remain our inheritance.”  Only they don’t.  Whilst the headstone is a step up from the unmarked grave of Diner’s first wife, not a single word of Julia’s writing is available. This is suggestive of the fragility of human achievement, but in particular women’s achievements.  This illustrates structural and symbolic violence inflicted through erasure of history.  This is made all the more poignant as this is Dunmore’s last book, having died earlier this year.  Will her writing be remembered?  Will it form a part of the 21st Century canon of literature?

There will be many other ways of reading this novel.  But I found it impossible not to draw parallels with current circumstances.  This is an astute account of a coercive relationship made more volatile through uncertain economic and political times.  Currently, the continued policy of austerity is making women vulnerable as relationships are threatened by financial insecurity and abuse. In a national survey looking at financial abuse:

Almost one in five respondents (18%, n=730) stated that they have experienced financial abuse either in a current or former relationship… When these findings are analysed by gender, women are more likely (60%; n=436) to report experiencing financial abuse than men (40%; n=294). Thus one in five women experience financial abuse (21%, n=436) compared to one in seven men (15%; n=294). Gendered patterns also emerge when the findings are analysed according to sexuality, age, ethnicity, disability, relationship status, children, employment, personal income and household income. (Sharp-Jeffs, 2015: 17)

The threat continues as means of support and escape have been cut.  So, while Refuge has highlighted a rise in reports of domestic abuse since the recession, cuts to the domestic abuse sector mean that women are being turned away from refuges.  The gain of tightening legislation to include coercive control is diminished by the lack of access to justice and cuts to legal aid.

Helen Dunmore gives a portrait of different levels (physical, emotional, structural) violence in women’s lives in the 18th Century.  Austerity is a means of their contemporary continuance.



Dunmore, H. (2017) Birdcage Walk Hutchinson: London

Kelly L. and Lee, M. (2007) A conducive context: trafficking of persons in Central Asia, Human Trafficking Cullompton Willan Publishing

Romito, P. (2008) A Deafening Silence: Hidden Violence Against Women and Children Bristol: Policy Press

Sharp-Jeffs, N (2015) Money Matters: Research into the Extent and Nature of Financial Abuse within Intimate Relationships in the UK London: The Co-operative Bank/Refuge

Stark, E. (2007) Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life New York: Oxford University Press



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