I know I am not alone in having been deeply moved by a recent article by author Helen Dunmore on the subject of facing mortality and what we leave behind, and with particular reference to her own particular recent diagnosis...
'The ground beneath my feet has never been more uncertain, but what is sure is that the ambulance has already called and there is no vagueness about my mortality.'
In the first instance Helen Dunmore examines the magical thinking so common in our day and age; our expectations of longevity, increasingly efficacious treatments that come with such high expectations, the plethora of advice about what we can all do to prolong life and defer the inevitable...eat ten a day, exercise, don't do this, do that...and then in my experience as a health professional a bit of oops sorry, we got that wrong we meant don't do that, do this instead.
'Most of us die in silence and leave silence behind us. There is no visible mark, no written record and very often no grave to visit...'
And whilst you could be forgiven for thinking how final that seems, please be assured that in Helen Dunmore's eyes (and mine and I'm sure many who read this piece) it is far from.
Last week we marked two years since the Tinker (my lovely dad) died. We all agreed that it only seemed like yesterday but we also agreed that that might be because he has never really left us. We talk about him a lot, invoke his name when we need a bit of advice and most tellingly last week when we were talking about him the electricity suddenly went off with a bit of a wallop. He's sending us signs we say.
It is anonymity that Helen Dunmore probes, the thought that those precious memories will be diluted and eventually lost after a few generations,
'Anonymity is also an inheritance and perhaps a precious one, just as the poems grouped under Anonymous in an anthology are often the most moving of all, honed as they are by generations of memory.'
And it is that anonymity that is given life and identity in Birdcage Walk based on an actual place in Bristol.
Set in Bristol in 1792 and against the backdrop of the French Revolution, the turbulence in Paris is causing ripples of fear and anxiety, caution and suspicion back in the UK. Lizzie, wife of house-builder (and destroyer) John Diner Tredevant, finds herself enmeshed in the web of an intense, brooding and controlling man with a 'history' of which she is, for much of the book, unaware. When the truth emerges Lizzie will need every ounce of courage and resilience invested in her by her mother, Julia Fawkes, writer and courageous exponent of the rights of women, in order to free herself.
'Her faith in me was a flame that might flatten when the wind blew on it but would not be quenched.'
In the light of her own beliefs, the irony of Julia's own entrapment and demise is not lost on the reader and the consequences for Lizzie will be profound.
Those anonymous lost voices that Helen Dunmore wanted to breath into life are given identity, shape and form. They are clothed both bodily and emotionally and furnished with personalities and character traits that made them dance off the page for me, though 'tis true, there is not a lot of time for dancing. Times are hard, very hard and it is the realities of day to day late eighteenth century life that worked so well as I read, the tiniest details drawing me in..
'That shawl is a very common pattern...'
Shawls are the big fashion feature in Birdcage Walk; a necessity for babies and women alike but still signifiers for the women of class and status, wealth and means, a currency of social acceptability and I was reminded of the ubiquity of the paisley shawl back in the day. Kashmir shawls once a sign of untold wealth given the two to three years they took to weave, until the patterns, so readily copied and machine-woven, became commonplace and everyday. I feel sure we can all think of twenty-first century fashion equivalents.
In Helen Dunmore's world the shawls are like woollen armour, offering protection, they wrap and enclose the women bringing warmth and shelter from the onslaughts of both weather and life and sometimes words. There is a wonderful moment when Lizzie buys one for her precious and much-respected maid but has to think very carefully how to present her with this gift of which her maid feels undeserving. It is a moment of one woman offering solace and care to another.
There's an entire ministry surrounding shawls these days, with the focus on care and support and I've knitted a couple and will certainly knit more... remember the Waulkmill Hap.
The Knit Angel sent me a beauty a few weeks ago in the depths of February. Shawls still equal comfort, a wonderful gift for friends in need and to my mind should be available on prescription.
In her afterword Helen Dunmore suggests...
I wanted to write about people whose voices have not echoed through time and whose struggles and passions have been hidden from history...'
...reminding me again of Professor John Carey's wish that day, at that literary event we did together years ago... what we would give to have had the voices of bloggers in the eighteenth century. The next best thing has to be for an author to resurrect those voices so successfully in a novel.
It was a serendipitous moment because when Kate, who comments here, called in recently her eyes lit on my proof copy of Birdcage Walk on my shelf.
'Take it,' I said. 'No one ever leaves here without a book...I am up to my eyes in other reading, I won't miss it and besides I am often sent a finished copy too.' I parted with it happily, nay willingly because sometimes I can feel a little overwhelmed with the number of books awaiting their moment. I thought no more about it except that about two days later lo a finished copy of Birdcage Walk arrived and with it a subliminal message that I was obviously meant to read it, and how glad I am that I have. It's a book that resonates long after the final page.
And then I start to think about how long Helen Dunmore has been a part of my own personal literary landscape. We are a similar age and I realise that, though we have never met, we go back a long way together and she has taken me to a lot of places and emotions in my imagination in that time. From Cornwall and Zennor in Darkness in 1993, when our children were twelve, ten and eight, and thence to Leningrad and The Seige, to Finland in House of Orphans via the insane blackmail of Your Blue-Eyed Boy and much more, whilst most recently Exposure which I wrote about here, and now look my babies are...well you can do the maths. Sadly many of the books have long since disappeared off my shelves but I am planning a re-read from the beginning through this coming year.
And I can only hope that the outpouring of love and gratitude that emanated from that article Helen wrote, and the deep impact it has had on so many of us, has wrapped itself around her like a comforting virtual shawl.
Meanwhile, if you have read Helen Dunmore's article I would love to know your thoughts...it seems to have travelled far and wide and been the topic of conversation amongst a lot of my friends.
Currently Birdcage Walk is BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime is anyone listening??
And do you have a favourite amongst Helen Dunmore's books...