A Tribute to Helen Dunmore. The Moment: Gone Forever, but also Here, Now

I was very saddened to read of Helen Dunmore’s death earlier this month and I wanted to republish this (rather long) interview that describes our meeting in Edinburgh, back in 2008.  I can still picture her sitting in the Signing Tent where we met for tea. It was raining, but then it was August at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

I now look forward to reading her latest novel, Birdcage Walk, with a great sense of poignancy.  As she neared the end of the editing phase, she added an afterword in which she acknowledged her approaching end because, she writes, the novel is “full of a sharper light, rather as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm”.

IMG_1269The following profile appeared in SOLANDER, vol. 12 NOVEMBER 2008, pp. 30-32.

(It’s long, but do persist – some real gems by Dunmore here.)

The Moment: Gone Forever, but Also Here, Now

Lucinda Byatt talks to HELEN DUNMORE

Passing showers at the Edinburgh Book Festival are such a regular annual feature that the extraordinary spirit of the occasion is barely affected. However, this year’s downpours were so persistent that a raft of yellow plastic ducks appeared overnight in one of the many puddles that swamped the immaculate lawn of Edinburgh’s classiest square, and a walkway between the marquees even carried the ominous warning “Do not use, these boards will sink”. On the afternoon when Helen Dunmore was speaking the rain fortunately held off for an hour or two – lucky for both the speakers and those listening because the thrumming rain can be deafening. I met her afterwards to talk about her latest book, Counting the Stars, and also to enjoy a wide-ranging discussion of her other books and her approaches to writing historical fiction.

Helen Dunmore’s engaging smile and tall figure make her instantly recognisable. She is a writer – not only of historical fiction – a children’s novelist and poet of considerable standing. I started by asking what drew her to write about such a variety of periods and countries? Zennor in Darkness, her first historical novel and winner of the McKitterick prize, is set in Cornwall after the outbreak of the First World War, while later works are set in Finland (House of Orphans) and Leningrad (The Siege, shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel award). A Spell of Winter, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1996, is also set in England and spans the first few decades of the last century.

“I would say that all my historical novels have been written out of a long-standing fascination with the period, the setting and the people. That is, I have never decided that it might be interesting to write about a certain time or about particular characters, and then begun the research ‘cold’. Sometimes I can identify the moment when reading, study, travel and reflection coalesced into the knowledge that this was going to become a novel.”

I pointed out that her latest book Counting the Stars marks a complete contrast by jumping back to the late Roman Republic. Dunmore added that “in this case, it was when I realised that there might be a story behind the death of the pet sparrow that Clodia/Lesbia loved so much … and another story behind that, of another death. There were secrets there, and the beginnings of a plot.”

Counting the StarsHowever, for Dunmore, the starting point for any novel goes a long way back. There is a latency in the emergence of ideas that seems to be a fundamental part of her creative process. Dunmore first came across Catullus’ works at school. “I first read and translated his poetry when I was thirteen, when he appeared immensely adult, sophisticated and often puzzling. Now, as an adult who is much older than Catullus ever was, I see other things; a young man’s vulnerability as well as his brilliance, a love shaded by obsession as well as by passion, and a great poet who has influenced the way succeeding generations read and write about love.” Catullus, she adds, also forms part of a select group of poets and writers who succeed in perfectly conveying the spirit of their age, like Pepys and Donne.

“When I first read Catullus’ poems I knew relatively little about the historical context in which he wrote, or about the other great figures of his time, such as Cicero. One might argue that this led to a very pure, disinterested reading … However, in the novel I wanted to write about the world of Rome in the late years of the Republic, about a young man coming to the city to make his name and create a place for himself in a sophisticated, turbulent, often violent society. I wanted to write about a society where slavery was the normal underpinning of every transaction and relationship; where enormous wealth was expending itself in display; where Julius Caesar was rising to greater and greater power; and where a young man could write devastatingly obscene and abusive poetry about Caesar and yet be invited to dine with him.”

Republican Rome emerges vividly from her writing, but as Dunmore reminds me, the “art of the novelist is never to instruct or inform. What I try to achieve is to make the reader subtly aware of the society and the facts.” Indeed, she continued, “information has to be pared back to allow the narrative to be the driving force.” Or in this case, the twin narratives, because in Counting the Stars, there are two stories, a love story and a murder, that are closely entwined.

We then moved on to talk about the characters. Having researched the historical background, I commented that she manages to put it aside so that the characters could grow and change through the events that occur. The development continues even when her characters become isolated, as in A Spell of Winter where Cathy seems to grow in isolation, trapped in the crumbling house, or in The Siege where Anna and Andrei’s world shrinks around them. Elsewhere in Dunmore’s writings, I’d come across her comment that “From novel to novel the experience of character changes. The characters demand a different handling. And so the writer moves on.”

Returning to Counting the Stars, Dunmore told me that she

“was particularly interested in the character of Clodia Metelli. Cicero’s portrait of her in his ‘Pro Caelio’ speech is compelling, as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. Cicero attacks Clodia’s reputation with the full force of his eloquence; but even though his explicit purpose is to belittle and ridicule her, he can’t prevent her charisma coming through the lines of his speech. And there’s a social edge, too, because Clodia belongs to the patrician class, and Cicero does not, and he is always intensely aware of every gradation of rank and power. It’s intriguing to imagine Cicero and Clodia face to face, in private, and what they might say to each other then.

My own feeling is that the development of character is a slower process that even the writer may realise. Perhaps character is not such much invented as gradually apprehended. Long before I begin to write, my understanding of character is slowly forming. At first this can be very vague – a few notes, a sensation. I need to know much more than I’ll ever write down. I need to know this character in solitude as well as in relation to the other characters. The author is privileged, because we never really see other human beings when they are alone – and the reader will share this privileged intimacy.

I’ve experimented with exploring this sense of a character’s solitude in many ways, through interior monologue, through dreams, diaries, letters, and through the dozens of careless spontaneous things that we all do when we’re alone, and which are so deeply and privately part of us.”

The sense of place is incredibly strong in all of Dunmore’s novels: the colours, scents and atmosphere of a setting are beautifully evoked, and in many instances the place, or even a house in the case of A Spell of Winter, become protagonists in their own right. In Zennor in Darkness, Dunmore readily admits that

“the Cornish world is the third element of the novel. And again, this goes back into my own past and a more than thirty-year-old relationship with that part of West Penwith. The character of the place is as important in the novel as any of the human characters. Of course the Zennor and St Ives of Zennor in Darkness are imagined places as well as known and researched ones, just as the Coynes and Trevails are imagined characters, but also owe their existence to research and to personal experience. In creating the Trevail clan I drew on my own history of belonging to a huge extended family; I felt on sure ground in describing such a web of relationships, some intimate, some apparently casual but always underpinned by the sense of blood kinship.”

The SiegeI asked her about her use of changing narrators, a technique that she uses most effectively in The Siege where the narration slips from Anna to Marina, or occasionally to Andrei or an outside character, the only deliberate exception being the boy, Kolya. The effect is one that Dunmore describes as “modulating consciousness”, or the slippage created in the narrator’s voice as it moves from character to character, offering the reader a different slant on the same event. “As a writer and as readers, we are enormously privileged to have insight into their thoughts and motives. I am also fascinated by what a character doesn’t say or by a dishonest character … then the fun really starts!”

This brings us to the question of language. Dunmore highlighted the difficulty of finding the right tone of voice. “Part of creating a character is listening to a voice,” she said. But, in such a hierarchical society, for instance, she had to ask herself what kind of accent would slaves use when talking to one another, and would the language change between master and slave? How could she show these differences in English? In the end, Dunmore opts for the captivating, contemporary language that builds what she describes as a “layered reading”: “I want people to feel that these people live in the present moment, although their ‘mental furniture’ may be different.” Each character has his or her own vocabulary and register. To do this well, a writer needs to know a lot of intimate detail about a character and, in particular, their childhood. A perfect example of this is Philoctetes, the doctor, who uses a very florid, rotund phrases to reveal his Greek background and education, but yet in an emergency he becomes virtually monosyllabic and straight to the point.

I then asked her about the process of researching the background for her historical novels? “For me,” she replied, “the word ‘research’ is problematic, because it suggests a systematic if not scholarly approach to writing fiction. The long process of ‘finding-out’ which eventually results in the writing of a novel is complex and not always easily defined. Sometimes the word research is a good fit, but at other times it isn’t.” She then focused on the background work that preceded the writing of Zennor in Darkness.

“Long before I thought of writing it, I had read all the novels and short stories of D H Lawrence, as well as a lot of biographical material about Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, John Middleton Murray, Lady Ottoline Morrell and other members of Lawrence’s circle. I had also taken a special paper on Lawrence at university. For three years, as a girl, I had lived in Nottingham, and knew the area that Lawrence wrote about in Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow and Women in Love, as well as in many of his stories.

Zennor in Darkness is set during the First World War and deals with the period which Lawrence and Frieda spent in Cornwall. I had been reading the history and literature of the First World War since my teens: poetry, diaries, novels and letters. I found, for example, that Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Diaries gave an illuminating insight into Lawrence during that war, and also into the writing of Lawrence’s novella The Ladybird. Novels such as Irene Rathbone’s We That Were Young gave a compelling account of young women breaking tradition and leaving the home for war service, with a rather different approach to that of Vera Brittain in the better-known Testament of Youth.

The long, slow process of reading and brooding over material about the First World War was a matter of many years, not of months, and I could not have written Zennor in Darkness without it. I would describe it as formation, as much as research.”

Dunmore’s books are often described as sensuous, filled with exquisite descriptions of food, plants and gardens, clothing, furnishings, and buildings. These carefully selected details recreate the worlds her characters inhabit, and also help to form their personalities. I asked her how difficult it was not to succumb to the temptation to include too much research?

“To return to the present, palpable moment, to create the present tense, I have to make sure that my research is invisible as research. I must know what Lawrence saw when he glanced out of his cottage window, and what vegetables he grew. I must know how much fabric went into Clare’s skirt, and the formula for funeral announcements in St Ives. I must know what happened at Bodmin Barracks when men went up for physical examination; what the newspapers were saying about the progress of the war on a particular date in 1917; how flowers were packed for sending by post in wartime; what the sea sounds like at night in Barnoon Cemetery; what colour the walls were. But I must not know these things in order to describe them to the reader. I must know them so that I can find my way around the rooms of the past with my eyes closed, and only then will I be able to convey to the reader the confidence that he or she is in safe hands. I have not researched in order to impress the reader, or inform the reader, or tell the reader about the past; but to bring the reader into this moment which is gone for ever but also here, now.”

It is the compelling feeling of here and now that is such a moving component of all Helen Dunmore’s books. We are not onlookers, but rather participants, sharing the same present. She highlighted this by confirming that

“one of my chief aims in writing fiction is to give a sense of the present, palpable moment, uncoloured by hindsight. In Zennor in Darkness, the characters do not know that they are living through the First World War: there has been no second. They don’t know that there will be an Armistice next November. They don’t know, either, that the U-boat campaign on the Western Approaches has had a devastating effect upon food supplies in Britain, and is causing huge anxiety at the highest levels; nor do they know how this anxiety may affect their own lives. They certainly don’t know that Germany will be defeated, and must not ever seem like people whose present is coloured by certainty about the future.”

Elsewhere Dunmore takes this further by stating that it is “far better to follow Tolstoy’s example, as he lets his characters stumble around the battlefield without knowing either exactly where they are or what is happening. Instead they see everything feelingly, every fibre of their bodies engaged, their minds sometimes hectic, sometimes lucid, sometimes overwhelmed. They are defined by characteristic and often instinctive acts.” (1)

One last aspect of her writing that emerged from our conversation is the extent to which women writers can be pigeon-holed. Many critics have ignored the political content of Dunmore’s books, choosing instead to focus on women’s issues. All of Dunmore’s writing highlights political issues of the time, whether slavery or the tragedy of the war brides (“when Clare Coyne sleeps with John William, she doesn’t know that women up and down the country are breaking all the taboos of their upbringing and having sexual relationships with ‘best boys’ or fiancés home on leave”). Again, the story of Zennor in Darkness focuses on “how the First World War redefined the relationship of the State to the individual, and permanently altered the social fabric: for example the impacts of the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914 and of the Military Service Act of 1916 cannot be overestimated”. She uses this political focus to examine the nature of history and to explore the ways in which individuals as well as nations deal with their past. For example, the tensions between different versions of Finland’s history are central to House of Orphans, and are expressed through characters who cling passionately to their opposing beliefs.

When I asked about her next book, Helen Dunmore revealed that she is working on a story that is strongly connected to an earlier work: it is “something to do with the characters and the intimacy you create with them that makes you go back to them.” Any ideas whom she might have in mind?


1 Helen Dunmore, “Making it up”, www.helendunmore.com (accessed 1 October 2008)

© Lucinda Byatt