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

Commemorating the First World War in Fiction

We will remember them. Commemorating the First World War in fiction.


Memory and storytelling, the art of bringing past events alive, are arguably among the most powerful drivers of historical fiction. Recent novels written about the First World War are no exception, conjuring up stories of families torn apart, the chaos and horror of war, the ineptitude of leaders, the longing for home — stories of intense camaraderie, unfaltering duty and heroism. As we mark this year’s centenary, many readers will also return to classics, such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy,2 as well as Sebastian Faulks’sBirdsong (1993). The damaging effects of war, affecting both the minds and bodies of those at the Front and the equally destructive forces faced by their loved ones and families at home, are the focus of all of these stories, old and new.3

The LieIn The Lie (Windmill Books, 2014) by Helen Dunmore, the violent effects of war are prolonged by an innocent lie. Its fatal consequences form the subject of this haunting and disturbing tale of fresh emotional damage, not on the battlefield but in a small Cornish community. With extraordinary deftness Dunmore dissects the psychological damage of the war and its effects on Daniel Branwell, a former gardener’s boy with an astonishing gift for memorising poetry. Some shared themes appear, particularly the parallel emotional responses to loss: Daniel’s to his childhood friend and “blood brother,” Frederick Dennis, whose life he almost saves, and Felicia’s to the husband she barely knew. Beyond loss, the author exposes the petty jealousies of a small community amidst post-war social change. When death comes, it appears as a relief, a reunion, while the living are left to grieve once more.

WakeIn Wake (Doubleday, 2014) Anna Hope uses a temporal constraint as the guiding thread: the story is set in November 1920, over the five days leading up to the first ever national British commemoration of the “Unknown Warrior,” an anonymous corpse retrieved from France. Hope uses this brilliant conceit to weave together the stories of three women dealing with the aftershocks of war: Ada, the grieving mother; Hettie, too young to have been directly involved but old enough to see the effects of war all around her; and Evelyn, who may finally allow hope to return to her embittered life. How each story touches on the others is wholly unexpected and revealing, and although set three years after the war, the overwhelming theme of loss is still strong, analysed through the parallel bonds of mother–son, sister–brother, lovers.

Au Revoir la-hautPierre Lemaitre won the prestigious Prix Goncourt withAu revoir là-haut (Editions Albin Michel, 2013). This raw novel paints a gritty picture of postwar French society, focused on its fallen heroes and ignoring or even trying to get rid of cumbersome soldiers who barely made it. The story opens just before the Armistice and concludes a year after the end of the war. In between, the reader follows Albert and Édouard, two unforgettable characters fighting once more for life, friendship, love, and a decent future. But their efforts are threatened by the shadow of Lieutenant d’Aulnay-Pardelle, a character à la Javert. More common themes emerge through the waste of millions of butchered lives, the pain and ugliness of emotional and physical injury (as in Édouard’s half-destroyed face), and the greed and corruption of military leaders. The scandalous traffic of corpses and graves is historically documented, although it was covered up by the French government in 1922. An English translation will be published by MacLehose Press in 2015.

The Russian TapestryReading a WWI novel — The Russian Tapestry by Banafsheh Serov (Hachette Australia, 2013) — from the Russian viewpoint is a refreshing experience, and a tapestry is a suitable metaphor for the story that unfolds with characters from the wide diversity of Russian society woven together in war and revolution. After war is declared, it becomes clear that Russian generals cling to outdated military tactics and technologies, and that supply lines cannot cope with the distances involved. To make matters worse, outdated factories cause massive shortages of guns and ammunition. Although the Russian army wins some battles, most successes are quickly overthrown. Then, as workers strike and protesters take to the streets, the plot shifts to actions taken by the Bolshevik party to gain power and end the war. Although this multi-stranded plotting occasionally confuses, the ending is very satisfying.

A Star for Mrs BlakeIn A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith (Random House, 2014), Cora Blake and a group of American Gold Star Mothers cross the Atlantic to visit their sons’ graves. We follow Cora, Bobbie, Katie, Wilhelmina, and Minnie along with their ‘handlers,’ a young lieutenant and a nurse on contract to the army. Smith rounds out the cast with General Perkins, a taskmaster, and Grif Reed, a former journalist severely wounded during the war. While early chapters are slow, the pace accelerates when the women arrive in New York, and bits of humour add zest to the story. Verdun is where reality bites, where “instantly they were in a war zone, hardly changed since the battle of 1916″ and each woman imagines her son in similar circumstances. At the end, Cora confronts General Perkins: “Wrongs cannot be righted by blood. Happiness can never be the result of senseless deaths. We mothers know.”

Paradise LostMartin Sutton won the 2013 Historical Novel Society International Award for his novel, Paradise Lost. With memorable characters and a fabulous choice of setting — the Heligan Gardens owned by the Tremayne family in Cornwall — this is a great read. Sutton has captured the detail of everyday life, whether at home — seen through the eyes of William Pascoe, the gardener, or Diane Luxton, Jack Tremayne’s niece — or on the battlefront. The disparity of experience on the Front is also brilliantly evoked: the horror of raids, the humour and boredom, even the ghost villages behind the line where William finds unexpected fulfilment as a talented writer. The dominating themes of class, the role of women and profound friendship are artfully incorporated in this extraordinary love story.

StarshineWith a father and six uncles surviving the Great War, John Wilcox grew up with WWI hanging over his head “like a thundercloud.” His novel, Starshine (Allison & Busby, 2012), centers on two pals: Jim, who earns a DCM for his heroic efforts, and Bertie, who struggles with fear and the slaughter that surrounds them. Both men love the same woman. Beyond the notion of what enables a man to serve with courage, in Starshine Wilcox exposes the futility of so many WWI actions, the routine of trench duty, the nitty-gritty of war, and the way friendships and love kept men going. The novel is a soldier’s perspective on WWI with significant focus on battlefield strategies and tactics and the ‘human machine’ deployed against the enemy. Although some descriptions waver between fiction and nonfiction, the story propels us forward until its emotional and gripping climax.

The Storms of WarThe Storms of War (Orion, 2014), Kate Williams’s 657-page novel, creates a unique perspective on WWI, that of a well-to-do family living in England and the persecution they suffer because the father, Rudolf de Witt, is German. The story explores class tensions, the suffragette movement, shell shock, war conditions, the hatred of all things German, the nature of courage, attributes of those who excel at war, pacifist activities, homosexuality, and coming of age. While many scenes are very well written,The Storms of War spans too many plot lines and points of view to truly engage.

Jacqueline Winspear’s compelling and moving novel, The Care and Management of Lies (Allison & Busby UK, Harper Collins US, 2014), centers on four characters — Kezia, Thea, Tom, and Edmund — bound together by friendship, marriage and war. In June 1914 Kezia marries her best friend Thea’s brother, Tom, and comes to live on the Brissenden farm, which borders Edmund’s sprawling property. Tom enlists with his friends and neighbours, Edmund becomes an officer, and Thea, the suffragette and pacifist, goes overseas as an ambulance driver. Kezia, left to manage the farm, writes poignant letters to Tom sharing imaginary meals with him based on recipes fromThe Woman’s Book. Lies are central to Winspear’s story. Tom lies to Kezia about conditions; Edmund lies to encourage his men; Thea lies about her pacifist exploits; the brutal Sergeant Knowles lies about Tom sleeping on sentry duty, an offense punishable by death. Amidst the unrelenting horror of war what comforts Edmund, Tom, and others in their unit are Kezia’s letters embodying the taste of love and home.

Heroes' WelcomeLouisa Young’s The Heroes’ Welcome (The Borough Press, 2014) spans a period of almost ten years, but the story is firmly anchored in the events of WWI and its aftermath. The title sets up parallels between the women who welcome and the heroes who are welcomed. Nadine and Rose possess the empathy and sensitivity to welcome and love, in the truest sense, those who return, while beautiful Julia cannot see beyond her own needs. Riley rebuilds his life, breaking through the barriers of horrific facial disfigurement and class prejudice, while Peter cannot “just slot back in,” instead reliving his own wartime horrors night and day, an Odysseus on a becalmed ship. The Heroes’ Welcome focuses on change — the physical reconstruction of Riley’s face and Julia’s emotional growth — yet below society’s superficial changes, its “architecture” remains the same.

These ten novels commemorating the centennial of WWI remind us of the inhumanity and folly of that ‘war to end all wars.

1. Lawrence Binyon’s well-known poem, “The Fallen,” was published in The Times on 21 September 1914.
2. The trilogy appeared in the 1990s: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.
3. This selection of recent books and their themes are briefly examined in alphabetical order, by author.

About the contributors: Visit LUCINDA BYATT at A World of Words,www.lucindabyatt.com. M.K. TOD blogs about all aspects of historical fiction at A Writer of History, www.awriterofhistory.com, and her second novel, Lies Told in Silence, is set in WWI France. EMMA CAZABONNE blogs at Words and Peace, www.wordsandpeace.comand on Twitter, @wordsandpeace.


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 69, August 2014