Dunmore, Helen

Helen Dunmore

Elected: 1997

Year of birth: 1952

Year of death: 2017

I was delighted to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, because it’s an honour given by writers to writers. We may be solitary creatures in our work but we need to band together too. I like the idea of fellowship very much.

The photograph here is taken in Cornwall, on the softer southern coast of the peninsula. The Lie is set on the north coast, which I know far better.  In the novel there’s a constant interplay between characters and place.  I began with a man returning from war, homeless and jobless, building a shelter, cleaning out an empty cottage, planting a vegetable garden on a cliff edge, unable to speak about what has happened to him in the trenches.  And from this the other characters and the story of their shared past developed.

At the time of writing this I’m currently reading – or rather re-reading – the shortlist for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Because I’ve judged several literary prizes over the years, I know that there is a good deal of luck involved and all judgments are subjective.  Different judges would choose different books; perhaps even the same judges on a different day might choose different books. The attention drawn to books by literary prizes is precious, and this in itself justifies them. However, I don’t believe that  there should be a gladiatorial climate, with one book seen as a victor and others as defeated contenders.  This cannot be the truth about literature.

Author of Obituary: Maura Dooley

Obituary :

It was the poets Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle who said, whilst working for Arvon at Lumb Bank in the mid 1980s, ‘You have to invite Helen Dunmore to read, she is the most exciting new voice we’ve heard in years.’ Helen had just published her first collection of poems. Remembering that first encounter, I can see her clearly, in her hand The Apple Fall in its glow of Granny Smith green (she loved apples), her distinctive, calm voice holding the room. I realised as I listened that here was someone unusual.

Helen was 30 at the time of that first collection of poems and 40 when she published her first novel, Zennor in Darkness. Over 34 years she published fifteen novels, many books for younger children and others for Young Adults, several collections of short stories and a dozen collections of poetry. She reviewed, she gave talks, she raised a family, and she was the kindest, warmest and most generous of friends.

Helen appeared as the most gentle and stylish of women, but under that polite manner lay a fierce intellect and a rebellious mind. Exceptionally gifted, she had a grasp of complex issues of science and history, music and art, that was never on display overtly or competitively, but that seeded her writing.

The industrious Helen, with her sharp mind full of observation, her ear for a lyrical line and a conversational truth, her love of story and her fearlessness. When I expressed delighted surprise at her move from poetry to fiction, she replied, with that typical laugh in her voice, ‘Well I thought it might be good to try to earn some actual money from writing you know.’ It is the poet’s lot never to gain much financially, but really this was Helen exploring, adding her love of story and of history, another layer of craft to her already rich world.

The novels that followed engaged Helen in meticulous research, worn lightly in its transformation to fiction, and won awards from the McKitterick to the Orange Prize, her stories for younger readers were similarly recognised but through those years the poetry persisted. Helen’s poetry combined the private and the natural world with precision, grace and wit. She read poetry all the time, was always encouraging to new or younger writers, and was always up to date. Helen knew a great many poems by heart, was sustained by them, and in her last year carried poems with her through hospital appointments (‘ “A disused Shed in County Wexford” was perfect,’ she wrote, ‘as it always is’).

It is our good fortune as readers that we too can be sustained by words we hold dear. Many of Helen’s poems will always guide me, and here is something she wrote in a note to me earlier this year:

Time, loss, the hoarding in the heart of what is gone and cannot be now seen by anyone...and the sense of honouring the past while also knowing it is untouchable. But it can be conjured up, perhaps. It can be told, and ‘all this telling’ is the most difficult and necessary thing we do with our lives.

Thank you, Helen.

More of our Fellows

David Pownall

Sir David Cannadine

Susan Hill

Malika Booker

Fellowship Election Process​

Fellows are nominated by peers and elected by our Council of writers – our governing Board. Being elected a Fellow of the RSL is a lifetime honour. This role gives them the opportunity to support other writers, readers and the future of literature. The RSL connects writers in the Fellowship to one another, and to a wider readership.