About The Author
Born in Yorkshire, Helen Dunmore developed an interest in poetry at an early age. She published her first collection, The Apple Fall, while working as an English teacher in Finland.
At the time she also tried writing fiction. She abandoned two novels, but published a number of short stories and continued to write poetry. She also began reviewing poetry and fiction for publications including The Times, the Guardianand the Observer and taught poetry and creative writing.
Eventually, she moved on from short stories to fiction, publishing her first novel, Zennor in Darkness in 1993; it won the McKitterick Prize. Her third novel, A Spell of Winter, won the inaugural Orange Prize in 1996; she was to be shortlisted again in 2001 for The Siege, which was also shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award. In 2010, The Betrayal was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
She also published numerous books for children and teenagers, including the immensely popular Chronicles of Ingo; the fifth book in the series, Stormswept, was published in January 2012.
Her novel, The Greatcoat, saw her move into new territory, with a chilling ghost story set in post-war Yorkshire. The wife of a GP curls up for warmth under an RAF greatcoat she has found hidden at the back of an old cupboard and begins to dream vividly of a young pilot...
In The Lie, Helen looked at the aftermath of the Great War, through one returning soldier's experiences.
Her last novel, Birdcage Walk, now available in paperback, is a tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror. It is 1792 and Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence. Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in Radical circles. Independent and free-thinking, she has high hopes of her marriage to property developer John Diner Tredevant, but soon cracks appear in their relationship that are to threaten her very being.
Helen was Chair of the Society of Authors 2005-2006 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She died in June 2017.
On the publicaton of Birdcage Walk in hardback earlier in the year, Frances Gertler talked to Helen about mothers and daughters, the barrier we cross when we use violence against another human being and which period in history she herself would choose to visit.
* This is the third interview Helen did with Frances for Foyles. Below it is one about The Lie in which Helen talked about the importance of poetry to the soldiers of the First World War, the central lie that blighted a generation and whether it is ever possible to recover from the trauma of war. Below that is an interview about The Greatcoat in which Helen discussed the challenges of writing a ghost story, life in post-war Britain and the book that was closest to her heart.
Author photograph © Caroline Forbes
Questions & Answers
What was the starting point for your book?
Two hundred years ago travellers described Clifton, Bristol as looking like a city ruined by war or the plague. The skyline was jagged with roofless houses. How did this happen? Who had built these houses? Why had such magnificent plans collapsed, and what had happened to the human beings behind the desolate sweeps of brick and stone? I began to discover characters. A gravestone buried in weeds gave the story a new pulse. Fiction has a thousand ways of uncovering what is hidden.
In The Siege of Leningrad you put the reader right in the heart of events. In this book you take a more oblique, but still fascinating, look at the French Revolution. Can you say more about the choice of perspective when writing about these major world events?
Without the French Revolution the story of Birdcage Walk would be entirely different, but what's important to the novel are the shocks from that revolution rather than a close description of its events. What The Siege and Birdcage Walk have in common is that they centre on the lives of those who have little or no power but will find their lives changed utterly by great and terrible historical events. This means that both novels needed to have a very close focus and an intimacy which I hope will draw the reader into the heart of history.
Lizzie’s family was politically outward looking but in other ways quite insular. Was it inevitable she would be drawn to a man who, while himself very much out in the world, kept his wife locked away from it, in a birdcage of his making?
Lizzie thinks that she is moving away from the world of her childhood. Much as she loves her mother (and an important part of the novel is this mother/daughter relationship) she is critical of her and often angry because the politics of her mother's circle dominate everything. However, she confuses sexual passion with freedom. It takes her time to recognise that Diner's love for her may be very real but it is also intensely controlling and potentially dangerous. As a married woman towards the end of the eighteenth century she has committed her life legally, physically and financially to Diner. However, there is a force in Lizzie which will develop rapidly under such pressure; she is far more than a bird in a cage.
Do you share Diner’s impatience with those, like Augustus and Julia who ‘are not the kind who wield the pike and cut their fellow men to pieces. Instead, they set loose those who will do the work for them.’?
The novel explores violence in several ways, and the barrier we cross when we use violence against another human being. There are no euphemisms. It is dangerous when politicians talk of: 'pressing buttons' or 'taking out'. Those who commit violence should be forced to know what they have done, and its consequences. In Birdcage Walk I write about the mechanism of the Guillotine. This was a way of making mass executions not only easy and efficient but also impersonal. No-one had to swing an axe: a machine designed for the purpose did its job and death became a production line. By contrast, the murder which happens during the course of the novel is intensely raw, physical and clumsy. Death does not come easily.
You write very movingly of the grief of losing a mother. Do you think this is one of the few truly universal levellers?
Yes. A great deal is written about the difficulties of the mother/daughter relationship but here I wanted to write about the bond of love. Lizzie and her mother Julia understand each other with great tenderness and a certain almost mocking humour at times. They have their private jokes. Now that Lizzie is an adult she sees her mother's strength and courage clearly but she also sees how vulnerable her mother is, and is very protective of her. I wanted to express the physical bond between mother and daughter. The smell of her mother's skin comforts Lizzie, and she combs out Julia's hair lovingly when she is ill. Many women speak about the loss of their mother's voice. It's a voice we've known all our lives, since the womb, and nothing can replace it.
How much of the account of the building of Diner's Terrace in Clifton was based on fact?
The technical detail is all based on fact and on my knowledge of these places. The history of speculation and bankruptcies is also all based on historical record, as are the building methods and the use of materials. The detail - such as detail about the installation of cold plunge baths - is absorbing. These terraces are still living and lived-in buildings; I have lived in one of them.
And what is known of the real life Julia Fawkes, on whom Lizzie’s mother is based?
Julia Fawkes is a fictional character but that is not to say that a woman very like her did not exist. The graveyard where her stone is uncovered by the little dog is real. Her life and her politics is within the traditions of Bristol Radicalism at the time. We know some names, but there were many others who were lost to historical record.
To what extent do you consider yourself a historian as well as a novelist?
I'm a novelist who is fascinated by history and research.
You capture a period of great turmoil in Europe but also one of huge possibilities in England. If you could visit any of the periods in history you have written about, which one would it be, and why (assuming you were guaranteed to come home in one piece!)
I should like to go back to the Bristol of those times, in the last decade of the eighteenth century. To see the sailing ships keeled sideways on the mud in port; the rawness of building everywhere; the Gorge long before the Suspension Bridge was built, and above all the people. Quarrymen going to work; women wrapped in shawls with a child or a chicken under an arm; mud and dust and bursts of wild flowers in April; the little printing presses and the fierce discussions about making a better world. I'd like to see poets striding thirty miles for a day with friends. There would be the sheer racket of it all and the smells, struggle and suffering. Illnesses that couldn't be cured and a desperate poverty which hollowed out faces. The age of the train hasn't yet arrived and so everyone travels at the pace of horse or foot. Wild flowers grow more thickly than we have ever seen them.
I would watch and listen, touch, smell and perhaps even taste. But the past won't let us have it so easily, and why should it?
Interview About The Lie
Does burying Mary on the moor and giving her, in effect, a 'better' death than those his fellow soldiers suffered, indicate more than anything that Daniel is still bound to his traumatic past, or did he really hope it might pass unnoticed?
Daniel's burial of Mary seems natural to him at the time, because he has returned from a war where many bodies were never even found or identified, let alone buried with funeral rites. He hasn't yet emerged from that experience. To Daniel, Mary's burial in her own small patch of land seems decent, and is done to honour her last wishes. It's only later that he fully realises that others, who don't share his experience of the trenches, may believe that he has deliberately hidden the fact of Mary's death. They may question his motives and accuse him of a cover-up in denying her a doctor and the rites of a funeral.
More so than any of your other novels, this one seems to share quite a kinship with The Greatcoat , not just in terms of the hallucinatory figure of a soldier but also in the sensual, poetic, visceral quality of the writing. Did the experience of writing the one lead to the other?
It may have done. Sometimes the writing of one book enables me to grasp the material of the next. The First World War is a subject that has fascinated me for many years, and drawn me deep into research, but The Lie began with the characters and with their voices. They commanded my attention, and demanded to be heard.
Do you agree with Daniel that even now we still 'inhabit the abyss' of war?
As civilians we don't inhabit that abyss in the same way as Daniel or Frederick, but we are shaped by its existence. I don't think we have begun to understand the impact of the two world wars on our society. In the immediate aftermath, the urgent need to get things going again often meant that people's experiences and memories were swept aside. After the First World War, many soldiers never spoke about what had happened to them, or what they had done.
It seems quite significant that Felicia is physically unattractive, at least to Daniel. Can you say more about that?
Daniel doesn't romanticise Felicia. From time to time he's almost shocked by the realisation that the little girl who was part of his childhood has married, borne a child, been widowed and is now a single mother - and she's not yet twenty. He and Felicia are alike in that while they are both very young they also carry a weight of experience which is almost too heavy for them. Whether she is or isn't attractive to him is another question and quite a complicated one. To Daniel, Felicia is so closely associated with her brother Frederick, and with shared childhood, that the thought of her sexuality almost frightens him. But he watches her very closely and notices everything about her.
In many ways the central lie about the death of Mary Pascoe pales into insignificance in the context of other lies in the book, notably of what was really happening at the front. There are also lies told to protect others, such as the true story of how Frederick died. How much should we read into this fluidity around the idea of lying?
There are layers of lies in this book. The epigraph, from Kipling, refers to a central lie that blighted a generation. The lie about Mary Pascoe may not seem very significant but its effect is catastrophic. The concealment of the truth about Frederick's death in Daniel's letter reflects a greater concealment. Thousands and thousands of such letters were sent during the course of the war.
We understand trauma and shell shock better now, 100 years on, but how far do you think it is possible ever to recover?
This is an extremely difficult question, because individual responses to trauma are so different. I can only speak for the characters I have created. Having said that, the vocabulary of 'getting over' or 'recovery' seems to me out of place - it is more a question of being able to live with something in the past, to whatever degree.
Daniel describes the awful fate of those who did return, many of them injured or traumatised. But do we really treat our returning soldiers any better today? Is there still a reluctance to hear what they have say?
Yes, I think that there is a reluctance. There is an uprush of public emotion at the moment of return, but it is very long-term support and money that these returning soldiers require for their physical and psychological injuries. What they have to say is often very disturbing for us, and so we prefer not to hear it.
Poetry has a strong presence in the book: it represents the education that Daniel was denied; but also comforts the men at the front. There is a particularly complex connection between Daniel and the Ancient Mariner: both feel guilt at surviving, neither is really free to tell their tale. How far were you aware of the many parallels at the outset, did you have to find the poem or did it find you?
Poetry and song had a strong presence in many of the generation who became soldiers during the First World War. Their schooling was often rote-based. They had learned poems by heart, as well as hymns and songs, far more than children do now. They also usually knew by heart passages from the Bible, the Prayer Book and other religious texts. This was also true of music-hall songs and recitations. Many could give recitations of material that they knew by heart - comic set-pieces, for example - and would do so for the entertainment of other soldiers.
For Daniel, poetry is a talisman and often his only solid ground. The poems inside him cannot be taken from him. Like the Ancient Mariner, he's haunted by what he has seen and what he has done. Unlike the Ancient Mariner, Daniel does not want to tell his tale, and doesn't believe that anyone will understand it. In fact, he wants to protect Felicia from it. But there are many parallels, especially with the guilt in the poem and the guilt that Daniel feels. And Daniel, like the Ancient Mariner, thinks a great deal abut what it means to return: about the beauty of the home landscape and the alienation from it of the one returning. Not long after I began to write about Daniel, I realised how important the rhythms of this poem would be. Through this poem, the lonely child walking across the moorland connects to the soldier in the front line, and then to the dispossessed young man who must try to build a life for himself in the aftermath of war.
Can you tell us anything about what you're working on next?
I'm working on another novel, again with an historical background.
Interview About The Greatcoat
Was an actual coat the germ of the book or do its origins lie elsewhere?
The greatcoat was the starting point. When I wasas a little girl my older sister and I would sleep under our father's old RAF greatcoat, on cold nights. I remember its weight and its feel. Also, my sister once saw the ghost of an airman at the bedroom window.
The greatcoat is a very potent image and the driver of yournovel. WaIsabel thinks Philip 'belongs in his own life' in a way that she didn't. Do you think life was easier for men in the years following the war than for women, or are your sympathies with the women?
Isabel is at the beginning of a new life, and she hopes to put the past behind her. As the story develops we learn what it is that she wants to forget, and about the loss and dislocation she has experienced during the war. At the same time there's huge postwar social change: women are urged back to the home, and told that marriage and the production of children is their destiny.
I have sympathy with both Isabel and Philip. Philip is the first in his family to go to university and to qualify; he is a young GP, eager to make his way, proud to provide. He is absorbed in his work but expects Isabel to be content with the home. In this he is of his time. His intentions are good and he does not see the profound loneliness which is slowly engulfing Isabel, or fully realise how much she is still affected by the losses of the war.
They are young, very much in love, very ignorant about each other.
What research did you have to do in order to be able to convey such a strong and detailed impression of life in post-war England including the finer points of managing ration cards and life as a country doctor?
It helps that I remember the 1950s, because I was born at the end of 1952. I remember the cold bedrooms, icy lino, bomb sites, open fires, kitchen stoves, daily shopping because there wasn't a fridge; the curious blend of optimism and resignation that seemed to mark those times. I remember the social optimism too, the free school milk and NHS orange juice and cod liver oil. And also the constant presence, often silent, of 'the war'. It was a time when everyone's parents had been involved in the Second World War and everyone's grandparents in the First World War. Often, the less they talked about it, the more they were marked by it.
One aspect of research which is especially important to me is language. The way characters speak has to be as authentic and true to the time and place as possible. Diaries, letters and recordings are the best source for this. But sometimes a film or recording may be as revealing in what it doesn't show or say, as in what it does.
My view of research is that it should be invisible within the writing. If it obtrudes, or draws attention to itself, then it disrupts the flow of the narrative. Research is so fascinating that it is easy to get caught up in it, way beyond what you really need for the story.
Somehow, Isabel's betrayal seems more acceptable than Mrs Atkinson's, for whom we are not encouraged to feel much sympathy. Can you say why?
I am not sure! - Isabel is quite an ambiguous character. I didn't set out to make her likable, but she draws you into her experiences and her point of view. Mrs Atkinson is a more distant and threatening presence, and we don't come to understand her until the last part of the book.
What was it like writing a ghost story, something you haven't done before?
It was a challenge. I love reading ghost stories and didn't want to write a bad one. The pace is very important and so is the suspense. I did a lot of planning; I wrote an 8,000 word outline before I began on the book - and also a lot of rewriting.
This novel is shorter than any of your others. Was that liberating or challenging - or both?!
It was certainly as much work as a full-length novel, rather to my surprise (The Greatcoat is 43,000 words). The double time framework (1950s and wartime) had to be finely tuned.
How easy is it to switch between writing poetry and novels for children as well as adults? Do you have one of each on the go, or are you a strictly one-at-a-time writer?
Poetry is always there. I wouldn't write a novel for adults at the same time as a novel for children. However, fiction is an odd business and a large part of each novel forms in my mind before I sit down to write.
Of all your books, is there one that is closest to your heart, and why?
Hard to say. I am fond of Zennor in Darkness because I love the area where it is set, and because it was my first novel.
Can you tell us what to expect next - in what genre and for which audience! Will you write another ghost story, do you think?
At the moment I'm working on a full-length novel, but I'd like to write another ghost story, if the subject haunts me strongly enough.