Spaces in the Past: Martin Evans Talks to Helen Dunmore, Whose Historical Novels Range from the Worst Horrors of Twentieth-Century, Warfare to the Luxurious World of Late Republican Rome

Article excerpt

Helen Dunmore does not limit herself to one genre. She has an impressive reputation as a poet, children's novelist and short-story writer. Yet, she is perhaps most famous for her historical fiction such as Darkness at Zennor, about D.H. Lawrence and his German born wife Frieda living in Cornwall in the First World War, or House of Orphans, set in Finland in 1902.

What draws her to the past? In the first instance there is curiosity. For some personal reason a particular period will have caught her attention. This interest then matures over time until suddenly the idea of writing comes alive. At this point she asks herself: 'How I am going to enter the story? Who are going to be the characters? What do I know and what don't I know? What do the characters know and what don't they know? What they don't know is very important because ... you are looking for a connection to a fiction-space.'

Of course this creative process is different with every book. The Siege, which focuses on the plight of the Levin family in encircled Leningrad in 1941, was published in 2001 but the idea for the book went back a long way. Born in 1952, Helen Dunmore became fascinated by Russian history and culture during her teenage years. She was excited by Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Yevgeny Yevtushenko because their writings helped break down Cold War barriers. They opened up the concealed realities of daily life in the Soviet Union, and the existence of the gulags.

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It was during this period that she first heard about the siege of Leningrad. What seemed monstrous to her was the way in which this was such a huge event historically but so hard to discover imaginatively. She was also interested in the fact that so little fiction in English by native English-speakers dealt with the Russian experience.

This absence of ordinary Soviet perspectives was magnified by the contrast with British people's experiences of the Second World War. As a child the memories were all around her. Stories about the war peppered everyday conversations and were a constant reference point: 'I remember a girl at school, whose father had been involved in the liberation of a concentration camp. He consequently couldn't stand German people. My mother had lost a brother and her other brother had been seriously injured. That's what I mean: family stories and history were plaited together.

This came to be the way she wanted to write about the siege of Leningrad. She did not want to write a top-down view that would only bemuse the reader. She wanted to focus on a nucleus of close family and friends. She wanted to convey the destruction that war wrought on civilian lives. She wanted to look at the fibre of their humanity as individuals struggled to eat, walk and survive.

The book also came out of her experience of living and teaching in Finland between 1973 and 1975. There she learnt that your understanding of history changes when you change location physically. So, her pupils--many of them middle-aged men--were keen to talk about how Finland had fought heroically against the Red Army; a shock since she had grown up with the idea of the Soviet Union as a friend and ally. Equally she came to properly appreciate the sense of vastness of Russia and the vulnerability of the long border. 'When I came to The Siege I thought of that border and it seemed to me that in Russian history there are periodic movements. Sometimes Russia moves outwards and colonizes and attempts to influence areas beyond the border. Then we see Russia pushed back right back to the heartlands, the Russia of Tolstoy with Napoleon and again in 1941. What happens in Leningrad is such a microcosm of this. Russia is pushed back to within the ring of steel and no-one in the city could get out. It's fascinating what then happened to Sovietness.'

To get at the impact of these grand narratives on personal lives, Dunmore focused on the kind of relationships that she already knew. …