Helen Dunmore, 1952-2017
7 June 2017
Helen Dunmore, an award-winning poet, novelist and children’s writer who taught at Bristol, died earlier this month.
Obituaries appeared in many national outlets including The Guardian. Tom Sperlinger, Reader in English Literature and Community Engagement, and Patricia Ferguson, a local novelist who taught on the same course as Helen, offer their own remembrances.
Helen taught literature and creative writing courses for local people for Bristol’s Department for Continuing Education in the 1980s and 1990s. She was also one of the first tutors on the University's popular Diploma in Creative Writing, a two-year course that ran from 1994 until 2010 in the Department of English. Helen continued to visit the course regularly until its final cohort. In 2005, many staff and students at the University participated in a city-wide Great Reading Adventure focused on Helen's novel, The Siege, set during the Siege of Leningrad.
Helen always took the reader with her, which is remarkable in a writer who was so inventive and who wrote in so many forms. That was how Helen was with students too: generous, perceptive and encouraging. Many people in the city will remember her and the inspiration they took away from her classes or readings as well as from her work.
On one visit to the Diploma, Helen told a story about her first published poem. When it was accepted – by a prestigious magazine – the editor asked her to change one word. She explained that she could only do so if they sent the poem back to her, as she had submitted her only copy. That was how she seemed every time I encountered her: a natural storyteller who was unassuming about her exceptional gifts.
Helen always knew she was a poet, and she brought a poetic clarity to her novels, telling us gripping, important stories about real men and women. She was a great ambassador for poetry, and a wide-ranging and generous reader herself, intelligent, curious, playful. Her unaffected kindness made her a fine teacher, and though she was a highly-informed realist she was also cheerful, happy by temperament; so she was the best possible company. Helen Dunmore was a profoundly gifted person, who used her gifts wisely.