Like many readers, I “met” and loved Helen through her writing. Her arresting novels, with their exquisitely judged prose, their mesmerising plots and their complex characters driven by love, lust, hunger and loyalty, entranced me as soon as I discovered them; as did her poetry and children’s novels.
From Zennor in Darkness, about DH Lawrence in Cornwall just before World War 1, to her Cold War thriller Exposure, she was always original, moving with ease between the historical and the contemporary. At a time when women novelists received censure for creating characters who weren’t instantly sympathetic, she could depict incestuous siblings, adulterous lovers and child-killers in a way that made you feel their humanity even as you recoiled. Her mothers, daughters, wives and sisters tend to evolve from vulnerable ignorance into formidable heroines: the ferocity of their desire to protect their families from famine or injustice was, I am certain, Helen’s own. She reclaimed the female as life-changing – even Death, in her heart-breaking last poem, Open Your Arms is seen as a mother.
When we met at a lunch at the Author’s Club, she invited me to stay for tea. I was a little in awe of her, because Helen was not only enormously gifted but very beautiful – tall, slim, blonde, radiantly pale, like a Kay Nielsen angel. (Later, when I came to interview her, she remarked sternly that she was sure I wouldn’t mention an interviewee’s looks, because this was something that only happened to women….) What I then discovered was her warmth and buoyant sense of humour. To be with her was to laugh with joy.
Few senior novelists of her generation have been friendly let alone supportive to younger ones – but Helen was exceptional in her generosity. She had, as they say, no “side”. She looked out for writers in financial difficulties, suggesting them for RSL teaching fellowships, and she knew what struggle was like. She was amazed, coming from the financially precarious world of poets, to find, as she put it that “novelists could afford suits”. I was honoured when she endorsed three of my novels including the new one; to discuss literature with her was to have the pleasure of talking in almost dizzying depth. Yet she was also a fearless critic, as rigorous as she was gentle.
Many of her novels, particularly the early ones like the inaugural Orange Prize-winning A Spell of Winter, had a fairy-tale sense of opposing elements, but they also described sexual passion with lyrical, searing truthfulness. Her husband, Frank, was a distinguished lawyer with experience in the family courts; she was alert to and knowledgeable about the pain of terrible choices. They brought up three cherished children in Bristol, a city she adored for its vitality and whose Georgian architecture she celebrated in her final novel, Birdcage Walk.
Anyone who has gone to one of her readings or interviews will know how unpretentious, sensitive yet steely she was about literature. When she came to dinner with us this time last year, she quoted passages from Persuasion with an acuity which delighted and impressed John Mullan and other academics.
Cornwall, where she had a family home, was profoundly important to her and inspired not only many adult novels but poetry, and her superb Ingo series for children about the Mer people. Her delight in flowers was intense, and I know helped her in her final months, when she spent every moment outside on her balcony in Clifton. She knew her cancer was incurable, but managed to stay lucid and writing to the end. Ave atque vale, my dear friend.