Helen Humphreys

Presented by Betty Sherwood
to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club
October 18, 2016

It’s a pleasure to share my appreciation of Helen Humphreys with you today because it seems that few people in Calgary have heard of her. When it was announced that this year’s theme would be “My Favorite Author”, my first thought was that I didn’t have a favorite author. But then I remembered that I’d read quite a few of Helen’s books, one reason being that most of them are set in times and places that I love to read about but also because they are short and tiny. I really think that most current books are much too long, whether fiction or nonfiction. In fact, Helen excels at both genres, having begun her career by producing four books of poetry and two young adult novels.

Helen Humphreys was born in Kingston- on- Thames, England in 1961 and coincidentally now lives in Kingston, Ontario. It was fortunate for me that the first book that I read as I began working on my presentation was her 2013 memoir : “Nocturne: On the Life and Death of my Brother”. Helen’s younger brother Martin died of pancreatic cancer at the age of age 45, leaving the family devastated of course and with Helen feeling that much had been left unsaid and perhaps forgotten, so she decided upon a memoir addressed directly to him. “Nocturne” actually began as a letter to Martin. Helen had no plan or thought that it might eventually be published. It consists of 45 sections, one for each year of Martin’s life. Thanks to this elegy for her brother, I was able to learn about their parents, her growing up in England and Toronto and about the creative urges that found expression in Martin as a concert pianist and in Helen as a writer.

Here’s an excerpt from “Nocturne” which gives an idea of the writer Helen was to become. She’s thinking back on her suburban childhood.
(p. 21 )” I never regretted giving up the piano. I much preferred words to music. I loved the world of books, a world I felt was much more exciting than the one I actually lived in. To have some of the thrill of story, I would try to put myself in the way of adventure in my real life….For a long stretch of days one summer, I stood at the window of my bedroom, notebook in hand, looking for suspicious people to document. I made you stand with me as my assistant. Your job was to look up the street while I looked down…Around this time I read “ Charlotte’s Web”….When that spider died I was inconsolable…..Since we lived in the suburbs, few people walked along our street, suspicious or otherwise….You soon quit being my surveillance assistant, saying that it was boring. I realized then that it might be better to make up the adventures rather than waiting for them to happen to me. And my devastating response to “Charlotte’s Web” made me think that if I controlled a story, I would never have to feel that sad again…..I was wrong but that was how I became a writer.”

In another excerpt, (p.144) she tells Martin of a more recent experience: of her going to an arts colony for a month to finish a novel. She writes, “ I abandoned the novel the second day I was there. The live-in studio I had been given..had a piano because the space was meant for composers as well as writers…..All around me ….artists were happily industrious. At dinner people were abuzz with their own genius and productivity…..I didn’t write but I started to play the piano in my studio even though I hadn’t played since I was 7 years old….I didn’t think about my characters. …For a while I stopped going to dinner in the main house because the other artists were spooked that I had given up writing my novel. They were afraid it was catching…..Giving up my novel was mysterious and terrifying …..On one of my last days I went to help a sculptor with her piece. I had started to lend myself out to artists who were still engaged with their work. I was holding the sides of her sculpture together so she could close it with wire thread. The room was bright with morning as I stood there, pressing my hands against the metal in the exact position of prayer , and she passed the needle through one series of holes and out another, the wire stitches like sutures. And in this way she mended me.”

Helen’s mother’s family must have been quite prosperous because they gave Helen’s parents a baby grand piano as a wedding gift and when the Humphreys family immigrated to Toronto in 1964, the piano was shipped to them. They immediately settled in Guildwood Village, a lovely upper middle class neighbourhood near Lake Ontario. Helen was kicked out of school after grade 10 ,completing high school at an alternative school. She had little desire to go to university so worked at odd jobs such as pumping gas, where she would have time during her off hours to pursue her love of reading. Helen had a few poems published in literary magazines when she was still a teenager and in her early twenties took the Book Editing and Design Program at Centennial College. She worked part time in the publishing program at the University of Toronto and continued writing poetry. None of her four poetry books is found in the Calgary Library system but two have gone into second printings so obviously they have been somewhat popular.

The first ,“Gods and Other Mortals”, was published in 1986 and is said to display “a cryptic language of longing”. To me, a sense of missed opportunities and longing pervade many of Helen’s novels, as well.
Her poetry book ,“Perils of Geography”, appeared in 1995 and “Anthem” came out in 1999. In Helen’s hands some of the unskilled jobs she worked at become the stuff of poetry. For a while she staffed an alarm station. Here’s her poem “False Alarms”. (Anthem p.60)

When Helen’s first novel “Leaving Earth” was published in 1997, I was living in Toronto so of course my book club chose to read it since it’s set in Toronto in 1933, mostly in the skies over the waterfront and Lake Ontario. At the time, I kept a reading journal and recorded that I wasn’t overly thrilled with the book but on rereading it I’ve found the story and the research quite amazing and the characters highly sympathetic. Grace O’Gorman is already a renowned pilot who takes up the challenge of staying aloft in a Moth bi-plane for 25 days and then landing for the crowds at the Canadian National Exhibition. Her co-pilot is Willa Briggs. As in many of Helen’s later novels, we are brought up close to nature and geography and to pivotal experiences in people’s lives but unlike many of the characters in Helen’s later novels, Grace and Willa are in a situation of their own making. They plan to enjoy themselves and they do. Food, fuel and newspapers are delivered to their plane every eight hours by Grace’s husband, Jack, who is also a pilot but if they do stay in the air for 25 days, his only claim to fame will be nullified. The two women pilots are always sitting one behind the other and have no radio. They can’t hear each other because of the engine noise and the wind so after their note pads are ruined in a rainstorm they develop a private language of signs and gestures. This novel is described as being “written in spare and uncluttered prose, displaying a knack for evoking unspoken love and finding stark beauty in matters as diverse as the sight of a burning ship at night or the creation of a silent language.” Here’s a sample: (pp120-121)

“Leaving Earth” won the Toronto Book Award and was a New York Times Notable Book in 1998.

Many of Helen’s novels portray the development of a relationship between two women. In this vein, “Afterimage” takes some of its inspiration from the life of Julia Margaret Cameron, the pioneering woman photographer of the Victorian era and her maid and model Mary Hillier. In “Afterimage” Annie Phelan, an orphan of the Irish famine, is the new maid in the household of Isabelle and Eldon Dashiell, a relatively well to do and nonconforming couple who have buried three babies and grown apart. Annie proves to be an intelligent and agreeable model for Isabelle and at the same time, an enthusiastic and sympathetic listener when Eldon shares with Annie his love for geography and adventure although really, he’s going nowhere. Of course, jealousies erupt as Isabelle and Eldon vie for Annie’s attention to the extent that when Isabelle shows Eldon a photo Annie has been allowed to take of her, he tears it up before her eyes. A horrifying accident near the end of the novel brings to light Isabelle’s true nature and proves to the ever maturing Annie that as disappointing as some relationships are, there are most probably better things to come if she continues to take charge of her own life. “Afterimage” won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2000.

Several of Helen’s novels take inspiration from the experiences of her parents and grandparents
and “The Lost Garden” is one of those books. Mosel, the country estate where this novel takes place, hearkens back to the small estate where Helen’s father lived prior to 1941. In that year his father, flying with the RAF, disappeared over the Mediterranean and was never seen again. In “The Lost Garden” which is set in 1941, Jane’s fiance is missing over the Mediterranean. Jane is one of the young women working under Gwen, the first person narrator of the story who has volunteered to leave her research position with the Royal Horticultural Society in London to become the leader of a small team of Land Girls. Gwen has no siblings, few friends and no leadership or social skills to speak of. She is so inept and lost that she arrives a week late for her new position. She can’t be bothered to learn the names of the young women in her charge (who number around eight) so she silently names each one after a variety of potato. The troops temporarily stationed on the estate are Canadian soldiers. Will the lost garden be found and will Gwen find herself?

The lost garden is one of three gardens on the estate which Gwen discovers on her own and tries to keep secret from the others. She becomes obsessed with reclaiming the garden along with the stories she feels are hidden within its walls. By accidentally coming upon the head gardener’s ledger, which stops abruptly in 1916 and by speaking with the father of one of the Land Girls, she realizes that most of the gardeners were killed during the Great War. This explains why the gardens have been abandoned and lost for decades. But the real story here is that Gwen’s self-discovery and self-love begin to take root. From Jane and two of the Canadian soldiers, she learns the rewards of opening her heart, no matter how badly some stories end.

Helen Humphreys did a tremendous amount of research for this novel and says it actually began as a story about reading and indeed, books play a significant role in the story: novels, poetry and books about horticulture. But an especially moving set of scenarios was conjured up by Helen herself. Because the story is set in Devon many miles from the Blitz, the skies were always quiet and closing blackout curtains and following other regulations regarding lights at night were sometimes scoffed at. The following excerpt gives a flavour of the writing and tells us what is on everyone’s minds…(pp 109-111).
On subsequent evenings one young woman drew her home in London, complete with members of her family in the various rooms and another drew her favorite meal, naturally composed of foods that were impossible to find during that period. A few nights later they all worked to chalk the moon and stars on the curtains before the Canadian servicemen arrived for their weekly dance.

The idea for “Wild Dogs” came from a newspaper article which described an incident in Detroit where a woman jogger was killed while running through a wooded area on the outskirts of the city. Apparently many North American cities have packs of wild dogs living on their fringes- dogs that have been dumped by their owners. Helen’s story has seven narrators, all of whom have been deprived of the love and companionship of their dogs by members of their own families. I’ll read you some review snippets:

From Macleans: “There’s heat aplenty in Helen Humphreys’s fourth novel, a powerful appealing story.”
From Booklist: “Evocative, unpredictable and frightening story poetically parses the meaning of wildness.”
and from The Montreal Gazette: “ stays with you long after the telling of it is over…gentle one moment before callously ripping your heart out the next.”
Yes, I agree:  it’s quite frightening and chilling.
“Wild Dogs” has been optioned for film, adapted for the stage and become a one-act chamber opera.

My definite favorite of Helen’s novels is “Coventry” which appeared in 2008. As in many of her novels, the story is one of love, loss and perhaps love again. I don’t know if it’s coincidence but most of her stories have two female characters and one male character at the heart. As well, her family’s experiences and research carried out for one book often inspire the next one. Here’s a quote from Helen regarding the inspiration for “Coventry”. “Like all writers, I use the material of my own life in my work. Not directly, in that I don’t tell the story of my life but indirectly, in that I write about emotions I am familiar with, situations of which I have some understanding. When I write I like to learn something new, immerse myself in an unfamiliar world so I am less interested in writing directly from my life experience.”

When preparing “The Lost Garden” Helen read a great deal about the bombing of Coventry. As well, she’d been thinking of writing a story that takes place during one night. Putting these strands together gave her the incentive to write this novel which, aside from two or three flashbacks and one flash forward, moves through the devastating night of Nov.14, 1940, the worst night of the bombing of Coventry. Jeremy is a fire watcher assigned to the roof of the Cathedral while Harriet is also on the roof, substituting for one of her neighbours. Harriet lost her husband in the Great War while Maeve had many lovers during that war. There are countless startling and memorable images in this novel and I’d like to share a few with you. ADD EXCERPTS p 82 & pp 101-103

“The Reinvention of Love” is a departure for the author since it’s based on a true story and concerns two men and one woman. The story imagines the love affair between Victor Hugo’s wife, Adele, and the writer and critic Charles Sainte-Beuve. Unfortunately, the novel is somewhat weakened by the addition of another love story near the end of the book.

Helen’s latest novel, “The Evening Chorus” was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. It opens in a POW camp in Bavaria where a downed pilot, James Hunter, has decided against participating in any escape attempts, which means his imprisonment is excruciatingly boring. That is until the former science teacher discovers a family of redstarts living on the edge of the camp. His interest in the birds captures the attention of the Kommandant causing James to fear for his life. Meanwhile his new and very young wife, Rose is, naturally bored with her life and falls in love with another man who will soon be deployed , which naturally heightens the drama. This affair becomes a bit more complicated when James’s sister Enid comes to stay, having lost everything in the Blitz. As James’s devotion to the birds gives a meaning to his life, both Rose and Enid come to find solace and comfort in the natural world. This theme runs throughout Helen’s works. As a reviewer in Quill and Quire writes, “nature in its timeless wisdom has the ability to remind humans, in the darkest of their days, of their humanity.”

When you’re in the mood for a bit of gorgeously written and stunningly illustrated creative nonfiction, take a walk on “The Frozen Thames” or a dip into “The River”. Nature, in all its amazing detail, plays a major role in many of Helen’s novels so it’s no surprise that it also does so in her creative non-fiction.“The Frozen Thames” which came out in 2007, is listed as one of the 10 best books about the Thames. Incorporating many real events and people, Helen has fictionalized all 40 of the occasions when the Thames froze solid, beginning in 1142 with Queen Matilda’s desperate escape across the ice from her besieged castle in Oxford up until 1895, when ice floes as thick as seven feet choked the river.
(READ 1709 on pp 108-112)

The small river in “The River” flows beside Helen’s cabin in Eastern Ontario. It’s as if she kept a diary of her river throughout the seasons and years and has learned never to take it for granted. Her own history with this precious place is interwoven with the meandering story of the river, the lifeblood of local Aboriginal people and then the Europeans of the past 200 years. Here’s Helen’s introduction: READ: The River p 9)

I’m sure all who read it will feel she has succeeded brilliantly.

Helen Humphreys’s works have been translated into several languages and she has served as writer- in- residence at many universities and libraries. Currently she holds the position of Poet Laureate for the City of Kingston. Helen has acted as the guest editor of “The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2016” which is scheduled to be launched this month. ( Her personal website is hhumphreys.com.)

As you’ve probably gathered, you won’t find much that’s humourous in Helen’s work but some of her poetry is definitely on the cheeky side. One reviewer called her poetry highly readable, even for those who don’t like poetry, often amusing or slightly off kilter. I’ll close with the title poem from 1990’s “Nuns Looking Anxious Listening to Radios” :


Gods and Other Mortals 1986
Nuns Looking Anxious Listening to Radios 1990
Perils of Geography 1995
Anthem 1999

Leaving Earth 1998
-winner of Toronto Book Award
-a New York Times Notable Book of 1998
Afterimage 2000
-winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
-a New York Times Notable Book
-nominated for Commonwealth Prize for Best Book
The Lost Garden 2002
-a Canada Reads selection 2003
-Wordsworthy Award
Wild Dogs 2004 and adapted for the stage 2008
-Lambda Award for Fiction 2005
-NOW Magazine’s Top Ten Books of 2004
Coventry 2008
-a New York Times Editors’ Choice
-a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year
-a finalist for the Trillium Book Award
The Reinvention of Love 2011
-longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award
-shortlisted for Canadian Authors Association for Fiction
The Evening Chorus 2015
– a finalist for Governor General’s Award

Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother 2013
– a finalist for the 2014 Trillium Award

The Frozen Thames 2007
-Globe and Mail list of Top 100 Books of 2007
The River 2015

Canadian Authors’ Association Award for Poetry 2000
Harbourfront Festival Prize for Literary Excellence 2009

Helen Humphreys was born in Kingston-on -Thames, England in 1961 and now lives in Kingston, ON. Her family immigrated to Toronto in 1964, where Helen was kicked out of school after grade 10 and so completed high school at an alternative school. She had little desire to go to university but worked at odd jobs such
as pumping gas where she would have time during her off hours to pursue her love of reading. Some of these experiences made their way into her work; for instance, her time as a gas bar attendant comes alive in “Wild Dogs” and staffing an emergency switchboard led to
her poem “False Alarms” in “Anthem”, her fourth poetry collection to be published.

Helen’s seven short novels to date portray pivotal moments in their characters’ lives and although a few, such as Gwen in “The Lost Garden” or Annie in “Afterimage” seem timid or passive at the beginning, they come to realize the rewards of taking risks. Only two, “Leaving Earth” and “Wild Dogs”, are set in Canada where of course nature and geography play major roles. Helen’s parents and grandparents lived through both world wars, inspiring “The Lost Garden”, “Coventry” and “The Evening Chorus.” Only “The Reinvention of Love” is based on a true story but in fact, all seven consist of love stories, whether happy or sad, heterosexual or homosexual, or simply strong bonds of family or friendship.

“Nocturne” reveals Helen’s strong bonds with her brother, Martin, who died at age forty-five. Originally intended as a posthumous letter to him, it reveals much about their growing up and the creative urges that found expression in both of them, Martin as a concert pianist and Helen as a writer.

“The Frozen Thames” and “The River”, Helen’s creative non-fiction works, breathtaking in their retelling of natural history and descriptions of the natural world, are enhanced by awesome artwork and photography. These are easy to dip into and savour at any time.

Helen Humphreys’s works have been translated into a number of languages and she has served as writer in residence at many universities and libraries. Currently, she holds the position of Poet Laureate for the City of Kingston. She has acted as guest editor of “The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2016” which is scheduled to be launched this month. Her website is hhumphreys.com