A novel bursts to life
The quiet brilliance of Helen Humphreys
Perhaps for lack of a better word, Helen Humphreys, one of Canada’s most beloved writers, is generally described as a novelist. She has written more than half a dozen novels, several award-winning. Leaving Earth (1997), the story of two Depression-era women who attempt to break an aviation record, earned her a Toronto Book Award. Inspired by the life and work of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Afterimage (2000) won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Many of her novels, including The Lost Garden, Coventry, and The Evening Chorus, unfold in Britain. They explore her trademark themes of unconventional female experience, the natural world, and love and war, which for Humphreys equals joy and grief. Her style is intimate, elegant, and unpretentious—an act of literary seduction that leaves readers wanting more.
Yet, despite her enormous success, Humphreys has often expressed frustration with the limitations of fiction, which partly explains why she refuses to restrict herself to novels; why she bounces between genres—from fiction to history to memoir to essay—sometimes producing a blend of all four that may incorporate elements of verse. Humphreys is not opposed to categories, exactly. Rather she continuously experiments with form to determine the most fitting one for an accurate representation of life. This pursuit has led to some of her most moving and original creations: The Frozen Thames, for example, her haunting assemblage of illustrated vignettes delineating life on the iconic river during rare periods of deep freeze. Another unclassifiable work, The River, recounts the history of the complex Napanee water system that flows through Frontenac County in eastern Ontario, where Humphreys lives. A simple question graces the back cover of that book: How can we know anyone or anything?
Humphreys is a consummate storyteller, so self-effacing on the page that her stories appear to have written themselves. At the same time, her fiction serves a dual purpose. It constantly asks: “How best can we use language to know something or someone?” Even as she envelops us in the world of her novels—in Coventry, for instance, where Harriet Marsh stands guard the night of the German air strike; in The Lost Garden’s Devon, where Gwen Davis supports the war effort by supervising the production of food—Humphreys is always meditating upon fiction as an art form and its ability to replicate life. Humphreys is not only a writer—she is a writer/critic in the tradition of the poet/critic, T.S. Eliot for one.
Humphreys started out as a poet. Between 1986 and 1999 she published four collections. Anthem, her last, received a nomination for the prestigious Pat Lowther Award. Her novels—with lasting images, economical prose, and musical phrasing— read like an extension of her poetic gift. After publishing Anthem, however, Humphreys abandoned poetry as precipitously as a one might flee a broken romance. (While she is completing a stint as poet laureate of Kingston, Ontario, she has not rethought her position on publishing her own poems.)
A scene from The Lost Garden may offer a clue as to why. It takes place one night when the women Gwen is overseeing attend a dance at the local manor. In the library, she comes upon Captain Raley, a soldier reading aloud from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.” Raley’s best friend has recently been killed in the war. “ ‘Poetry is no use,’ he says. ‘I thought it might be, but the poetic moment is a static one. It’s watching through a window while the action happens elsewhere.’ ” Does Humphreys share Raley’s sentiments? Does she agree that poetry cannot “keep pace” with grief?
Earlier, Gwen is devastated to learn that her favourite novelist, Virginia Woolf, is presumed drowned. She recalls glimpsing the author one night in London before the war.
I saw the tall, slightly stooped figure of Virginia Woolf walking through the night square in a flowing dress the colour of dusk. What words can I possibly use to truly cover this experience?
Thinks Gwen, “There is a vocabulary to existing, to taking up living space in the world, that cannot be translated over the chasm of death.” For women writers, especially, Woolf symbolizes the desire for a more nuanced fictional language to suit the full range of their emotions. But Humphreys seems to doubt such a language could ever exist.
Nocturne, Humphreys’s memoir, chronicling the untimely death of her younger brother Martin, contains some of her most penetrating thoughts about fiction. Martin was a gifted pianist and composer. The two grew up sharing their artistic dreams. In the memoir, Humphreys, who addresses her brother beyond the grave, admits envying Martin’s musical gift.
I think of you sometimes as part of your piano, your body simply an extension of the keys.
You must have felt both liberated and oppressed by the fact that the music lived through you, that you were responsible for making it happen, that without your body to animate it there was only silence.
On the other hand, fiction remains frustratingly apart from whatever it depicts.
Something exists more fully as an object when it isn’t described. The description is merely another object. The story alters the object. It doesn’t experience it.
Here again, Humphreys implies that language is inadequate to the task at hand. As Martin nears the end his music provides him deep comfort. On the other hand, Humphreys’s writing offers her none. Even so, she says, “Writing is what I have, and it’s how I make sense of experience. This is why in spite of my desire to give up writing, I am writing to you one last time.”
Because Humphreys abruptly set aside poetry and because she sometimes expresses an ambivalence toward fiction and because she revels in creating new narrative forms with which to explore the beauty of the natural world, her readers sometimes fear she will abandon the novel. Abandon them, as it were. Thankfully her latest book, Machine Without Horses, is not only an enchanting work of fiction, it finds her in a far more conciliatory mood with regard to her literary art. Up until now, Humphreys’s theories have been subtly woven throughout her books, but in Machine Without Horses they constitute a central theme. Indeed, the first half of the book is largely devoted to her critical ideas.
The book divides neatly in two. In Part One, we observe an author, an unnamed, lightly fictionalized Helen Humphreys, as she transforms the meagre facts of an actual life into a fully fleshed-out novel. She stumbles upon her subject in the obituary of a Scottish woman named Megan Boyd, whose exquisite salmon fishing flies made her world-famous. As Humphreys contemplates Boyd’s life—reading articles and letters, studying pictures, researching the area where she lived, and enrolling in lessons in how to make salmon flies—her imagination conjures various scenarios.
Then, in Part Two, to the reader’s amazement, the novel bursts to life. It is the story of Ruth Thomas, born in Surrey during the First World War. After her father returns from the front he moves the family from England to the shores of Scotland’s River Brora so he can work as gillie of a large estate. Ruth’s mother and older sisters resent their new home. But Ruth is as thrilled as her father, and frequently accompanies him to work. After he gives her a beautiful Blue Charm salmon fly, Ruth is “hooked,” so to speak. She develops a talent for making them herself. Eventually, she settles in a cottage overlooking the North Sea. Dressed in her late father’s suit jackets and ties, she works steadily away at the desk in her shed. Her salmon flies win international admiration, including, later in her life, that of a young Prince Charles, who occasionally drops round for tea.
During the Second World War, Ruth volunteers to deliver milk to the town. That is how she meets Evelyn, the woman who becomes central to her life. They attend ceilidhs where they dance together as the war is on and the men are away. Ruth’s favourite dance is called “Machine Without Horses.”
Ruth is one of Humphreys’s favourite character types: a seemingly ordinary woman, an often untraditional female, living a solitary, independent life and involved in unconventional work. The setting too is familiar territory: the United Kingdom during the Second World War. Despite its devastations the war offered women a level of freedom, expanding their notions of work and womanhood. Like most of Humphreys’s characters, Ruth is a figure in a natural landscape, defined here by the North Sea, the River Brora, the salmon, and her dogs. Humphreys’s preoccupation with the beauty of nature suggests a British sensibility, and in fact Humphreys was born in the U.K., in 1961. But she is not romantic about nature in the manner of Wordsworth or Keats. She belongs more to the school of naturalism for which human beings remain part of the animal world. In Humphreys’s novels, this manifests largely in the idealization of a dog’s life, in a desire that people emulate the purity of canine affections and motivations.
Humphreys keeps the lines of the novel clean and simple. Her goal is to highlight the mechanics of creative writing. The “machine” of the title, then, also refers to the novel itself. Always evolving in her relationship with her work, Humphreys has entered a new phase. She appears more at peace with the idea of fiction as artifice, manmade. Her thoughts on fiction and grief seem tempered, as well.
Life is so different from fiction. A random, cruel event can occur in life, coming out of nowhere and surprising everyone. A man can be walking his dog and then he can be dead…[In fiction], you cannot just kill them off with no real warning. It will feel unbelievable to readers and they will stop trusting your story.
By the time Humphreys begins thinking about this novel she has lost her brother, her father, and three good friends. Five deaths, she says breathlessly, in six years. In addition, the man she hires to teach her to tie salmon flies is a widower whose wife has recently passed away. Later in the book an acquaintance of Humphreys hits his head and dies. This book, like most of Humphreys’s novels, is steeped in grief. Because of her own pain she knows how to comfort others. Humphreys realizes she can grieve and still write. Even better, her writing finally becomes a solace.
What I know about writing is that it will take everything I can throw at it, and that it is a comfort. I can fall into it and it will absorb my sorrow, my ideas, my restlessness. It has become a process for making me whole again whenever the world breaks me down.
Helen Humphreys is one of the most popular writers in the country, with a devoted fan base that continues to flourish. She has proven equally popular with critics, who regularly speculate aloud on why her work has been largely overlooked by the major awards. Some attribute this omission to the slimness of her novels, which are modest in format, often running less than two hundred pages. But it may also be a consequence of Humphreys’s modest style, the extent to which she remains invisible on the page. In short, readers are so deeply focused on the world of the story, they tend to forget about Humphreys altogether. As with her earlier work, Machine Without Horses is a small, compact book to read in one or two sittings. But the ideas it conveys and the portrait it paints will stay with you a long while.