Helen Dunmore was the very first winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, in 1996, back when it was known as the Orange Prize. Helen won with her novel A Spell of Winter. Sadly Helen died in June 2017, aged only 64, leaving behind 12 wonderful novels, three books of short stories, numerous books for young adults and children and 11 collections of poetry. As this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Helen’s estate provided this lovely message about Helen’s experience of winning back in 1996.
Winning the Orange Prize was significant professionally for Helen, and was also a very happy occasion for her and her family. A Spell of Winter was only her third novel and the prize brought her writing to wider audiences. At a personal level she regarded the prize as a vote of confidence and, of course, the prize money and increased sales provided the increased financial security that all writers and artists need to be able to dedicate their time to their work.
Helen strongly believed that women must receive fair recognition for their work and was delighted to see the prize continue to thrive in the years after she won it. In one interview some years after winning she said, “I’ll tell you what impressed me about it: having set it up, the people behind it approached it with such industry and dedication. Had they done it in a half-hearted way I think it would have fizzled out, but they didn’t.”
It is strange to think that twenty-five years have passed since Helen won the prize because, although there were many other highlights in her career during the subsequent years, winning that prize was such a significant thing for Helen during the early stages of her career as a novelist that it remained a milestone that Helen and her family often recalled with happy memories. The Bessie is still proudly on display in Helen’s home.
Were she alive now Helen would no doubt be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize and the women whose writing has been recognised by it, and would still feel gratitude for the encouragement and inspiration that the prize gave her.