Saturday, June 05, 2010

Falling for Dorothy Dunnett

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I've mentioned a couple of times recently that I've fallen for Dorothy Dunnett's historical novels, but I've not yet explained what it I find so compelling about them. I was put on to Dunnett byby Jenny Davidson at Light Reading, whose description of her novels made me realize that they might be able to sate a craving that had bedeviled me for months: ever since I finished my second reading of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall last fall, I'd sought total immersion in a similar world of deadly power politics and intrigue, a world where you have no choice but to pick your prince, and inattention to nuance can mean the loss of everything. I'd found that world before, in Ronan Bennett's Havoc, in Its Third Year and Halldor Laxness's Iceland's Bell, to name two--but where to go now?

Dunnett, it turned out, was the answer. While, as Jenny acknowledges, she doesn't quite measure up to Wolf Hall's brilliance, the two novels I've read, King Hereafter (1982) and Niccolo Rising (1986), have been incredibly satisfying, both historically convincing and psychologically perceptive, full of fascinating details of the past and of power, as casually delivered as they are wholly convincing.

Take this scene, for example, from Dunnett's novel of the historical Macbeth, King Hereafter, which finds young Lulach on the beach in Orkney awaiting the return of the ships of his father, Thorfinn (Macbeth):
From Trelleborg to Tonsberg, from Rousay to Rodel, there could have been few boys of the age of nine who had not stood on the shore of their fathers and watched the boats of the kindred come home from their viking. When, at fourteen, they buckled on the sword their father had bought and carried their box up the gangplank, they knew the worst and the best, and were prepared for it.

To Lulach it was unknown. The horns blew for the longships' arrival, and Sulien, his robe crumpled still from the riding, his fresh face unsmiling, took the boy by the shoulder and walked him downhill from the door of the hall, disregarding the others, men and women, who left their houses and, brushing by, made for the beach and the jetty before him. . . . Then the sails began to appear round the eastern headland and, like everyone else, [Thorkel, Thorfinn's foster-father], began to count. As the sails dropped and the figureheads were taken in and they began to work under oar to the beach, you could see the damage.

The grey-goose figurehead with the scarlet sail made for the rivermouth and the wharf, as Sulien had expected. He and the boy took the ford over the river to where the burned hall had once stood and the new building now looked down on the sweep of the shore. Far over the sea, the sun picked out the clear green of the Orkney island of Hoy, while here, behind the new hall, the eastern horn of the bay lay as if stitched in pink on the braided blue silk of the seascape.

Thorfinn's figurehead came down, bright against the stiff flaps of scarlet as the sail was roughly stowed. The lower strakes of the boat were foul with weed, and the timber above was chopped and shaved as if tooled by an adze. Three of the thwarts stood blank and empty, and the gunwales, with their careful gilding, were scuffed and gapped. . . . On board, there was a lot of talk and laughter and other sounds. Someone screamed once, and then a second time. The gangplank came down, and Lulach came slowly and stood by Sulien, along with the dozen or two others who had joined them by this time. The first man, carrying another over his shoulder, steadied himself and began to come ashore.
In Dunnett's hands, the scene is ancient, yet familiar, its antiquity belied by the mutated versions that persist in our time, which is far from free of the war dead.

Then there's this scene, which demonstrates as well as any the dramatic power of a blade suddenly unsheathed in the midst of diplomatic niceties and indirection:
Thorfinn said, " . . . I want the land west of Wedale and the south bank of the river Forth to do with as I please. I also want the rights to all other churches in the Lothians, now existing and to be established, which are not and have never been in the past dedicated to the shrine of St Cuthbert. The remaining Lothian lands and the remaining churches you may retain."

Silence fell. Even after Tuathal started to breath, Earl Siward still remained motionless. "And the Normans [whom you have invited onto the land]?"

Thorfinn said, "The land I have described is my land, and I shall place on it whom I please."

"Your land?" said Siward. "Your grandfather had Danes and Norwegians attacking both coasts and a Scandinavian earldom threatening to move up from Northumbria. Your father was dead. Your grandfather had lost the support of the Orkney fleet. He had to fight for Lothian. But after that, there was old age and an incompetent grandson and vassaldom under Canute and then a King of Alba who did half his ruling from Orkney. What makes it your land?"

"Take it from me," said Thorfinn.

Silence fell, briefly, again. To look at the six faces opposite was difficult. One looked from side to side, at the two speakers, or else down at the table or, fleetingly, at one's own side. The boy Maelmuire, who had started with a high colour like his father Duncan's, had gone very pale. His first experience of the conflict between two powerful men, tossing between them the idea of war. Two men who were his uncles.
If that scene gives you chills, as it did me, by all means seek out Dunnett. Two novels in, I'm with Jenny, who, on finishing the House of Niccolo series, wrote, "I have been living in the world of these novels, I do not want to come back to real life!"


  1. Anonymous8:03 PM

    Dunnett-ers typically fall in two camps, depending on whether they prefer the House of Niccolo or the Lymond Chronicles. All agree both series are phenomenal. All I shall say is: wait until you meet Lymond.

  2. As an Anglophile, I actually meant to start with Lymond, but my local bookstore didn't have the first volume in stock, while they did have Niccolo Rising. So, speaking of picking your prince, I've embarked with Niccolo--but your comment makes me antsy to meet Lymond as well!

  3. Anonymous7:56 PM

    I always thought there was nothing and no-one to compare with the Lymond Chronicles and Lymond himself, and I re-read the entire series often, but I will look up your recommendations now. Immerse yourself in the adventure takes on a whole new meaning when the writer is Dorothy Dunnett. As quite a few people say about one of her most engaging heroines - I've never met her equal!

  4. Anonymous1:25 PM

    I bestride both camps being one of the minority males who have read all that DD has written, but identify/empathize more with Niccolo. Staunch fans who have re-re-re read both HN & LC, also delight KH and Thorfinn recalling the fight in the pit with Rognvald. The 'failure' , if I might call it that, of Wolf hall and Bring up the bodies, is the lack of Cremuel's early training in Europe.

    ex mystery man

  5. I'm afraid I'm of the camp that prefers Niccolo of the two series although I LOVE both and I also believe that Dunnett is the apogee of hist.fict writing. Much prefer her style, her narrative, her research to Mantel. Sorry.