Monday, July 19, 2010

And now let us praise Dorothy Dunnett. Again.

This weekend, as I made my joyful way through Scales of Gold (1991), the fourth volume of Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series, I realized that I've now read more than 2,500 pages by Dunnett since I first picked her up in May. Even for someone who spends nearly every spare minute reading, that's a lot of pages by one author, and that realization made me think I should take another pass at explaining just what it is about her books that's captivated me so completely.

I wrote about her deft handling of intrigue a while back, and that's definitely what initially drew my interest. But what's kept me reading her, and what makes her stand out from other historical novelists I've read with less pleasure, is her ability to present the fruits of her copious research in such as way as to simply make them part of the story, and often of the mere backdrop of the story.

Her characters and settings are all obviously historical--early Renaissance, in the case of the House of Niccolo series, which follows a merchant adventurer from Bruges--but her presentation of that history is remarkable for its combination of confidence in her storytelling and in her readers. She is never guilty of over-explaining, whether it's a question of historical events or of terms that are sure to be unfamiliar to contemporary readers. Rather than break the flow of her narrative--and our belief in her setting--with explanations, she trusts that her reader will simply look up what they don't know. And it is in large part, I think, that refusal to pander, to contextualize and explain, that allows her to present her scenes, be they of everyday life or high adventure, commerce or warfare, with a confidence and clarity that belies our knowledge that she can't know firsthand of what she writes.

So, for example, her depiction in Niccolo Rising of the celebrated arrival in Bruges of the year's trading ships from Venice is vivid and fascinating; her sixty-page telling in King Hereafter of a day-long battle in eleventh-century Scotland is as clear, harrowing, wearing, and believable as any historical account of the last century's wars; and her incidental descriptions of the operations of fifteenth-century dyeworks and sugar mills give a strong sense of the ins-and-outs of running such businesses.

Along the way, she offers many beautifully detailed descriptions of unimportant moments, scenes that, in the hands of an author more focused on making a point, or drawing parallels to our own time, or simply less confident in the attention span of her audience, would have been passed over briefly. And that is where I want to turn in this post. I'm quoting the scene below at far greater length than I usually would, but I think it's worth it to give a full sense of the powers Dunnett brings to her writing, the way she tells history without ever seeming like she's telling history.

The scene comes early in Scales of Gold, and it tells of the launching of a newly commissioned ship, with which Niccolo, the Bruges merchant, plans to sail on a trading mission to Africa:
The ship rode in deep water, her masts rocking, her passengers out of the way as she made ready to sail. They had practised this, the formal routine of departure, and Nicholas knew it by heart. He took his place on the high vestibule of the poop, watching without seeming to watch as the orders passed from captain to mate, and from mate to the helm and the mariners. The bare feet thudded on deck: stowing the companionway; hooking the tackle and hoisting the ship's boats inboard.

A whistle blew and was followed by jerks of racketing noise: the anchor-chain coming in, bringing the new, two-hundred-pound anchor strewn with weed and sand that would be unlike the weed and sand of its next bedding. Then a rush and a chanting of voices and the ship trembled as the triangular foresail rose and broke out, followed by the great racking heave as the mainsail began to ride up.

The helm stirred. The caravel moved, the sea bathing her flank. The smell of paint struck Nicholas for the last time, and the odours of sawn wood and resin and pristine white hemp, and the great flaxen draught of new canvas as the mainsail shook out its folds and was pulled in and bellied, and the mizzen sail followed.

Then the wind found her and nudged, and for the first time the San Niccolo heeled, dipping her gleaming black flank in the sea, and all the limp smells of earth were blown through her and vanished. The second mate, gripping a trumpet, came up the ladder and stood, his gaze switching from the captain to the six handgunners dodging across to the rail, match in hand. Nicholas turned his eyes to the shore, slowly receding.

The wharf was crowded, and the rough beach, and the path along the edge of the estuary. Not only the King's representatives but the whole of Lagos had come to watch the San Niccolo leave; for those who had not built her had equipped and provisioned her, and those who had done none of these had stood on the shore waving off other ships bound for Bilad Ghana, the Country of Wealth, and had seen them return as, God willing, this pretty caravel would, laden with parrots and feathers and ostrich eggs, and Negroes, and gold.

On board, the trumpeter's fanfare rang out: a strong one, for he had good lungs, and he did it for pleasure. Then, gay as fireworks, there came a crackle of fire from the red-capped schioppettieri on deck, hazed in smoke and coughing and panting from their stint in the yards. Behind them, stamping into rough line, stood those seamen who could be spared.

On shore, the Governor lifted his hand. A grey posy of smoke showed itself on the wall of the fort, heralding the thunder of its number one culverin, followed by the second and third, up to six. The noise knocked from end to end of the bay, sending up screaming birds and punctuating the roar from hundreds of throats as, bonnets in hand, the town of Lagos bade them Godspeed.
Can't you see it? It's the certainty that strikes me most strongly: this is the way it was, she is saying. The smells, the sounds, the incidental sights--the "grey posy of smoke," the second mate's "gaze switching from the captain to the six handgunners," the seamen "who could be spared," "stumping into rough line."

If this doesn't convince you to give Dunnett a try, I don't know what will. But if it does, be warned: if you're like me, you'll start fretting about running out before you're even a third of the way through her oeuvre.


  1. I've been a huge fan of the Lymond series since I got the first volume for my birthday in 1978. For reasons you'll understand when you read them, I actually proposed naming my own daughter Philippa...but it's probably for the best, I suppose, that I was overruled. Somehow I've never quite made it into the Niccolo ones, though I have started the first volume a few times. You've convinced me to try again. I agree that part of what makes Dunnett's books so remarkable is the rich detail, which is somehow presented so that it doesn't feel like historical decoration or didactic exposition.

  2. Dunnett hasn't been on my radar up to now, but I think you've convinced me. Now that I have a new office space where I literally have to walk through the library fiction stacks to reach the elevator, my reading has gotten all kinds of promiscuous. (That's a good thing.)

  3. Rohan,
    I haven't read the Lymond Chronicles yet, but from what Anne Malcolm has to say about the difference between the two series in this New York Times piece from 2000, it doesn't seem surprising that you might find the Niccolo books less immediately rewarding:
    'The House of Niccolò'' is a different sort of project from ''The Lymond Chronicles'': subtler, slower, more sweeping in its ambitions; perhaps ultimately less remarkable. . . . Dunnett's solution to the problem of stepping into her own shoes was to broaden the scope of her undertaking. ''The House of Niccolò'' is clearly intended as a more spacious and reflective work than the unabashedly theatrical Lymond novels, a project in which the work of serious characterization displaces to an extent the gratifications of adventure and witty romance. There are risks to this strategy. ''The House of Niccolò'' lacks the tautness, the economy, the condensed dramatic force of the Lymond novels.Which makes me wonder what I'll think of the Lymond books when I get to them--will they be too straightforward?

    1. Anonymous5:25 PM

      As a devotee of the Lymond chronicles (an obsession of close to 30 years) I think I can confidently promise you that you won't find the novels straightforward! They are full of intrigue and intellectual puzzling, and wit and humour and grand drama and wonderful characters - I often say that I have never cared about characters and what happens to them as much as I have the Crawfords and Somervilles. (So I disagree with Anne Malcolm there re the characterisation.) However, the two series are markedly different and the fact that I re-read Lymond almost every year reveals where my allegiance lies. DD is a genius and I envy anyone who is reading her for the first time. as i often (say (in the words of a character describing my all time favourite heroine ... I have never met her like .... Caroline Mc