Lymond re-reads and the writer as Dunnett fan

Reading Lymond en-mass

For anyone who doesn’t keep up to date with the various discussion groups but might like to follow along with a Lymond Chronicles group read, one has just started on the Game of Kings Yahoo group list. From what’s already been posted it looks like it’s going to be interesting!

I’ve made a couple of posts myself although I’ve been working 12 hours and more a day for the last 10 days and have only managed the posts when sleep was beyond my over-tired brain. I’m trying to recapture the feelings I had on that very first read, how unexpectedly but completely at home I felt as I was plunged headlong into DunnettWorld, and how I was soon being beguiled by the wordsmith’s sorcery.

I’ll quote a section of one of my posts because I feel the descriptions mentioned are worthy of wider viewing, since it’s all too easy to rush through the first few pages in our haste to get into the meat of the story. These refer to material early on page 2 (and page 1 was only half a page!) where Lymond is about to enter the water of the Nor’ Loch.

“Across four hundred feet of black lake, friezelike on their ridge, towered the houses of Edinburgh”.
“Friezelike”; what an evocative description. Anyone who has looked up at the high tenements of the Old Town from Princes St on a dark night will recognise this at once – the way the buildings seem 2-dimensional against the sky compared to the emphatically 3-dimensional bulk of the castle.

And the next sentence – “Tonight the Castle on its pinnacle was fully lit, laying constellations on the water;”
Note firstly the capitalisation of Castle; subtly giving it a greater sense of size and power (if you’ve seen it you’ll know that’s exactly what it has). But then that fabulous description – not the easy descriptive “reflecting on the water”, not even something flowery like “myriad scintillations”.

“Laying constellations” gives us in two words a complete picture of the scene in front of us. It is an early suggestion of the sort of wizardry that she will conjure up as the books progress. We are _in_ the scene in the most complete way and yet we are only a quarter of the way down page 2. We sometimes think of GK as a little over-decorated, yet here is the most elegant economy of words.

And remember this was the first book of a new author; still finding her literary feet. You can almost feel the assurance growing as you penetrate further into the story – in fact in the next paragraph she throws in “oriflamme” and you know for certain that you’re not in the company of any ordinary writer!

Then you start wishing you had a large dictionary to hand, and a French one, and maybe a Latin one….

Authors who read and admire Dunnett

When I wrote the last newsletter/first blog I stopped at the end of 2005. It was around that time that I’d been contacted by a fairly new author who wondered if I could build her a website. This was Linda Gillard, previously an actress, journalist and teacher, who now lives on the lovely Isle of Skye. She knew of me through the Dunnett website as she was a long-time reader and admirer of Dorothy. With a bit of a false start caused by flu and bronchitis on my part we soon forged an excellent rapport and the result was which was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying design jobs I’ve done.

Unlike Dorothy, Linda writes about modern times, but is already an accomplished author who isn’t afraid to tackle difficult and controversial themes. She sent me her first novel – Emotional Geology – prior to starting the site design and I read it in one go pausing only to eat. Based on South Uist in the Hebrides, it’s a complex story of a woman recovering from manic depression and concentrating on her work as a textile artist to blot out the unhappy end of a love affair. I highly recommend it, particularly for its sympathetic depiction of the male characters and the insight into the psychology of the female ones.

Her second novel – A Lifetime Burning – treads such difficult emotional territory that it is almost impossible to describe, set in the very different world of English village life, the local manse, and musical virtuosity, with a number of doomed relationships central to the story. It’s the sort of challenging read that Dunnett readers are likely to enjoy.

Linda’s website was completed without us having met, and we only got that opportunity during the Edinburgh Festival a couple of months ago. We spent a most enjoyable evening in a New Town hostelry talking at great length like old friends… about Dunnett!

Linda was recently asked by Norm Geras to write a piece about her favourite books for his blog, so naturally she chose Lymond. You can read a copy of her piece on her site at – an eloquent and heart-felt description which with any luck will bring Dorothy to the attention of some potential new readers when it appears on Norm’s pages.

I should also mention another author, Carla Nayland, whose blog is well worth a visit. I came across it while looking for Dunnett mentions due to her succinct but complimentary review of King Hereafter. Welcome Carla, and thanks for the comment on the previous blog entry.


Lymond re-reads and the writer as Dunnett fan — 5 Comments

  1. Bill I’ve wandered over here from the Transita site and lovely to find a Dunnett blog.I think I probably e mailed you last year when I first started reading DD.Lovely to keep in touch with all things Dunnett through here, I’ll put a link on my blog to remind me to call in and I think a Dunnett post is called for!

  2. I have read and reread both the Lymond and Niccolo series, and recommended them to any friend who loves the English language, as Mrs. Dunnett is a master. However, I wonder if the Culter motto has been translated. In my version of Game of Kings it reads Contra Vitam Recti Moriemus, and on a post card its shown as Conta Vita Recti Moriamus. I get the Contra Vita or “Against
    Life” but no on line translator has been able to do the Recti Moriemus,
    so it must be either an archaic form ( a non sequitor with Latin) or
    I’m having some other problem.
    I also have some questions I’ve not been able to find the answer too. There is a problem with time lines in Game of Kings, and
    later in Checkmate that I have not been able to figure out. In GK,
    several times, Francis states he was two years or two summers in the
    galleys. But when he does his explanation at his trial of where he had
    been, it doesn’t appear he could have spent more than one summer in the
    galleys. We learn in Checkmate that he was born Nov 1, 1526. Solway
    Moss was Nov 24, 1542, ie he had just turned 16. Francis states he was
    taken to London with the prisoners after Solway Moss. ie probably got
    there in December 1542. Then the allegations, which he confirms, state he
    was given a manor house but subsequently sent to Calais where he was
    captured by the French ie at the earliest in Dec 1542 but probably in
    early 1543. Now on page 503 of my book, the Advocate says “In 1544,
    prior to the Earl’s defection to England, the Master of Culter had been
    on the friendliest terms with him, had stayed with him at Dumbarton and
    thus shared, it was alleged, in his treason. Lymond states “In 1542 I
    became a prisoner of France, and from then until 1544 I was employed on
    travaux forces in the French galleys. In March 1543, I rowed (Lennox)
    from France to Scotland…In Sept of that year ( ie 1543) I was also on
    the galley which conveyed gold and arms from France…. I escaped and
    applied for protection to Lennox who I had reason to believe was
    preparing to defect from (Scotland) ( which he did in May
    1544)….Between those dates I stayed with him as secretary …leaving
    rather suddenly with a good deal of information and gold…

    So he first met Lennox on the galley in March 1543, then again in Sept.
    1543, ie one summer in the galleys. He states he then escaped to Lennox
    who fled Scotland in May 1544.Francis seems to be indicating that he
    escaped around Sept of 1543, but the latest he possibly could have
    escaped is before Lennox fled to London in May 1544. So if he joined
    him before he defected, as he says, he could only have been in the
    galleys from at the earliest Dec 1542 until at the latest sometime in
    the Spring of 1544, ie one summer and at most, 17 months. His statement
    “Between those dates I stayed with him as secretary” really indicates
    he escaped in Sept 1543 when he was still only 16 and had only been in
    the galleys for 9-10 months. Though he also said he was in the galleys
    until 1544, so I suppose he could have escaped in Jan or Feb of 1544 to
    spend 3-4 months with Lennox. But in either case there is no way he
    could have been two summers or two years in the galleys.

    This also seems to be reinforced somewhat by Francis’ earlier statement
    to Richard as he was recovering outside Hexham that he came home to
    Culter in ’44 from Dumbarton, ie from Lennox., though it doesn’t give us
    any seasonal reference. From the “between those dates” statement, it
    seems clear that by May 1544, when Lennox fled to London, Francis did
    not go with him but had already been working for him for some and was
    no longer a rower in the French Kings galleys.

    Then one of the other puzzling things that comes up in Checkmate is
    that when he and the Huguenots escape from the meeting in the Latin
    quarter, he takes the women to what seems to be a University contact he
    knew when he went to University in Paris. The man and his son fondly
    recall some of Francis’ exploits, ie the glue in the boots, his use of equations to spell out some scatological or sexual innuendo. But I just don’t see how Francis could have gone to University anywhere given his age and history he gives at his trial. He was just 16 when captured. We know his time in
    the galleys, his time with Lennox.. In GK at his trial he said he fought
    for the English for 4 months in ’45’. He says he took the gold he’d
    stolen from Lennox and started a troupe of soldiers, which eventually
    earned money on the continent. At the first of GK, it says he is just
    coming back from his soldiering. I think its during Francis’ recovery
    after Hexham, that Richard reminisces about his time in Paris at
    University, but Francis doesn’t. At no other time during the 12 years
    Dunnett covers could he have gone to University, so unless he went at
    age 12 or 14, I just don’t see how this fit in his very cram packed life.
    I wonder if anyone ever asked Mrs Dunnett these questions.

  3. Other questions. On another site I saw that Mrs. Dunnett painted a picture of Archy Abernathy. Did she ever paint pictures of any of the other characters particularly Lymond or Phillipa. I saw a painting of Niccolo on the cover of one of the hardback books, did she paint that picture?
    Can you post the pictures she did paint? Thanks

  4. Hi Alexis, welcome.

    Regarding the (fictional) Culter motto: Volume 1 of The Companion gives it as being ambiguous and meaning either

    “Despite the (misleading) evidence of ours lives, we die honest”
    “We die honest, despite Life’s efforts to thwart us”.

    Some people have questioned whether this can be correct as a literal translation but it certainly captures the sense of what Dorothy intended, playing with words and ideas as always.

    On the question of paintings, Archie was the only character that she ever painted. It was done as a commission for a reader in Canada who simply asked that she paint one of the characters and left the choice to her. Unfortunately he died before it was finished and so it remained in Dorothy’s house, displayed on the main staircase for many years.

    The “backstory” of the Chronicles has often been discussed in the online groups and I think it’s fair to say that most people accept that there are a number of little holes in it as regards the timeline. Some of the timings seem to have become compressed at some time and there is a suspicion that perhaps Lymond’s age was changed slightly during the planning stage of the book. Further study of the archive may show us more about this as there are some early drafts containing ideas that were clearly dropped later, but before publication. Whether some changes were made at the editing stage is also a possibility.

    We have to remember that this was Dorothy’s first book and was an astonishing achievement compared to the stories common at the time – we are accustomed to “sagas” now but then most books were much shorter and far less complex. While the later books were absolutely meticulous in their construction there is some understandable looseness in Game of Kings – the surprising thing is that there aren’t more problems and that she was able to write the Niccolos as a prequel without the whole thing falling apart.

    However I think we can absolve her of most of this on the university elements, as it was common for young nobles to attend at a much younger age than is the case now. By 16 they were expected to have completed their education and be taking a full part in adult life. Whether at court or in battle. I can imagine Lymond being looked after as an early teenager by Martine’s girls in Paris.

  5. As long-time dedicated lover of DD,and a recently accepted author of an historical 16th-17th century series, The Great Lie, I heartily sympathiese over time-line difficulties. I think it is hard for today’s readers to accept what a young man of immense ability could cram into what is inevitably to us a short life, starting very young. Lymond can do extraordinary things for a man of his years and DD makes us believe it without question, with the pace of the action and the fascination of the man. Adult life began so much earlier in those times, fortunately for those of us who are attempting to write about it – we can only hope that our readers will suspend disbelief long enough to fall in love with our desperately young hero as we do with Lymond. With Nicholas, we grow up with him and his dense and elusive character, we have only to believe in his innate genius. I salute DD, the supreme wordsmith, for her refusal to dilute her wonderful prose for any consideration.

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