Newsletter – 12th January 2000

Greetings from a very windy Edinburgh. Hope the New Year celebrations were excellent (and have worn off now!!) and not too many of you are suffering from the flu which seems to be everywhere at the moment.

First piece of news is the imminent release of new versions of the Penguin Niccolos. They are appearing in slightly larger format with completely redesigned covers not unlike those used for the Vintage Lymonds. They all have attractive paintings on the front and are in a larger and much easier to read typeface. The first four are due out this month and the rest will appear in March. The price remains UKP 7.99 and rather surprisingly the ISBNs remain the same as before. I’ve added scans to the web site so you can take a look at them – go to the Book News page or straight to the Book Covers page.
Anyone wanting to place orders for any of them can do so from the Bibliography page hotlinks as usual – it might be best to mention in the comments box of the checkout that it’s the new cover editions that you want, particularly for the last three, just to be sure.

For those who like to know what the pictures are:

Niccolo Rising – View of a Market Place by Hendrik Steenwyck (1550-1603)

Spring of the Ram – detail from A Sultan Receiving tribute by Giovanni Antonio Guardi (1699-1760)

Race of Scorpions – detail from View of Naples depicting the Araganese fleet re-entering the port after the Battle os Ischia in 1442, attribited to Francesco Rosselli (1445-c1513)

Scales of Gold – detail from The Meeting of Etherius and Ursula and the Departure of the Pilgrims, from the St. Ursula Cycle, 1498 by Vittore Carpaccio

Unicorn Hunt – detail from The Book of Hours: May, c1540 by Simon Bening

To Lie with Lions – Gerrit deVeer Narrative of Barent’s last voyage, 1598. Ship of William Barent’s fleet caught in ice

Caprice and Rondo – details from Namadic Encampment from a ‘Khamsa’ by Nizami, Tabriz, East Azerbaijan, Persian, Safavid dynasty, 1539-43
Another page which I’ve updated on the website is the Dunnett Places to Visit page. I’ve been able to pinch some pictures from various of our new Mercat Press books and some that we took over from the Stationery Office last year. As I mentioned a few weeks ago to the members of the discussion groups the page was becoming a little slow to load as it grew larger, so I’ve taken the main pictures off the page and used thumbnail links instead which makes the load time much better. Since then I’ve also added some extra places and details into the lists. This is still very much an ongoing project so if you have a place you’d like to see added just let me know.


Dorothy’s Australian Visit

I’ve been trying to get the full details of this but there are still some things to be finalised. What we know about at the moment is as follows:

In Adelaide on the opening day of the Writer’s Week on Sunday 5th March she’s speaking in a solo session at 1pm.
On Wednesday 8th she’ll be in a Panel Session on historical fiction with Melvyn Bragg, Roger McDonald and Hilary Mantel from 2.30-3.45
In Sydney she’ll have a public event arranged by Penguin at a so-far unknown bookshop on either Monday 13th or Tuesday 14th before flying home on the Wednesday.
Anyone in Australia who subscribes to Whispering Gallery will receive details of the events from Penguin once they are settled.


Events in the UK

Dorothy will be speaking at a “Meet the Author” event in Banff on Saturday 5th Feb at 5pm at Duff House, hosted by Charles Burnett – Ross Herald who some readers will have heard speak on heraldry.

She will once again be taking part in the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, but the date has yet to be fixed.


Some Sad Non-Dunnett News

For those that haven’t already heard, two very well known historical fiction writers have died in the last week. Patrick O’Brian the nautical writer best known for his Aubrey-Maturin series died in Dublin at the age of 85.
Nigel Tranter the Scottish writer and historian and a friend of Dorothy’s, died of the flu on Sunday at the age of 90. He was so prolific that there are a number of his books still in the pipeline – he was usually about 3 or 4 books ahead of his publishers. He was largely responsible for putting many Scots back in touch with their history and was closely connected with the moves over many years to establish the Scottish Parliament.


More “Answers from Dorothy”

Q. Is Nicholas in any way inspired by a Flemish story about a character called Claus?
In the beginning of June I brought two books home from the library. One was Caprice and Rondo. The other was From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner. I read Caprice and Rondo until my eyes hurt and I had a devil of a time getting up from work. Then I started the more scholarly work on fairy tales. In Ms. Warner’s book there is a discussion of a Flemish collection of tales, c. 1475, called Les Evangiles des quenouilles. In it an old lady, Dame Abreye l’Enflee’ tells the story of her Uncle Claus from Bruges who travels to the monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai. There he meets a stork who speaks Flemish. The stork gives him a ring from his wife Mal Cenglee (Badly Beaten) on the condition that she will no longer be mistreated. Is this the character upon whom Nicholas de Fleury is based? Are there any more Claus tales from that book? What geographical, political, or commercial importance did St. Catherine’s have that travelers sought out the community? I have always been awed how Mrs. Dunnett has made economic history so vastly compelling. I have never met any practitioners of the dismal science who have ever come close.

A. What a delightful discovery! No, I’ve never heard of these tales. Claes (not Claus) was simply a common abbreviation for Nicholas. The choice of Mt. Sinai is also pure coincidence – it fitted the plot and purpose of my story. Its importance is pretty well described I think in Unicorn hunt. For Greek orthodox monks, it was sacred because of Moses, the Burning Bush, the body of St. Catherine etc. Pilgrims desiring grace left wonderful gifts, hence the treasures preserved through the centuries. And in general of course it had strategic importance.

Q. Is Thorfinn descended from Einar?
I wish to ask a question about Thorfinn. Was he descended from Einar, Third Earl (Jarl) of Orkneys? Einar was the son of Rognvald the Wolf, who was cousin to King Harald Fairhair and mentioned in the Heimskringla quite a bit. Einar was called by the locals “Torf Einar” as he introduced the burning of peats to the locals. His half brother Rollo achieved fame as the first Duke of Normandy and ancestor of the Royals. This is part of my family’s 1100 year history. Thorfinn is my all time favorite character in literature and I’d love to find a connection no matter how feeble. Of course at this remove, they’re all feeble!

A. I’m so glad that you like Thorfinn. And how nice to be descended from Torf Einar! (What do you cook by?). According to the family trees you read in the Icelandic Sagas, Torf-Einar was the son of Rognvald of More the Mighty, and Einar was the father of Arnkel, Erlend and also of Thorfinn Skull-splitter, who married Grelaud, daughter of Duncan, Earl of Caithness by Groa, daughter of Thorstein the Red. Sons of this Thorfinn were Arnfinn, Havard, Ljot, Skuli and Hlodvir. Hlodvir married the daughter of an Irish King and became the father of Sigurd the Stout, who married twice. By his first wife, Sigurd had three sons, Somerled, Brusi and Einar Wrymouth. Sigurd’s second wife was the daughter of King Malcolm of Scotland. Their son, and King Malcolm’s grandson, was King Hereafter’s Earl Thorfinn the Mighty, who was therefore great-great-grandson of Torf-Einar. How’s that?

Q. How do you approach your quotations?
I would be very interested in exploring DD’s choice of quotations. Did she go looking for quotations to fit the bill, or use quotations from works she was already familiar with because they seemed to fit, or a bit of both? Were they a product of the store of information she already had, which presented themselves in the heat of creation, or part of her preparatory reading, or later inserts in a framework already written ? I’m imagining the scene written with ‘blank for quote’ and suitable quote later inserted. If the first, she really has a fabulous store of information in the memory cells.

This question (from Diana Crane) came out of a discussion about following up quotations to see if they illuminated the story they were included in, and in particular in the story of Sir Gowther. The following extract from one of the messages gives the background for those who aren’t familiar with the story.

I forget now who first pointed out the interest in reading on in poems and sources quoted by DD, which I consider one of the most exciting and fruitful insights I’ve received in five or so years of Dunnett sharing. Heike has been showing us how interesting it can be for KH.

To recap the story briefly, Gowther’s mother is barren and about to be put aside by her husband when she meets a fiend in the orchard in the shape of her husband and lies with him. At the end he resumes fiendly shape and tells her she will conceive, so she hastens to make love to her husband the same night. The fiendish offspring is born and shows his qualities immediately, killing numbers of wetnurses and tearing his mother’s nipple, having been born with teeth. He grows fast and wreaks all sorts of mayhem, fighting and killing. His worst crime is to burn a convent of nuns, having first raped them ( the rape is omitted in one version ). Eventually an elderly count remonstrates with him and suggests he is the child of a fiend. Gowther goes to his mother to demand the truth of her : at first she says he is the child of his putative father, then tells him the truth. Gowther is devastated, goes to seek pardon of the Pope, performs a severe penance and is forgiven eventually, meets his truelove, marries and inherits his father-in-law’s dukedom. Afterwards he lives a blameless and happy life and puts up a new convent on the site of the one he burned.
There is a footnote on the ‘Devil’s contract’ theme in folklore. ‘The child is subject to diabolic influence from whose dominion it is freed by its own ingenuity or the intervention of Providence. Stith Thompson remarks . . . Gowther . . . was not to blame for his demonic association, since the fault lay entirely with his mother.’

I thought there were quite a few things of interest, which at the very least could explain why that particular quote came to Lymond’s mind. For example, the birth secret, the child demanding the truth about his birth from his mother, the responsibility of the mother’s sin for the disorder of the child, the child’s responsibility or possible responsibility for the death by burning of a convent of nuns, with a suspicion of sexual misconduct with one of them thrown in. In the printed version of Gowther the motive for setting the convent to the torch seems to be at least partly to hide the evidence of the sexual misconduct and I think there are insinuations in GoK ( which of course I don’t believe 😉 ) that Lymond might have wanted to silence Eloise because of possible incest between them. All in all, fascinating stuff.

A. For the Lymond series, I began reading in the late 1950’s every poem or song I could find of the 16th century or earlier. Some of it I didn’t note down, but (fortunately, forty years later) I did make a note of striking passages that were relevant to the story I knew I was going to tell. I repeated the process before and during the Niccolo series.

Before I write a chapter, I scan and memorise all the material I am going to use -place, people, clothes, climate, plot requirements, language and quotes. Then I put all my notes aside, let it simmer, and sit down and write the complete chapter straight through, inventing on the basis of what I’ve assimilated. Sometimes I’ll kick myself because I’ve forgotten a brilliant quotation, but it never looks right when it’s stuck in afterwards.

Stemming from this: sometimes a whole poem/song is significant, like the ones Lymond chose for his Hotel d’Hercules banquet, and I’m so pleased that someone has thought of hunting out the full references. At other times, the quotation enters the character’s mind because of a single appropriate word or phrase, and the subsequent verses have no special significance. I don’t know how to help you distinguish one type from the other, except by saying that references to whole poems generally occur at moments of high emotion – mill, what hast thou ground – or those instances where Lymond cannot bear to listen.

I’m mortified that I can’t remember where I quoted Gowther, and you’ve probably been cleverer than I have in noticing the parallels. Writing the book, I wasn’t particularly concerned to make much of Eloise, and I’m not sure that I’d intentionally add to the poignancy by attaching a meaningful poem. But again, I may just have forgotten. The opportunist accusations about Eloise were meant to obscure and delay the correct reading of Lymond’s character, but to be wholly discounted later on. Even Lymond’s unwitting responsibility for his sister’s death was of less importance to the chronicle, or even to him, than other things that were to happen to people he loved as an adult.

Another of Heike’s King Hereafter Questions

Q. In p.4, ch.14, Sulien and Thorfinn discuss the Threefold Death prophecy. T. says: ‘A German historian and a French poet told such a story of Alexander the Great, and because of another poet called John, a prophecy came to rest against my name.’ Is he speaking about Otto von Freising, Walter of Chatillon and John Maior?

A. Again, without my notes, the following is a series of half-recollections. This particular pronouncement of Lulach’s refers to the trick of the Walking Wood, which becomes attached to the Macbeth legend, 400 years after his time, in the form of the doom-story about Birnam Wood marching to Dunsinane. It is lifted from classic folk lore, and the nearest example of that, for Scots poets and ballad-makers, is in the Buik ofAlexander, based on the French Les Voeux du Paon. The John I was thinking of is probably John Barbour, whose work on The Bruce inspired Wyntoun, who dreamed up the Birnam story. I can’t now remember who the German historian was – his name might not be known – but you might be able to trace his work if you follow back the Alexander the Great/Walking Wood references in early literature.


Confessions of a Dunnett Reader

It’s a long time since I gave you any of my own impressions – in fact it was away back when I first started Niccolo Rising. Partly due to lack of space and partly due to my inconsistent reading patterns I’ve never really had a chance to follow up on this, but there is also the fact that in many ways it’s harder to talk about the individual Niccolos in isolation because there is much less separation in the volumes and more inter-relation between different scenes spread right across the series. I am now part way through To Lie with Lions and in some ways I feel I’m only now beginning to see the threads develop in a way that can be understood and theorised about. Whether they are being understood correctly of course is another matter entirely!!

General impressions – I liked Katelina in many ways but she wasn’t the highly intelligent heroine that she would have needed to be to be the star of the story – or even to survive. She seemed to be rather born out of her time as well, and wanted a level of romance in her life which maybe wasn’t possible in that time. She sadly didn’t have the foresight to accept a marriage to a much older man which would then later release her to a position of more independence. In as much as he could at the time I rather think Nick did love her or at least was very fond of her, but he is lacking part of the character makeup that would allow him to really commit to her even if she hadn’t been married to Simon by then. I’m sure he was able to love Marion – but it was partly a mother substitute feeling rather than a well-rounded love. I know some people criticise Nick and Katelina for the waterfall scene, but I have more sympathy for them. Quite apart from the aftermath of the rescue from a phobic death I think that Katelina was on an emotional roller-coaster caused by living with Simon and FFJ and thinking alternately that she loved/hated/loved Nick. It’s an intensly emotional moment and the sort of reaction that real human beings would have.

Like, I’m sure, many others, I didn’t like Gelis as a youngster and then came to like her a lot in the African sections of Scales of Gold. The manner of the betrayal, and the realisation that it all must have been planned for a long time and carried through with Oscar-winning acting ability was a stunning shock. I’ve been noting the times in the later books when we (often unexpectedly) get her point of view and it seems confused and frightened underneath the iron composure. Where has she received these ideas about Nicholas, and whose viewpoint has influenced her? – it seems to me that there is more going on than just revenge for her sister and that someone has been feeding her a very biased view for their own ends, but who? It would surely have to be someone who goes back a long way, so is it an enemy or could it be someone we think is a friend?

Which brings us to Anselm Adorne – hero or villain, is he part of the Vatachino from the beginning or does he merely join in an alliance with them after the Cairo/Sinai events. At the moment I’m inclined to believe him basically honourable and sometimes causing harm in the midst of business ventures as happens sometimes.

Kathi is a delight – a real breath of fresh air – and I can see why some people would like her to be The One as the similarities with Phillippa are striking. A bright intellect and a very sensitive nature – maybe even a touch of psychic ability too – she seems one of the very few to have any real understanding of Nicholas. Though of course no-one really knows him because he doesn’t yet know himself.
Has he even yet recovered from Umar’s death and the later revelations about the manner of it I wonder. It’s hard to overstate just how much his world must have fallen apart with the combined effects of the news on the wedding night after having been so happy beforehand. Obviously Simon bore much of the brunt of his anger at the Salt Pans and it was in some ways surprising that he didn’t kill him – but then that never seems to be his aim.

Of the others, Tobie seems to vary alarmingly in regards to when he’s sympathetic and when he isn’t, while Julius seems to be a complete airhead!! How can he run a bank and be so lacking in awareness? I do however like John’s typically Scots engineer’s logic and attitude, and he occasionally has some great lines.

Well I could go on like this for pages and pages but I’d better stop for now. Once I finish TLWL and C&R I’ll see if I can come to any more profound (?) views about what going to happen next and where the connections are…. and then they’ll no doubt be demolished completely by Gemini 😉 For any real insight I’m sure a number of re-reads are mandatory – what a pity we can’t read in our sleep!

best wishes to you all


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