A Toast to Dorothy

Having been unable to travel to Edinburgh for the Centenary Gathering, I was able to make one small contribution to the Gala Dinner which took place a couple of days ago at the beginning of the event – a short speech and toast.

Since it’s now been delivered – superbly I’m told – by the lovely Julia Hart who had asked me to write it, I can now give everyone else who wasn’t able to attend a chance to read it.

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Short preamble

May I just repeat how sorry I am not to be able to be with you all this week. There are many of you who I think of as close to family, and it’s one of Dorothy’s abiding gifts that the worldwide Dunnett readers’ family has not only survived her passing but has prospered and grown.

Speech and Toast

When you’ve written a website over 27 years about someone who you adored, both as a writer and a human being.
When you’ve written endless blog posts and emails and Tweets…
What more is there to say?

You hardly need to discuss her consummate gifts as a writer in company such as this.
We may disagree on character development, argue furiously on scene interpretation, or almost come to metaphorical blows over motivation, but we all agree that she was and remains the standard by which fiction writing and world building is measured. We’ve all stepped repeatedly into those worlds and marvelled at how real they are and how intensely close we feel to the characters within them.

You could talk – again – about her charm, her disarming modesty, her unrivalled ability to put people at their ease, about how she would immediately have you talking about yourself when all you really wanted to do was ask questions about her, and her characters, and her travels.

You could perhaps recount stories of times spent in her company – a favourite of mine is of the meal at the Witchery up by the castle. It followed a function at the New Club in Princes St put on by Penguin to celebrate the publication of Gemini. As we all sat together at a long table, two gentlemen who had been dining unnoticed on the other side of the room got up and came over to Dorothy. With her characteristic squeal of delight she recognised one of them immediately – “Michael!” – and turned to the rest of us saying “I’m sure you all know Michael Shea.”

Well of course, who among us doesn’t know the ex-diplomat and former Queen’s Press Secretary? We all looked at each other in knowing amazement while inwardly remembering that Dorothy and Alastair knew EVERYONE!   And I rather think EVERYONE knew, and loved, Dorothy.

But then the other man spoke, “You probably won’t remember me, but I’m an expert on chemicals and dyes and we once had a conversation about old-fashioned dye yards and you asked me what would happen if one caught fire.”

Cue dropped jaws all around the table!!    (and of course she remembered him.)

And it’s stories like that that remind me of something crucial about her, something I saw that first time I ever met her when she came in to James Thins to sign some books for dispatch overseas, and which made me want to read her books, and is how I want to remember her – it was how much FUN she was!

Readers know very well how some passages can have you laughing out loud. From the smoking trotters of Mungo’s pig onwards, the humour is always lurking; waiting for the perfect moment. Then there were all those legendary talks at book-signings, recounting unlikely stories of her research travels to spellbound audiences, and her talks at the Book Festivals, which were always a delight. And of course as with Gideon’s anguished appeal to Lymond she was never afraid to poke a little fun at herself if it helped the point along.

If you were in a small group or lucky enough to be in private conversation, it wasn’t just the exhilarating intellectual rollercoaster that she could take you on. Beneath that brilliant mind was such a sense of fun and humour and delight. She could look at situations and see not just the fascinating and the intriguing, but also the mischievous insights and the sometimes hilarious implications.

That is my overriding memory of her – the twinkle in the eye and the laughter in the voice.

So to add to everything else I’ve written about her let me add this. If I can purloin and adapt a famous line from one James T Kirk –

Of all the souls I have met in my travels, hers was the most…. humorous.

(Please stand for the toast)

Over the years Charles has proposed numerous toasts at our dinners: to the Queen and to Absent Friends.

I give you this one:

To the Queen of historical fiction, she may be absent but her story-telling, her charm, and her humour will never be forgotten  –  Dorothy!

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