Questions to Dorothy

Questions on the House of Niccolo


Q The Dossiers - Who wrote them? Two extra "Dossiers" were produced with a series of Medici messages and a section written as if from "the Greek with the Wooden Leg". Did DD (a) write the "Dossiers" or (b) approve the material contained therein?
A "Now there's an ominous question. Both the Dossiers were written by me, at the suggestion of the publisher, who was concerned about the best way of introducing new readers to what was going to be a long series. I make sure, when I'm writing, that it is possible to pick up the threads of past books, but a summary can make it simpler, and I volunteered to write something that might seem a bit jollier than a straight resume. One Dossier was attributed to a mysterious outsider who was going to appear in most of the books, and the other derived from a superb pile of extant Medici correspondence from which I could fake an exchange of letters that would convey what I wanted. I haven't looked at them since I wrote them but it sounds as if they have turned out to be non-se (or serially correct) in some instance? Do say!"

Time Period

Q Why the time period of Niccolo?
A "Because it was still in the Renaissance, and there were the fascinating aspects of numeracy, banking, double book-keeping, and people coming up from trading classes."

Female Wanderings Without Chaperones

Q There have been a couple of interesting threads about the unchaperoned and servantless travels of some of DD's women - Kathi in Edinburgh and Gelis in Africa, to mention two. Can DD enlighten us about this? Like others, I thought that all women of good breeding were kept pretty close at hand.
A "Happily, the system worked on about seven different levels so there’s a get-out clause from almost everything which is just as well, because I probably forgot or got fed up with chaperones more than once and just left them out of the scene The ideal, operated in the upper echelons of the most highly developed social enclaves (the Italian city-states and all wealthy courts) required unmarried maidens to be escorted by well-bred female companions. A lot of them would be in convents anyway, or being trained in superior households. In big working towns like Bruges and Edinburgh and York, they probably battled about quite cheerfully with members of their own household - a maidservant to carry things and a groom if required. Once you strayed into the unknown, like Africa, all bets were off because you had to be crazy to go anyway and any chaperone you dragged with you would likely desert or die. So it depended where you were, and also who you were. Poor little Portuguese demoiselle from a lower-middle drawer disappearing on her own for an afternoon might find her marriage hopes wrecked, but the rich and the powerful and the well-born could get away with bastards, lovers and murder, and frequently did."
"Married ladies of a certain status were also expected to be accompanied, and you would find this with people like Alessandra Strozzi in Florence. But I doubt if the Duchess Eleanor in the Tyrol paid much attention to escorts for the sake or propriety, and in business settings, again, some of the wealthiest and most active merchants were married women and widows, who would use their household staff for practical purposes but would generally have the freedom of men. The 15th century is a long way off the 18th century, and it had its (rather endearing) rough side."

Flemish Story Connections?

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."

Did DD downplay the divining in C&R?

Q I feel that Nicholas's divining skills appear suddenly & with no warning -- and also that they tend to act as a kind of "deus ex machina" at times. That is, they make Nicholas too invincible and serve to rescue him from situations he couldn't otherwise escape. In C&R his divining is downplayed -- with great effect, I think. Did you also feel that this divining skill -- or ability, if you will -- was interfering with the development of N's character and story? Did you make a conscious effort to downplay it?
A "The divining isn't a chance element in the story, nor is it a plot tool , or it would have rescued its possessor from a few more dire situations than it did. Its entry is not so arbitrary, either, as you might think. Its first appearance is closely identified with one those flashes of perception we have already seen, linking Nicholas to the future. Its other importance - apart from its actual industrial history - lies in what its handling tells you progressively about Nicholas. And initially, of course, it demonstrates how he is capable of using the power selflessly, sometimes, to save and protect."

What does "Caprice and Rondo" mean?

Q I was wondering though, does anyone understand the book title? Lord knows it is full of capricious characters, but what does Rondo mean?
A "Look up Caprice and then Rondo in the full Oxford English dictionary. The first word has to do with the tone at the start of the book. The second describes the shape of the story."

Extra comment from Bill. Recognising them as musical terms I consulted a number of music dictionaries and found that they were described as follows. Caprice as a term for a variety of compositions usually showing some freedom of expression. The Italian term A Capriccio - following one's fancy. Rondo is a round, a musical form in which the first or main section recurs, in a form such as ABACADA where A is the recurring section and the other letters are the subsidiary ones.
We also know that Dorothy originally wanted to use the title Rondo Capriccioso but was talked out of it by her publishers on the grounds that some people wouldn't be able to spell or pronounce it!

How is Gelis pronounced

Q One thing I would like to ask Dorothy Dunnett is whether Gelis is pronounced JEALOUS...
A "I've never discovered. It's short for Egidia. I usually try to avoid 'Jealous' and try for 'Jailees'."
Extra comments from Bill: We had a lot of discussion about this pronunciation until eventually we heard from a reader called Helen in France, who was a native Flemish speaker. She was able to tell us that the correct pronunciation is with a gutteral back-of-the-throat Gh sound that is extremely hard for a non-native speaker to get exactly right, but to our ears sounds like hay-liss.
I had earlier come across an entry in a listing of Scots names which gave Egidia as the feminine form of Giles (as in St. Giles). See the entry in the pronunciation guide.

James III's medical history

Q What suggested James III's medical background?
A It was related to "the madness of King George III". It has been traced back to Mary Queen of Scots, so it was quite possible that it went back further in the Stewarts. James II was known as "James of the fiery face", and there is a portrait of him which shows this - most unusual for the time. This was held by historians to be a birthmark but Dorothy suspected that it might be porphyria as it would explain his often erratic behaviour. It's possible that even Robert the Bruce's "leprosy" may be down to that, as leprosy was a name attached to a great many skin complaints.

General Points about the House of Niccolo series

The genealogies printed in the HN books are correct (except for Esota's death in the first four books).

Kathi's marriage to Robin of Berecrofts is historical fact.