Bill's Article for Publishing News
In the run up to the release of Gemini I was asked to write an article about Dorothy for Publishing News. In the event it was a little rough as there was only time to make a few slight amendments to the first draft before they needed the copy, but hopefully it wasn't too bad. As published it took up about three quarters of the roughly A3 format and with a colour picture of the Gemini cover along with a b&w photo of Dorothy it made a nice spread. I should say that I didn't choose the title for the piece!
This week saw the publication of the concluding volume in Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series of historical novels. Bill Marshall of James Thin reflects on her remarkable life and work.
Forty years ago a book was published that changed the expectations of historical fiction readers forever and set a new standard for any writer venturing into this field. That book was Game of Kings and over the following years it became the six-volume Lymond Chronicles, introducing the world to Francis Crawford of Lymond, possibly the finest and most complex hero ever conceived in print and a character who has inspired a great many lookalikes. The author's trademark was that his story was somehow seemlessly inserted into the landscape of 16th century Scottish and European history. Later, that series was followed by another, the House of Niccolo, set 100 years earlier and concerned with the rise of a humble dyeyard apprentice in Bruges, but gradually showing subtle connections to the first series. On the first of June this year, Gemini, the 8th and final volume of the House of Niccolo, completed the saga and brought us back to a point where we could follow the clues forward to the story that had been introduced back in 1961. "Prequels" have become popular in recent years following their use in TV and film but here was an entire series of them written years after the original - a fact made all the more remarkable when you consider that in between was five years of detailed and original research into Macbeth which produced the novel King Hereafter and a theory that is still being debated by historians today.
Amongst her legion of readers the creator of Lymond has become as legendary as her first hero; for the richness and wit of her writing, the astonishing depth and precision of her research, and not least for her readiness to respond to their many letters with charm and interest.
At 76, Dorothy Dunnett shows a vitality and brightness of eye that would be the envy of most people half her age and which provides a glimpse of the sharp erudite mind within, yet she manages to effortlessly put all-comers immediately at ease, whether speaking to 1800 Australians, as she did recently at the Adelaide Book Festival, American high-school students, or the highest people in the land. Tam Dalyell MP is a fan and friend as is the Duke of Buccleuch. Not that she always tells them what they want to know - her ability to provide interesting answers to questions on the labyrinthine plots of her stories while still managing to avoid giving away crucial aspects with as deft a touch as Lymond might employ deflecting a sword thrust, is a source of delight as well as frustration for anyone who has tried to predict the future course of the tale.
Surprisingly we might have been deprived of these classic books by the reticence of the early 1960s British publishing industry, as her first manuscript was repeatedly rejected as being too complex, and it was her late husband Alastair, then editor of The Scotsman newspaper, who saved the day by writing to Lois Cole, the American editor who had discovered Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind. Cole recognised Game of Kings as a work of great importance straight away, and Dorothy was launched on her writing career. Curiously there are still far more US enthusiasts for her work than British.
Writing is only one of Dorothy's careers; she was for a time a professional portrait painter and sculptress, and has been on the board of Scottish Television and the Scottish National Library amongst numerous business and public duties. In partnership with Alastair she has been a prime mover in many of the most important developments in Scottish culture and the arts.
I first came across Dorothy's writing in 1994 when I was setting up the first email account for James Thin, the 152 year old Edinburgh booksellers for whom I am now webmaster. Thins had been long involved in sending out the latest Dunnett volumes to a mailing list of mainly overseas readers who couldn't wait for the later US publication dates and were happy to be able to order signed copies from her local bookshop. One customer included an email address on her letter and I answered it to speed up an urgent reply. Suddenly I found I was in touch with a network of internet connected fans who were delighted to find a new source of information. Soon I was spending lots of time answering questions about the books so when setting up our first web pages a few months later I naturally thought of including a page devoted to Dorothy and was bowled over by the response. That page grew into the largest and most popular section of our site and led me to meet Dorothy herself, and I was quickly persuaded that despite being a resolute non-fiction reader I must delve into her books myself and find out what the fuss was about - a decision I have never regretted.
My Dunnett email newsletters which grew out of the web pages now reach around 800 people directly and many more indirectly, and that was echoed by the number of advance orders we had for the final book. The orders for Unicorn Hunt, the last one before my internet involvement, had been about 120, the next one (To Lie with Lions) rose to just over 200 while Caprice and Rondo was just over 400. May this year found Dorothy and I surrounded by 1000 copies of Gemini, which is over a ton of books (it's a big book), checking, sorting and signing for three days prior to the big release. However any time spent in her company is never dull and we chatted about many aspects of her books as we worked, while she carefully made sure not to reveal any of the twists in Gemini lest she spoil it for me.
June 13th will see a reception and dinner in Edinburgh laid on by publisher Michael Joseph to celebrate the completion of what is in reality a 14 volume series, while July will see the Edinburgh Gathering taking place at Heriot Watt University. This is the latest in a series of conventions which have taken place over the years and will be attended by about 300 readers who will discuss a wide variety of topics relating to the books as well as hearing talks from Dorothy herself and from guest speakers. One of the highlights will be a grand dinner in the recently restored Great Hall of Stirling Castle, which is sure to provide an atmospheric background. One thing we can be sure of is that it will be a delightful evening with scintillating conversation, and that this remarkable woman will still be in fine form long after the rest of us have run out of energy.
What the future holds for her remains to be seen, but she intends to complete a series of mystery thrillers which she wrote some years ago as light relief from the historical novels, while it is also possible that she will return to the detailed research that makes the latter so convincing and this time give us a factual history of the periods in which she is so expert.