How Dorothy Dunnett’s legacy lives on…
I have an exceptional guest blogger today. Former book critic, and now historical fiction writer, her books light a fire in one’s belly rather as Dorothy Dunnett did. She has a sharp wit which I rather like and we share a number of commonalities.
I first met M.m. Bennetts in a Facebook group of english historical fiction authors and we connected over four things – our love of history, our love of horses (that is she, above) our love of cakey (yes, cakey!) and our admiration for the unparalleled Dorothy Dunnett…
“It all begins with Dorothy Dunnett, doesn’t it?
We all may have different stories about how we first encountered and then were drawn through her mystical wardrobe into the worlds of Lymond and Niccolo, but the result was always the same.
She changed us. She rattled our views and understanding of history. She changed everything.
I was studying Mediaeval History against the howl of the wind off the North Sea, amongst the mediaeval granite beauty of St. Andrews…
– when I say, Mediaeval history, I mean specialising in the Italian Renaissance as according to the world of history then the mediaeval period was divided from modern history in 1492 – though I do believe we’ve got a little less strict about that date since then … I hope so at least.
And, well, to break up the endless reading, and writing of essays, the daily visits to the tea rooms – I wasn’t just learning about Quattrocento Italy, I was learning to appreciate cakey! – to warm self after a few hours spent in an unheated lecture hall, I might occasionally have wandered up the stairs into the local hideaway for bibliophiles … or maybe you’d like to phrase it as it really was: I was skiving. (One had to have some novel or other to substitute within all those open tomes…)
And there, one day, she was. Sexy blond bloke on book cover (which I later discovered she thought so tacky and hated!). Intriguing blurb on back. And nothing at home to idle away time with because there certainly was nothing on telly.
So it happened. It was so simple. So straightforward. And it involved pigs in castles–too startling, too wonderful, too delicious! I was lost. More lost than I knew. For as The Game of Kings segued into Queen’s Play–and I got further and further behind on my research into nevermind–my literary and historical landscape was being extended and stretched out beyond anything I had ever perceived.
This was nothing like the historical romances that were the escapism passages of my younger years. This was history brought alive, played out in a painter’s panoramic canvas, encompassing all that I had been studying but had never linked as one world. These were characters who had nothing to do with stock responses, but living, seething, laughing, more real than my hand characters. I didn’t just know them, I feared them, I loved them, I loathed them.
And the history, oh, the history! It was this shimmering seamless warp and woof of life rooted in the realities of 16th century life. No mere backdrop for a modern tale of courtship, this, but the politics, the passions and possessions which drove that, the music, the poetry, the power-broking, the mercenary wars, the trade which paid for everything, the skullduggery…
Yet that didn’t even touch upon the refinement of character nor the extra-ordinary investigative research Dunnett brought to her work. Nor her poet’s and painter’s eye for the incisive word, the perfect sentence, the balance of literary description, colour and prhase and cadence.
She was a game-changer. Of that there can be no doubt! Ever. Historical fiction would never be the same.
I completed my studies. I went home.
And a few years hence found myself working as a book critic for a major newspaper assigned to review the first novel in Dunnett’s new sequence, Niccolo Rising.
And it was all there–the jewels of her undoubted crown: the history, the dazzling multi-faceted characters, the endless invention, the minutiae of their daily lives, the wonder of this world that she understood and into which she invited me. Which led to my newspaper (unwisely?) saying yes to a proposition that I should interview her for them.
And so we met.
She was the warmest, friendliest, most wonderful individual, with a wicked effervescent sense of humour, a delicious laugh, a profound humility about her work, a profound reverence for history and the facts and she would go to any lengths to ferret out the truth. Of all the countries and places about which she wrote, of all those locations, there was only one she didn’t visit–Mali in north Africa. (Alastair, looking at the transportation arrangements of one yellow bus which was regularly held up, said “No.”) And she always did take an extra empty suitcase, which would return with her, crammed of books she’d bought at the destination de la semaine…
And there was the family tree of every royal and Viking family stretched across the floor of the dining room (and it was no small dining room, I can assure you!) as she traced Macbeth’s bloodlines for King Hereafter…she spent five years researching that novel and in the midst of a most crucial moment of discovery of who was related to whom, her youngest son burst into the room after school, full of the news of the day and she lost the day’s work. So, he, sensible lad, invented a series of pins and stickers for her so that when he exploded into the room (every day), she could fix her days’ work on the genealogical map and lose nothing. And he didn’t lose a limb either. Win-win.
Well, all those years ago, when I did first meet her, she was more generous with her time and her openness about her work than the feeding of the multitudes–that won’t surprise you. I returned to my editor with a four hour interview, so laden of insight, humour, modesty and inspiration and just the joy in her work, that the interview was given the centre spread in the newspaper.
Dorothy was delighted. Her publisher was even more delighted. And her agent was over the moon!
But what was even better, we had become firm friends…and I saw her every time I was in Edinburgh. And we phoned frequently and she was as she ever was, full of vim, joy, interest, laughter, the next Edinburgh festival, Alastair, her next novel… I still miss her sorely.
And I cherish, absolutely cherish and always shall cherish, the inscription in The Unicorn Hunt which she sent me upon publication…
Yes, Dorothy Dunnett changed everything.
She showed us how to write so that we were in the room and not viewing from a safe distance. She challenged us to see beyond the stereotypes and into the portraits of the age. She raised the literary bar. She dared us to remember that they of the past were people–good ones, rough ones, dishonourable ones, wild ones, and they didn’t live in bubbles without smell or sound or light or laughter or music, nor were they tainted with modern sensibilities.
Honestly and without flinching, she painted the whole canvas! And none of us will ever be the same for having viewed the rambunctious and tender worlds of Lymond and Niccolo through the extra-ordinary talent of her pen. Not ever. Thank the heavens for it!
And even now, for those of us mad enough to take the challenge, she dares us to write it too.
Thank you, M.m, for the story of DD, of the way she inspired you and of the memories you have. I suspect that knowing you and hearing about DD from you, that you and she probably shared cakey as well!
M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early 19th century Britain and the Napoleonic wars and has written two novels set amidst the turmoil of the period: May 1812 and Of Honest Fame, both of which can be purchased at
Link for amazon.co.uk
Link for amazon.com
Or follow Bennetts on the blog at www.mmbennetts.com or on Twitter @mmbennetts
Thank you for this . My favourite HF Author. Wonderful writer .
Me too, Jayne62. I discovered her many many years ago in our village library. Niccolo Rising. It was like being struck by lightning and from then I was truly a fangirl. Have, like most DD devotees, read all the hist.ficts over and over and STILL find things I missed. They are my desert island books. Wasn’t M.m lucky? I have to say that you will have somewhat of a lightning experience if you read May 1812 and Of Honest Fame by M.m as well. Do seek them out…
Lovely tribute to DD. I knew her as well and agree with everything MM says about her. It’s surprising so few people know King Hereafter, who love her other books. It’s a remarkable work, and of course you end up convinced that she was right! One thing MM didn’t mention – she loved fast cars and spent her earnings on them! Good to see a picture of one of my local landmarks here too.
I know of King Hereafter and the JohsonJohnsonbooks but have never read them – King Hereafter because I was Macbeth-ed out at school and university. And JohnsonJohnson because I’ve never really read mysteries. To be a complete devotee however, it is something that will be rectified so that I can then admit to the total experience. Ann, I also think you would thoroughly enjoy M.M’s books, May 1812, and Of Honest Fame. Like you, she is a very literary, elegant and beautifully crafted writer and her characters zing (yes zing, not sing) off the page. Her research is truly exemplary. Highly recommended!
Prue – King Hereafter is as similar to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as House of Niccolo is to Georgette Heyer. Give it a go. Some of her best writing is there.
Good morning Simhedges. I recognise that name and feel quite privileged that thanks to M.m. you have all visited the blog. I will read King hereafter to be sure. I think a lot of it has to do with reading maturity as well. I was too close to Macbeth in those early years and time is a wonderful healer. I had to laugh at the comparison of House of Niccolo with Georgette Heyer. And yet, having only delved in Heyer in the last three years, I have to say her wit is as perfect as Dorothy’s. Strange comparison perhaps, but there you go.
Lovely descriptons of both the wonderful writing and the incomparable woman herself – exactly as I remember her. Even more than a decade on it still hurts that she’s no longer with us but I can still hear her soft voice and sparkling laughter, and every time I drink Talisker I remember the large drams and vibrant conversations I was lucky enough to share with her. She did love her whisky!
Hallo Bill, lovely to have you here and to comment as you have done. The Talisker sounds rather wonderful! I suspect that rather a swag of DD has rubbed off on many of us, not the least the author of this fabulous guest post. M.M has a way with words of which I’m envious, I can tell you and which you will see in May 1812 and Of Honest Fame.
I still have a small cassette of a radio interview DD did here in Australia and I have cherished it because she was so generous with the way she described her writing life. I am also a member of the DD society and thoroughly enjoyed the latest issue of Whispering Gallery which revealed so many of her notes, comments etc from her research and from her writing days. I do hope Whispering Gallery reveals more as Edinburgh is a long way from my home in Tasmania and it’s a wee bit difficult to see her notes for myself.
Prue – now that the Dunnett Archive in Edinburgh is more fully catalogued, I know that the Whispering Gallery Editor hopes to include more archive material for those unable to visit it for themselves.
So Janet has confirmed and which I find thrilling!
Prue, you’ll be pleased to hear that Suzanne, the Whispering Gallery editor, has plans to publish more of the material discovered in the Dorothy Dunnett Archive in the National Library of Scotland. (For other readers, Whispering Gallery is the quarterly journal for members of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, http://dunnettcentral.org)
Hallo Janet. I am delighted about Whispering Gallery taking us further into DD’s notes. I learned more about Dorothy in those snippets than at any other time (apart from hearing tales like M.m’s, Ann Swinfen’s and Bill Marshall’s. The latest edition of WG was a complete window into her personality and method. Cheers and best.
Thanks Prue, was glad to be able to do so. The Talisker was grand as always. I had bought her a bottle as a thankyou when she signed 1000 copies of Gemini for us over two days. Another evening we’d demolished a bottle of Balvenie (she poured very generous glasses!) and I seem to remember Glenmorangie featuring on another occasion.
If M.M’s book writing is as evocative as her description above then they’ll be good. I’m afraid I seldom have time to read anything other than Dorothy (and loads of technical web-related stuff for work) and have recently been reading most of Lymond again for the talk I gave on Jerott at the DDS AGM weekend 10 days ago. (It’s on the Dunnett blog if you want to read it – http://www.dorothydunnett.co.uk/blog/book-discussion/jerott-blyth.php )
I know the interview you mean – I have a Mini-Disc recording of it somewhere – and yes it’s typically warm and modest.
Though I’m no longer on the DDS committee and thus am not as up to date with plans as I used to be, I’m sure that there will be more material from the archives now that they’ve been fully indexed (kudos to Pam Keeling for her work on that).
In some ways I have mixed feelings about some of it – we can never know for sure which bits were experiments and preparatory playing with the characters and relationships, and which were final decisions, and some people tend to jump to conclusions. There’s also the aspect that if we have everything given to us from the archives then there’s less to discuss and interpret ourselves – and that is part of the real joy. But we’ve had an extraordinary amount of joy already and the gathering always provide more. Her legacy lives on.
I can understand what you say about mixed feelings re revelations of her notes, but speaking as a writer, it is always a privilege to learn from one’s icons. A writer’s characters and plots can go through chameleon changes in the writing of a novel and for me, for M.m Bennetts, for Ann Swinfen, SJA Turney and many others, to see that top echelon writers (to whom we owe a great debt for the remodelling of the genre) did exactly the same is not only reassuring, it is exciting!
In many ways, perhaps her scrawls and doodles around particular scenes and characters will give more subject matter to discuss and conject over rather than less. I hope so anyway, as for me as far away geographically as I am, it is a godsend.
I am still laughing over the whisky. Today I have learned much. That her intrepid nature included not just travelling but whisky and fast cars! What a woman! It was either Ann Swinfen (Ann was instrumental in establishing the highly reputable Dundee Book Festival) or M.m Bennetts who told me once of her buttonholing a particular academic at a function once and bleeding him dry of information in his chosen field. Her mental retention must have been phenomenal as well – despite the Glenmorangie!
On the matter of notes and planning, I remember DD telling me that she made massive use of Post-It notes. I wonder whether those have survived!
Good point, Ann. I am sure that they would be included in the Archive Collection in Edinburgh if they have.
The post-it notes were mostly used to make places in reference books. These books are not in the National Library of Scotland. I now own a number of them.
How lucky you are to have such a collection. By any chance I wonder if she had written notes and comments in the reference books themselves?
Oops, the word “indeed” was supposed to be on the end of that last post
What a treat! I once attended a private lunch attended by Lady Dunnett – She seemed quite small in stature to me and around her neck wore a necklace with the largest unicorn I ever saw. Gaudy on some – it was perfect for her. She showed me, a fledgling historical fiction fan, the most heavenly universe of words and fiction. (And opened my mind to others, like Patrick O’Brien.)
I must add that when I read the first chapter of Of Honest Fame I experienced the same sensations and revelations as when I first encountered D.D. – that here I was again, finally, in the midst of prose by a master of the universe of writing.
I agree, Judith. I think M.m.’s manipulation of the English language is wonderful and i have to say, I am green. Eminent wordage is a true artform and she has it in spades. The other thing too, is how her post here has drawn many closet DD’s to front up. On Facebook, I am delighted with the number of Dunnettites I have found in the last 24 hours. Always a bonus when these things happen. Pure serendipity.
In reply to Judith, I would hazard a guess that the private lunch at which Dorothy Dunnett wore her unicorn took place after the publication of “The Unicorn Hunt” in 1993. She had commissioned for herself a replica of a modern recreation of the ancient Order of the Unicorn’s chain, based on a design by Charles Burnett who was then Ross Herald. She was delighted with the design and told him he was “a genius”. The Dorothy Dunnett Society adopted that unicorn as its official device in 2012 and sells a brooch replica.
Whenever I see any of Rogier van der Weyden’s portraits where the subject is wearing a gold chain with the Golden Fleece hanging off the end, I always think of Anselm Adorne.