Then I found Dorothy Dunnett
Updated: Sep 25, 2021
I found Dorothy Dunnett when I was 22 and living in Paris. I had moved there on vague promises from a photographer to hook me up with a reasonably ethical agent and some modeling work. I had no illusions. He wanted to book me to seduce me through the camera lens. The agent was good. The photographer did book me professionally in between hitting on me and some lovely meals, and so I modeled. The #MeToo era it wasn't.
During one of the meanderings one does when one is in their 20s and alone in Paris, I wandered into the famous English bookshop Shakespeare and Company where I found the first book of Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles The Game of Kings. The paperback was thick with a vaguely bodice-ripper style cover. I thought it was a good buy because it would take me some time to read through the several hundred pages. Plus, it fit in my bag along with my portfolio so I could dip into it between appointments. What I discovered was a thickly woven, amazingly researched, multi-layered story of a hero who is grossly mis-understood. Better, it was set in the middle of the 16th century in Scotland. I could retreat to my sparsely furnished flat with fresh fruit and cheese and fall asleep to images of the windswept Anglo-Scots border. I was so lost in the stories that the lusting photographer started to worry that I was not being social enough. He couldn't imagine that I might be more interested in a book than in him.
To my delight, Game of Kings was only the first book in a six book series. It felt like an endless supply of escapism and enticing counterpoint to listening to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings on the Metro. Dorothy Dunnett (1923 - 2001) was a Scottish novelist, painter, and patron of the arts and humanities. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to literature. She was something of a 20th century Renaissance woman in a time when married women having careers was still something of a novelty. Her first series of books, The Lymond Chronicles, was originally published in the US between 1961 and 1972 after being rejected multiple times in the UK. The epic narrative takes place across Europe, the Mediterranean, and Russia between 1547, the year that Henry VIII died and 1558 when Elizabeth I ascended the throne.
Initial sales of The Lymond Chronicles were hampered by deceptive cover art of the bodice ripper variety which threw me off for a bit as I was standing in the bookstore deciding whether to risk my francs on it. There is, in fact, very little bodice ripping across the approximately 4,000 pages of the series, depending on which edition you fall into. And, most of the seductions are initiated by women. The book titles reference chess, and games are a recurrent theme in all of them. This, in some sense, reflects the game the author plays with the reader, challenging us to keep up with her, making no allowances for the multiple languages used without translation and the distinctly late middle ages spelling faithfully replicated with no concession to modernity. The author assumes the reader has the same breadth and depth of humanist education of her protagonist Francis Crawford of Lymond. Poems, parables, ancient texts, and songs are sprinkled throughout all the books in French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish without translation. Thankfully the Arabic poetry is presented in English
Some of Lymond's humanist education is revealed in a scene from The Ringed Castle when the contents of his childhood home library are seen by a character who stumbles into the room accidentally. The contents tell us Lymond studied manuscripts both philosophical and musical as well as published works by Erasmus, St. Augustine, Seneca, Ptolemy, Froissart, Dunbar, Machiavelli, Bude, Aristotle, Copernicus, and of course Cicero. Quotes from these sources are thrown by our hero at the people inhabiting his world and at the reader. Neither party wholly understands all these quotes, poems, parables, or songs, and in some cases both parties, those in Lymond's world and us the readers, occasionally overlook them wondering what they might mean, making mental notes to puzzle it out later. Dunnett makes no apology and provides no crutch to the modern reader. After all, Lymond's education is her education and therefore why shouldn't it be our education?
I confess that in that first reading in the cafes of Paris and my little flat with a view of the Eiffel Tower, I did not bother to try to understand any of that. I made faint-hearted attempts to understand the French quotes but quickly realized the language style was of Lymond's period, not mine. Translating them would not help me order food, or puzzle out overheard conversations on photo shoots where most everyone spoke English anyway. But, I knew! I knew that I wanted to know as much as Dunnett. I wanted to know what the landscape was like in the Debatable Lands. I wanted to know more about Mary of Guise and Margaret Lennox and reivers and the politics of the Rough Wooings. I wanted to know the significance of the battles and the diplomacy. And I wanted to know those people, those women.
Dunnett's work is insidious. Not just the characters and the sometimes byzantine plot, but the presence of her work in the libraries of so many other writers, and I was to find out later, academics. Her work influenced more writers than sales might indicate. Alaya Dawn Johnson on NPR in 2014 said "I've come to think of Dunnett as the literary equivalent of the Velvet Underground: Not many people bought the books, but everyone who did wrote a novel." This includes Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander books, and Deborah Harkness, author of The Discovery of Witches books. Well, I haven't written a novel - yet. But, I have given conference papers on her work and there is a quote from Game of Kings on my wall. Since then, I have reread the entire series approximately 21 times. It's about time for a reread. I am in love with the prose, the characters, the plot points, the descriptions, but mostly, I am in awe of the research represented and transformed by Dunnett's talents.
She wrote a prequel series collectively known as The House of Niccolo which is even longer than The Lymond Chronicles, a novel about the historical Macbeth and a series of detective novels called The Johnson Johnson (the name of the detective) series or informally, the 'Dolly books' as the detective lives on a boat called Dolly. Dunnett was a commissioned painter and exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy. She lead a prominent public life in the Scottish arts, literary, and historical worlds. Although, she was not formally trained in any of these areas of practice and enquiry. Her archives were left to the National Library of Scotland. Thankfully, there are multiple companion guides available now for readers who want to know who Lady Agnes Maxwell was, or that 'I, King of Flesh, flourishing my flowers' is a quote from a medieval mystery play about Mary Magdalene, or that Faire d'une mouche un elephant is translated as 'to make an elephant out of a fly - more recognizable as 'To make a mountain out of a molehill'. or the meanings of the ancient laws and institutes of Ireland from the 5th century.
I leave these quotes here for your perusal.
On the day that his grannie was killed by the English, Sir William Scott the Younger of Buccleuch was at Melrose Abbey, marrying his aunt. - Opening line, The Disorderly Knights
Not to every young girl is it given to enter the harem of the Sultan of Turkey and return to her homeland a virgin. - Opening line, The Ringed Castle
Charles of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor, fending of Islam at Prague and Lutherism in Germany and forcing recoil from the long sticky fingers of the Vatican, cast a considering glance at heretic England. - The 1547 European political landscape in 32 words from Game of Kings
Meg Douglas in girlhood had possessed the gorgeous, leonine sort of beauty that her uncle Henry VIII had frittered away, and of which her father, the Earl of Angus, was the vestigial affidavit. In sixteen years' residence in England, careening at Henry's whim from near-throne to near-block, Margaret had kept her splendor. . . . .And she outlined a plan which was bold, practical and, unintentionally, quite formidable in it ultimate effect. In which she showed herself to be, after all, more Tudor and Douglas than Stewart. - Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox in Game of Kings
She must behave . . .as if she had come merely to visit her child, and as if, given her own way, she would not have smashed the gilded, bubble of dance and laughter with a blow, so that these damned lackadaisical, self-important, rich, preening men would be hurled by circumstance round the conference table, where she would have them, to discuss with all the gifts in their power, the future policies of France and of Scotland. - Mary of Guise in Queen's Play
Lucent and delicate, Drama entered, mincing like a cat. - On my wall in New Hampshire. Game of Kings