A few years ago I asked Jeanne Fielder, Historical Novel Society member and keen Dorothy Dunnett fan, to write for the HNS magazine Solander* an appreciation of Lady Dunnett and her two series of novels, The Lymond Chronicles and The House of Niccolo.
Up to that point I’d never read any of the books, although I’d heard much praise and been warned that once I began to read I’d soon be hooked to the point of neglecting my family, missing meals, Christmases, birthdays etc.
Jeanne recommended that I start with King Hereafter, Dorothy Dunnett’s only standalone historical novel, which is about Macbeth as he may really have been (i.e. not Shakespeare’s version). I duly did so but, alas, despite the evocative settings and rich characterization, I gave up about a third of the way through, having become hopelessly bogged down in the complex plotting. In the end, I guess, I really didn’t care enough about the people to persevere and find out what happened to them all.
But a niggling feeling persisted that I hadn’t given Dunnett a fair crack of the reading whip, so I embarked on The Lymond Chronicles a couple of months ago and have now read the first two, The Game of Kings and Queens‘ Play. I thoroughly enjoyed both. I loved being in that beautifully-imagined and totally convincing world of 16th-century Scotland, The Borders and France; loved rakish Lymond, and all those treacherous, reckless, hapless Lords and Marquises and their strong, sensible, loving women; loved the jokes and humour – and the dialogue which Dunnett gets so right for historical novels, neither too self-consciously archaic nor too jarringly modern. So few authors can bring this off nowadays; one of the best, in my opinion, is Elizabeth Chadwick.
However, I still couldn’t follow all the intricate plotting and interplotting and subplotting. although I did manage to hold on to the main plot thread in each book.
So – a couple of questions for Dunnett devotees in Blogland:
1. Am I missing something? Am I indeed alone in getting so muddled in the Dunnettian entanglements? (Be brutal – you can tell me I’m thick. I can take it. Indeed, I suspect it already.)
2. If I looked up all the literary allusions and the translations of foreign quotations in The Dorothy Dunnett Companion, would I be better able to follow the plots and plotettes? (Generally I don’t like doing this while reading a novel as it tends to jolt me out of the story.)
*Incidentally, Lady Dunnett died the day Jeanne turned in her article for Solander. A year or two later, I wrote an appreciation of the American historical novelist Howard Fast for the same organ, and guess what….! At that point I decided it was time to stand down as editor, lest Solander acquire a reputation for doing to historical novelists what Hello magazine is reputed to do to the celeb weddings it features.