Dorothy, Lady Dunnett, OBE, author, cult Scottish novelist, portrait painter and sculptress, died on the 9th of November, 2001.
Dorothy Dunnett’s only rival as 20th Century Scotland’s pre-eminent author of historical fiction, related to or anchored in and about Scotland, is Nigel Tranter. It is probably also fair to say that Dorothy’s writing is of a consistently higher quality than our man Nigel’s is. That should be ‘was’ in both cases as sadly, both authors are now deceased and are no longer writing. However, their novels are still available to be read, whether you buy them from Amazon, download them onto your Kindle or Nook, or borrow them from the library – now there’s a novelty. If you are interested in Scottish history and aren’t fond of history books, you should invest some time in searching out these authors. Lady Dunnett’s books are not ‘bodice-rippers’ so don’t be put off by some of the cover art.
Dorothy Dunnett is best known for two series of historical fiction, namely ‘The Lymond Chronicles’ and ‘The House of Niccolo’. These superb series are set in the 15th and 16th Centuries, and, whilst anchored in Scotland, the characters and plots range throughout the Europe of the Late Middle Ages. You can say that Dunnett had stamina as her tales of Francis Crawford of Lymond and Nicholas de Fleury are chronicled, respectively, through six and eight large volumes. Nigel Tranter only managed several trilogies, albeit his output is more exclusively Scottish and, in spanning the Centuries from the 6th to the 18th, it could be said he achieved a sort of continuum. Lady Dunnett is also famous for causing a stir with her story of Earl Thorfinn of Orkney, which is set in the 11th Century. She sparked a controversy with that novel, because she believed that Thorfinn and Macbeth were one and the same man. Whether or not that was true, her story knocks spots of the eponymous tragedy of Will Shakespeare.
Dunnett’s tale of ‘Thorfinn Macbeth’ came about when she rejected her publisher’s suggestion that she write about Bonnie Prince Charlie or Mary, Queen of Scots. Instead, she proposed to write of Macbeth and signed up to produce a single volume work, to be completed inside two years at the most. Things didn’t work out quite as planned, but having established a reputation for meticulous research already, that shouldn’t have been so surprising. The title ‘King Hereafter’ took ten years to research and when the saga was published in 1982, it “startled and impressed academic historians” and “set historians aquiver”. During her research, she studied every available book related to Macbeth; around seven hundred in total. And fascinatingly, during her life, she acquired a reference library of over ten thousand books, most of which were donated to Edinburgh University after her death, still festooned with annotations, bookmarks and sticky notes.
Of course, Macbeth is hardly known to the general public, apart from his appearance in Shakespeare's play. But Dunnett’s ideas about Macbeth began to take shape as she read, with the figure of Earl Thorfinn ‘the Mighty’, Jarl of Orkney, always featuring prominently. The theory that she developed was that Thorfinn and Macbeth were one and the same, despite the common belief amongst historians that they were foster brothers. Eventually, faced with proving the theory or publishing the book, she had to choose the latter. The outcome then, is that the truth remains a mystery, for Dunnett’s thesis generated at least sufficient doubt for her theory to be accepted as a plausible alternative to the accepted version of history. Lady Dunnett considered her saga of Thorfinn Macbeth as her masterpiece and it is indeed regarded by many as her finest work. She wove her tale around the coincidence of dates and common activities surrounding Thorfinn ‘Raven Feeder’ and Macbeth. The story also revolves around the consolidation and extension of the Kingdoms of the Northern Isles, Caithness, and Alba into the beginnings of a recognisable Scotland, but it is Thorfinn who becomes the King who became known as Macbeth.
Dorothy Halliday was born in Dunfermline on the 25th of August, 1923, but she grew up in the Corstorphine area of Edinburgh. She was educated at the James Gillespie High School for Girls; the school where Muriel Spark, also a pupil, based ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’. Dorothy studied at the Edinburgh College of Art and the Glasgow School of Art, and later became a talented portrait painter, and exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy. During the Second World War, she worked for the Civil Service as a Press Officer in Edinburgh and it wasn’t until she was thirty-eight that she took up writing, and only because she complained of having nothing of interest to read. Her husband, bless him, told her to write something herself and the rest, as we can say for sure, was history.
Her first novel, the first of six books of the ‘Lymond Chronicles’, was snapped up by the legendary American editor Lois Dwight Cole, and published in 1961. After ‘Game of Kings’, Francis Crawford, a blond aristocrat “who quoted poetry in five languages and was nasty to everyone” was reintroduced to an increasingly enthusiastic readership in a further five volumes, spanning fifteen years of the 16th Century. Following her book about Macbeth, Dunnett produced the eight volumes of the ‘House of Niccolo’ featuring a dyer’s apprentice from Bruges, which became, in effect, a prequel to the ‘Lymond Chronicles’. She wrote a total of twenty-two books and, in 1992, she was awarded an OBE for her services to literature. Lady Dunnett was variously, a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Library of Scotland, a Trustee of the Scottish National War Memorial, a Director of the Edinburgh Book Festival, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a non-Executive Director of Scottish Television. Dorothy, Lady Dunnett, died in an Edinburgh hospice of cancer of the liver and pancreas on the 9th of November, 2001.
Dorothy Dunnett attracted a devoted following with her multi-volume sagas and her works have inspired conventions, which are attended by hundreds of people, fan magazines and several Internet forums. Anne Malcolm, in the the ‘New York Times Book Review’, said Dunnett’s books are “almost certainly destined to be counted among the classics of popular fiction”. Simon Hedges, an admirer, in ‘A-Eye-for-Books’ described Lady Dunnett as an “extraordinary writer” and went on to say that her books are “not easy reads” and they “require attention and thought” adding, “They are filled with false trails and really need to be read more than once”, which is a fair summary. They are not for the casual reader; but certainly the discerning reader.