When I was studying Italian Renaissance Art and History at the University of St. Andrews, there was a marvellous bookstore and stationers in the town.
The bookstore section of the shop was upstairs. And one reached it by means of this corner staircase that wound round and up.
So, after lectures or tutorials, I used to go up there–it was a taste of heaven on a cold, dark afternoon.
It was warm. There were oak bookshelves crammed with books on every wall and books on every table top too. And in the corner, there was a stool which was generally used to reach the higher-up books, but I used to sit on it and read. Or choose which novel I’d have that week. Any excuse not to write my essays and do my research.
And it was there, one very raw November afternoon, that I discovered the historical novels of Dorothy Dunnett.
I bought the first of them, The Game of Kings, (which copy I still have) and within a dozen pages, she had me–completely had me. (What right-minded body could resist a sozzled and greased pig racing up the stone stairs of an Edinburgh townhouse, chased by…?)
And over the next couple of months, as I didn’t write my essays, I read all six of her Lymond novels.
What was so remarkable to me at the time was how she simply blew away all the walls that historians had constructed between subjects and countries and disciplines.
I was, and had been for some time, specialising in Renaissance history. But always it was packaged into neat little compartments, country by country, literature separated from art which was separate from music, and all of that separate from the poetry, as if all of these places and things existed and evolved in vacuums.
If one studied French history, no references were made, unless they were at war, to any other country. And the same with England. Or Italy.
As for the roiling political entities that bordered the Mediterranean Sea–just forget it.
Dunnett swept all that away.
Through the Lymond Chronicles and the characters she created or lifted from history, she showed how they were all interconnected–through marriage, trade, diplomacy and politics, exchanges of art and poetry and music; they travelled widely, many of them were polyglots. Everything spilled into everything else.
There were no boxes. No compartments. No barriers. It was fantastic. And her work completely and utterly changed my perception of the world I was studying.
But she did more besides. She captured the dazzling exuberance of the age one often glimpses in the poetry or plays or music–the raw fun of it all.
Then too, because she created this cast of characters who she introduced into the real events of the past, and about whom one came to care so deeply, she made the past personal. Whatever it was, it didn’t just happen to a bunch of dead guys. It happened to a dear friend, and you were there in the room with them when it happened.
And that is a remarkable gift.
I later met Dorothy and got to know her. She was as stupendous in person as she was on the page.
Her dedication to her research and to getting it ‘right’ was unparalleled. At one point, she had a massive family tree of all the royals and semi-royals of the Dark Ages spread across the floor of her dining room for months on end while she sorted out who was related to whom, and how the connections worked in regards to claims for the Scottish throne. (For her novel, King Hereafter.)
Nor did she ever flinch. She faced up to the horrors of life in the Renaissance and whilst I would never say she wallowed in it, she never made excuses nor did she pass judgment, because their ways of doing things, their sense of right and wrong or justice, were very different from ours. And that takes a great degree of courage.
Without her, I don’t think I would ever have dared to write the novels I’ve written. But if I am even half as successful in demonstrating that the world of early 19th century Europe was one would, as she did for the Renaissance, then I will have done very well indeed.
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I remember that bookshop so well – also being a St Andrew’s history graduate! I was also a Dunnett fan, but, sadly, I only came back to Edinburgh after she died – there used to be a good exhibition on her work in the Writer’s Museum.
Thanks for a lovely post – which I found from your reply to Elizabeth Chadwick’s question on the HNS facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/7739864930/10150381468434931/?notif_t=group_activity
I was back there a few years ago, and I’m happy to report that little has changed. Well, a lot has changed, actually, but not Innes’, the bookstore, and not Fisher and Donaldson’s.
This was a beautiful post.
I want to read her and I feel challenged in my own writing and research.
Thank you x