Dunnett, (Lady) Dorothy

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DUNNETT, (Lady) Dorothy

Nationality: British. Born: Dorothy Halliday in Dunfermline, Fife, 25 August 1923. Education: James Gillespie's High School, Edinburgh; Edinburgh College of Art; Glasgow School of Art. Family: Married Alastair (later Sir Alastair) M. Dunnett in 1946; two sons. Career: Assistant press officer, Scottish government departments, Edinburgh, 1940-46; member of the Board of Trade Scottish Economics Department, Glasgow, 1946-55; non-executive director, Scottish Television plc, Glasgow, 1979-92. Since 1950 professional portrait painter; since 1986 trustee, National Library of Scotland; since 1990 a direcctor of the Edinburgh Book Festival. Awards: Scottish Arts Council award, 1976; St. Andrews Presbyterian College award, Laurinburg, North Carolina, 1993. Fellow, Royal Society of Arts, 1986. Agent: Curtis Brown, 162-168 Regent Street, London W1R 5TB, England. Address: 87 Colinton Road, Edinburgh EH10 5DF, Scotland.


Novels (Dolly books prior to Bird of Paradise published as Dorothy Halliday in UK)

The Game of Kings. New York, Putnam, 1961; London, Cassell, 1962; New York, Vintage, 1997.

Queens' Play. London, Cassell, and New York, Putnam, 1964; NewYork, Vintage, 1997.

The Disorderly Knights. London, Cassell, and New York, Putnam, 1966; New York, Vintage, 1997.

Dolly and the Singing Bird. London, Cassell, 1968; as The Photogenic Soprano, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Pawn in Frankincense. London, Cassell, and New York, Putnam, 1969; New York, Vintage, 1997.

Dolly and the Cookie Bird. London, Cassell, 1970; as Murder in the Round, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

The Ringed Castle. London, Cassell, 1971; New York, Putnam, 1972;New York, Vintage, 1997.

Dolly and the Doctor Bird. London, Cassell, 1971; as Match for a Murderer, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

Dolly and the Starry Bird. London, Cassell, 1973; as Murder in Focus, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Checkmate. London, Cassell, and New York, Putnam, 1975; NewYork, Vintage, 1997.

Dolly and the Nanny Bird. London, Joseph, 1976; New York, Knopf, 1982.

King Hereafter. London, Joseph, and New York, Knopf, 1982.

Dolly and the Bird of Paradise. London, Joseph, 1983; New York, Knopf, 1984.

Niccolò Rising. London, Joseph, and New York, Knopf, 1986.

The Spring of the Ram. London, Joseph, 1987; New York, Knopf, 1988.

Race of Scorpions. London, Joseph, 1989; New York, Knopf, 1990.

Scales of Gold. London, Joseph, 1991; New York, Knopf, 1992.

Moroccan Traffic. London, Chatto and Windus, 1991; as Take a Fax to the Kasbah, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

The Unicorn Hunt. London, Joseph, 1993; New York, Knopf, 1994.

To Lie with Lions. London, Joseph, 1995; New York, Knopf, 1996.

Caprice and Rondo. London, Michael Joseph, 1997; New York, Knopf, 1998.

Gemini. New York, Knopf, 2000.


The Scottish Highlands, with Alastair M. Dunnett, photographs byDavid Paterson. Edinburgh, Mainstream, 1988.



In Book and Magazine Collector 53 (London), August 1988.

Critical Study:

The Dorothy Dunnett Companion by Elspeth Morrison, London, Joseph, 1994.

* * *

Dorothy Dunnett's fame as a best-selling novelist has been built on two major series of historical romances, a long novel on Macbeth which startled and impressed academic historians, and a series of modern thrillers apparently thrown off with ease as a diversion from her other work.

She came comparatively late to writing, having previously established a reputation as a portrait painter and sculptress. This artistic versatility in itself offers clues to her literary achievement. As a painter she has a remarkable ability to create instantly recognizable likenesses. Her sitters are portrayed with nicely calculated chiaroscuro, their faces and figures standing out against closely observed and romantically ordered backgrounds. As a sculptress she controls the modeling of her subjects with skill, shaping her material into volumes that satisfy from whatever angle they are viewed.

Dunnett's first major series, six novels known as the Lymond saga, opens in turbulent 16th-century Scotland, torn by war and intrigue both in its relations with England and in the domestic struggles of its noble families for power at court. This is the period of Henry VIII's rough dynastic wooing of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, for his son Edward; it is the period also of the Reformation and the clash between the old Catholic order and Protestantism.

The hero of the saga, Francis Crawford of Lymond and later Comte de Sevigny, is condemned as a rebel and forced into exile. The six volumes of the saga recount his clandestine return to Scotland, his quest for the truth about his lineage and rightful inheritance, the adventures which take the wide-ranging story and its characters to France, Russia, Turkey and the Netherlands, and the final denouement of the intricate web of mystery surrounding Lymond's birth. As befits popular romances there is a happy ending; but a great deal goes on before it is delivered.

With each volume of this sprawling tale there is an extraordinary proliferation of sub-plots. The array of major and minor figures, both historical and fictitious, is so numerous that the reader might well get lost in the crowd had the author not prefaced each volume with lists of the leading characters, asterisked if they are her own inventions. Her research into historical events, places, people, their homes, dress and comportment, are so accurate and detailed that the reader can, like the author before starting to write, visit the scenes of the action and, book in hand, calculate the angle of a bow-shot or see where a duel or a lovers' meeting was arranged. Dunnett's stamina in historical and topographical research is indefatigable; and she seemingly cannot bear to throw anything away unused.

In many hands this accumulation of detail would make the story founder. But the author has such energy, such narrative pace, such inventiveness, wit and vitality, that the story is driven forward at breath-taking speed and the reader is kept easily afloat on the running tide of her prose. She has also a deft way with intelligent and witty women and their handling of intelligent, and not so intelligent, men. There is freshness and charm in the love scenes, muscle in the fights and swordplay.

The qualities of the Lymond saga were perceived and promoted by the publisher's editor who discovered Gone with the Wind. A suggestion that Dunnett's next novel should be about Mary, Queen of Scots, or Prince Charles Edward Stuart, ground tilled enough by others, was countered with a proposal to write a book about Macbeth. Hardly known to the public apart from the matter of Shakespeare's play, Macbeth and his world were pursued by the author through countless 11th-century sources, including those for Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, who shared common ancestry with Macbeth and according to some accounts was his foster-brother. Eventually she became convinced that Macbeth and Thorfinn were possibly the same person, presented to the world for reasons of secret intrigue as two individuals. The coincidence of dates and common activities in extending and consolidating the kingdoms of the Northern Isles, Caithness, and Alba into the beginnings of a recognizable Scotland made the identification plausible if not proven beyond doubt. Armed with this historical thesis Dunnett wrote King Hereafter, a blockbuster of a novel whose claim to the popular title of saga is greater than that of the Lymond cycle.

Meantime she was also publishing a series of thrillers, revolving around the portrait painter, yachtsman and Secret Service agent Johnson Johnson and his yacht Dolly. An enterprising feature of these suspense stories is that each is narrated by the girl in the caseall of whom, it seems, are intimidated and repelled by Johnson's bifocal spectacles. The thrillers with their different narrators' voices are great fun, substituting for the classic car chase some hard sailing in foul weather in seas as far apart as the Caribbean and the Scottish Minches.

Dunnett's second long historical series, published under the generic title The House of Niccolò, takes us to the 15th century and the rise of the merchant class in Flanders, France, and Venice, financed by Florentine and Genoese bankers and trading throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Again there has been a massive accumulation of source material for the detailed mises-en-scène; again the characters are highlighted in the foreground of the composition; again the author's sparkling style and swift pace make the work immensely readable. The sixth volume in the series, To Lie with Lions, involves an intensely complex, and strikingly modern-seeming conflict set in the Venice of 1471. In Caprice and Rondo, protagonist Nicholas de Fleurya banker as resourceful as he is ruthlessrecovers from the brink of ruin with a scheme to simultaneously protect Europe from Ottoman invasion and enrich his own purse.

Stewart Sanderson