Linda Gillard has written two novels, Emotional Geology (shortlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award) and A Lifetime Burning, both published by Transita. She has been an actress, journalist and teacher, and has a particular interest in mental health issues. She lives on the Isle of Skye. Below Linda discusses Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles.
Linda Gillard on The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett
There is such a thing as too much choice. Speaking as someone who has a tendency to hyperventilate in Starbucks, it is with some relief that I find the answer to all of the following questions is the same.
Which is your favourite book?For me the answer to all these questions is The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett (1923-2001), a series of six historical novels (beginning with The Game of Kings) which tell the story of Francis Crawford, Master of Lymond: nobleman, outlaw, mercenary and angry young man. The Game of Kings opens in Edinburgh in 1547 when Lymond is 20. He returns in secret to his native war-torn and defeated Scotland, carrying, as they say, a lot of emotional baggage. Outlawed as a spy, condemned for the murder of his sister, sold to the French as a galley slave, Lymond is on the run and back in Scotland, nursing vengeance, determined to redeem his reputation, even at the cost of his life.
Which is your favourite Scottish book?
Which is your favourite historical novel?
Which book would you take to a desert island?
Which book have you re-read most often?
Which book contains the greatest romantic hero?
Which book has influenced you most as a writer?
Which book do you consider a neglected masterpiece?
And that's just the backstory. Dunnett begins in medias res and the reader clings to her narrative coat-tails for six long volumes as Lymond's story, vast in geographical, historical, philosophical and emotional scope, whisks us on a tour of the dazzling and mostly corrupt courts of Scotland, England, France, the Ottoman Empire and the Russia of Ivan the Terrible.
But does all that make you want to read it? Answer: probably not. Perhaps if I explain how I discovered the books, you might begin to grasp the power of Dunnett as a storyteller.
Twenty years ago I was present at a lively gathering of intelligent women, members of what was known then as the National Housewives Register. Our meetings were strictly non-domestic in their subject matter and for this one we'd been asked to introduce a favourite book. A civil servant called Carole - a lady not known for excitability - produced a copy of The Game of Kings and attempted to explain her choice. She soon descended, as Dunnett fans are wont to do, into incoherent, ecstatic praise, tinged with not a little sexual excitement. We got the distinct impression that if the story was pretty damned exciting, the hero was more so. Having listened to Carole's breathless recommendation, I decided (like the old lady in the diner in When Harry Met Sally) that I'd have some of what she was having. I duly acquired a copy.
Could a book possibly live up to such expectations? I was pregnant at the time, nauseous, exhausted and apprehensive about the pregnancy as I'd miscarried the last. To capture my attention, Dunnett would have to be good.
She wasn't just good, she was like nothing I'd ever read before. For a start she was harder than anything I'd ever read before. Were we supposed to understand these French and Latin tags? Were we supposed to like this scumbag of a protagonist, who robs his charming mother at knifepoint? Was his paint-stripper sarcasm meant to be appealing? And was the author ever going to explain who were the good guys?
I wrestled with moral ambiguity and a Byzantine plot for a hundred pages, then fell in love, hopelessly and permanently. (The passion is 20 years old and shows no sign of abating, rather the reverse.) It's interesting to note that the coup de foudre seems to occur at roughly the same point for many a struggling Dunnett tyro and has a lot to do with the appearance of an idiotic, blue-eyed Spaniard, Don Luis Fernando de Cordoba y Avila. The acquaintance of Don Luis once made, things begin to fall into place. You catch the twinkle in Dunnett's authorial eye and you are hooked.
Are The Lymond Chronicles just a rattling good read then? Emphatically not. The Game of Kings was voted into second place in the '100 Best Scottish Books of All Time' poll (beaten by Lewis Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair). The series also appeared in the top 10 when Woman's Hour polled readers on 'Books that changed my life'. On a technical note, Dunnett's books have taught me more about writing than any other author's. (She is an object lesson in how to use adverbs, which is rarely and with panache.)
The Chronicles are my literary Forth Bridge. I re-read the cycle perpetually and when I come to the end of Checkmate, the final volume in the series, I always feel a need to return to the beginning again. With every re-reading I admire Dunnett's achievements more, marvel at how she dared to write books that could not be appreciated fully in one reading or even two. She didn't care if you couldn't immediately grasp a point of plot or motivation. She refused to simplify. She expected you to work hard and knew that many readers enjoy working hard. (I doubt whether she'd have found a publisher today. After repeated rejections in the UK, Dunnett finally found a US publisher in 1961.)
So the books are scholarly then, as well as a good yarn? Yes, scrupulously researched and based on the known facts. No liberties are taken with history. But what you read - and re-read - the books for is Dunnett's characters. Where will you find comparable creations, outside Shakespeare and Dickens? There is no more quirky, complex or loveable heroine in British fiction than Philippa Somerville (although Jane Eyre and Lizzie Bennett come close). There is an arch-villain (I dare not speak his name) beside whom Iago seems like a decent chap with low self-esteem issues. There are hilarious low-lifes (including my favourite, Archie Abernethy, zoo-keeper to the French court who finds elephants easier to handle than people) and there are historical figures: Mary Tudor, Mary of Guise, the young Mary Queen of Scots, Ivan the Terrible, all of whom are painted in the same vivid colours and absorbing detail as the fictional characters. (Dunnett, Renaissance woman, was also a professional portrait painter and it shows.)
Above all there is Francis Crawford of Lymond, the ultimate anti-hero, whom Woman's Hour listeners voted 'The Greatest Romantic Hero of All Time', beating front-runners Darcy, Rochester and Heathcliff. Lymond: a combination of bad-boy sex-appeal and crystalline integrity; possessor of a musician's soul coupled with the mind of a military tactician. He sells his body when politically expedient, but never his allegiance to Scotland or family. Lymond is an engrossing enigma sustained for 3000 pages, at the end of which you are left reeling but wanting more. The series ends in 1558 when Lymond is still only 32, but old in grief and experience. He has lost friends, lovers and family members but emerges finally from his personal Hell, redeemed by love and loyalty.
The Lymond Chronicles have been my vade-mecum for 20 years. They distracted me from sickness and anxiety as I awaited the birth of my son. Last year they comforted me as I witnessed the slow, undignified death of my father from stomach cancer. The Chronicles were the mental morphine I used to dull pain, quench anger. When I wasn't actually reading a volume, I was likely to be holding one, like a talisman, a remedy against despair. Which brings me finally to two more questions I can answer without a moment's hesitation:
With which book would you await a birth?The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. No question.
With which book would you await a death?