In Memoriam – Dorothy Dunnett

This appreciation first appeared in Locus Magazine, December 2001.

I met Dorothy Dunnett first in the spring of 1975, a memory I cherish and a moment that was to teach me something about writers and how they might deal graciously with readers. I was living in a village called Hanney – just outside of Oxford – that year, working on the papers that became The Silmarillion. At one point, going through the Tolkien correspondence (which was a part of the editing process), I came across a note from JRRT’s American editor, mentioning that after visiting with him in Oxford, she’d gone up to Edinburgh to see Dorothy and Alastair Dunnett who were – the letter advised – great fans of Tolkien’s work and eagerly awaiting The Silmarillion.

I was young, an admirer of Dunnett’s work, and probably looking for a sign like this.

In May, when I took a short break from the book, I was driven up to Edinburgh by a friend in the village and after checking into my hotel went straight to her house on Colinton Road and rang the bell. At the moment I did so, Checkmate, the last volume of her Lymond Chronicles, was sitting at #1 on the UK bestseller list. I was doing the sort of thing you really shouldn’t do. Dorothy Dunnett answered the door herself: a small, elegant, smiling woman. Intruding on her doorstep, I didn’t really deserve the smile I received. I took a breath and introduced myself, said something about Tolkien, the long-ago letter I’d found, The Silmarillion. Her eyes registered – as I remember – an extraordinary openness to the surprises of the world. She invited me to come for tea the next afternoon.

We spent about three hours talking that following day in a home where I later learned she and her equally remarkable husband had entertained royalty. My principal memory of that first conversation twenty-six years ago is the extreme lengths I had to go to talk about her and her works, to deflect her queries from myself. Not from the book I was working on (I didn’t discuss the details of editing The Silmarillion then, and still don’t) but from my own interests and travels … and writings. Writings almost completely unpublished, some barely formulated in my own mind. She kept asking questions, almost unbearably flattering: a consummate, exquisite hostess, alertly curious, witty, easy with laughter. An intoxicating person.

She remained so all her life. The loss felt around the world, following upon her death on November 9th, is not only for a brilliantly engaging novelist, but for the brilliantly engaging personality that came through for anyone who met her, even briefly.

I happened to attend, mostly by chance, the first of the Dunnett conventions in Edinburgh eleven years ago. She’d told me about it some months before when Laura and I entertained her and Alastair and a few other friends at a Toronto restaurant. Although Dorothy’s work always contained an element of the fantastic – precognition, prophecies, and much more than these in the later Niccolò books – she had no familiarity with the convention-going dimension of the sf world. She expressed a wry measure of apprehension as to how it would all play out and asked if I’d try to come. Alastair echoed all of this even more wryly, requesting that someone be there with whom he could drink single malt and keep a watchful eye on events from a careful distance.

By sheer coincidence, the UK promotional tour for my novel, Tigana, coincided perfectly with the dates of the Edinburgh gathering. I was able to attend, to see the affair carried off with elan and grace, to watch a fellow Canadian (Elizabeth Holden) win the first Dunnett trivia contest, with questions posed by Dorothy herself. In her address to the gathering after a closing banquet, Dorothy began by working through, chronologically, when she had first encountered some of the attendees. I sat there and heard her recall – with unsettling precision – a young Canadian ringing her bell one afternoon in the spring of 1975.

Her works represent what endures, and this is always so for a writer. Readers, after absorbing the blow of realizing that an ouevre is now complete, can go back to the books, and new readers will emerge, for these immensely sophisticated novels will last. The loss, for those who knew her, is of the person. It isn’t always the case that someone can dazzle both in person and in print … indeed, I’d say it is strikingly, memorably rare. Dorothy, Lady Dunnett, did both.

Poetry (in many languages) and music are inextricably bound up with her writing and my own sense of her. The books are filled – gloriously so, spilling over – with music and verse. Thomas Wyatt, a contemporary of her protagonists, is memorably quoted several times in the Lymond series. What I think of now, is this one:

Now is my song both sung and past,
My lute be still, for I have done.

We are reduced by her passing, and greater for her song.

– Guy Gavriel Kay

© Guy Gavriel Kay


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