The questions, discussion topics, historical background, and author biography are designed to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of Dorothy Dunnett’s eight bestselling novels in the House of Niccol?. We hope this guide will enrich your experience of these intriguing and adventuresome works of historical fiction.
Bruges, 1460. Street smart, brilliant at figures, adept at the subtleties of diplomacy and the well-timed untruth, Dunnett’s hero rises from wastrel to prodigy in a breathless adventure that wins him the hand of the most powerful woman in Bruges–and the hatred of two powerful enemies. From a riotous–and potentially murderous–carnival in Flanders to an avalanche in the Alps and a pitched battle on the outskirts of Naples, Niccol? Rising brilliantly combines history, adventure and high romance.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. For Discussion: Niccol? Rising
Despite all the comedy about unlikely items of "trade," from the canon at the beginning to the ostrich at the end, this novel manages to slip in a lot of information about the growing centrality of trade and commerce to the affairs of people and nations. "Alum," if you look it up, has a number of special commercial properties: is Dorothy nudging us here into thinking of it symbolically and if so how? How does the commerce in the mineral "alum," help knit the plot together? How about the gun? The ostrich? What commodities besides material goods are traded?
2. The protagonist "Claes" becomes "Nicholas" by the end of the novel: as with the names, how much of the character’s "development" is simply recognition of what has already been there, and how much is genuine change? How does Felix’s recognition in chapter six, "Claes was always making toys and other people broke them," illuminate this character? What about the exchange with Anselm Adorne towards the end of the novel: "I thought of a way to do it. That was all." "And did it. Why?" "To see what would happen."
3. In Katelina van Borselen Dorothy Dunnett has created a complicated, passionate and in some ways surprisingly modern young woman. What does Katelina mean when she says (chapter nine) that she wishes she were a widow? Does she understand her own nature at this point? How does her journey in the novel from daughter to lover to wife point up the dilemma of young women of rank in this period of transition between the medieval and the modern? In what respects is Katelina better or worse off than the servant Mabelie?
4. The deaths of Felix de Charetty and Jaak de Fleury are two of the more disconcerting and dramatic moments in the novel; more subtle but equally destructive are the underminings of the Scottish St. Pols, father and son. Why do certain intelligent observers come to think Nicholas engineered all these things? What level of responsibility do you think he bears in each of these cases?
5. Why does Marian de Charetty emphasize to the physician Tobie and the lawyers Julius and Gregorio that they must become Nicholas’s "keepers"? Are there others in the novel who perform this function? What, in this context, do you think Tobie means at the end of chapter eight when he observes of the weeping Nicholas that "the voice that he needed didn’t exist"?
6. For Discussion: The House of Niccol?
Throughout the eight books of the House of Niccol? series a picture emerges of Sophie de Fleury, the mother of Nicholas, and of her centrality in the life of her son. Can you put this picture together now –the Sophie of rumor and gossip, the Sophie of Nicholas’s slowly revealed memories, of his maturer judgement, of Andro Wodman’s reporting? Are there still some mysteries and obscurities in this portrait?
7. The House of Niccol? series offers a sustained and in many ways highly sophisticated version of the changes in intellectual , political and psychological structures which mark the transition from the medieval to the modern world. But like any good set of historical novels it abounds too in individual scenes and characters of great emotional, dramatic, and visual power, or stylistic verve, "set pieces" which hang in the memory even longer, perhaps, than the plot or the author’s philosophy of history. What are some of your favorites here–scenes of comic impact or tragic illumination? Best-drawn villain or victim, most vexatious female adolescent? Most breathtaking fight or chase? Most engrossing moment of romance? Most stunning surprise?
8. At the opening of the second volume of the series, and at the closing of the last volume, the voice of an astrologer-character replaces that of the novelist-narrator. What do you make of this–some invitation to compare and contrast those two professions?
9. Some readers will have come to the Niccol? series after reading the Lymond Chronicles, to which they are a ‘prequel’; others have now finished the Niccol? series and will go on to the sequel, the Lymond Chronicles. What are some of the dividends of doing it the first way? The second way? How (after a reading of both) are these two heroes, these two worlds, these two intricate plots, alike and different?
About this Author
Dorothy Dunnett was born in 1923 in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland. Her time at Gillespie’s High School for Girls overlapped with that of the novelist Muriel Spark. From 1940-1955, she worked for the Civil Service as a press officer. In 1946, she married Alastair Dunnett, later editor of The Scotsman
Dunnett started writing in the late 1950s. Her first novel, The Game of Kings
, was published in the United States in 1961, and in the United Kingdom the year after. She has published 20 books to date, including the six-part Lymond Chronicles and the ongoing Niccolo Series. Also an accomplished professional portrait painter, Dunnett has exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy on many occasions and has had portraits commissioned by a number of prominent public figures in Scotland.
She has also led a busy life in public service. In the past, she has been a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Library of Scotland, a Trustee of the Scottish National War Memorial, and Director of the Edinburgh Book Festival. She has also served on numerous cultural committees, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. In 1992 she was awarded the Office of the British Empire for services to literature. She lives in Scotland and has two sons and one grandson.