The House of Niccolò: Book I
Having finished the Lymond Chronicles, I needed a little time for my absorption in that series to fade, before I embarked on my next fix of Dorothy Dunnett. It would have been sheer indulgence to read the Chronicles and the House of Niccolò all in one go. As you know, I’m not a complete newcomer to Niccolò: I read the first three books last year, which on their own were sufficient to prompt an outpouring of enthusiasm. Now my mission is to complete the series, and to find out what destiny has in store for Nicholas and the Charetty company.
I know that, by coincidence, the excellent Helen is already blogging her way through the House of Niccolò and I hope she will understand that I don’t mean to intrude on her patch. I have only read Helen’s first two Niccolò reviews, for fear of spoilers, but will devour the rest when I’m done with the books. And so, once more into the breach, dear friends…
Returning to Dorothy Dunnett is like easing back into a warm bath, which, as it happens, is exactly what our protagonist Nicholas is doing when we meet him; although his bath is empty, strapped to the back of a canal barge and destined for the Duke of Burgundy. The year is 1459 and eighteen-year-old Nicholas has hitched a ride back to Bruges with Felix, his employer’s son, and Julius, his employer’s notary. The gentle absurdity of the scene sets the tone for most of the book, in which Dunnett’s delicious humour underlies many of the events and exchanges.
I’d already read this novel when I came to The Game of Kings, the opening book of the Lymond series, and I think that in many ways, that’s why I found Kings to be so odd. I still believe that Niccolò Rising is much more successful as an opening novel: Dunnett lays the foundations for the series by introducing, vividly and sympathetically, her key characters; she enlivens the story from the off with bristling, brilliant dialogue; and she creates a warm sense of human relationships. It wasn’t until Queens’ Play that I felt a similar tone creep into Lymond. Ultimately, I suppose Nicholas and Lymond may not be so very different, but in both series we first meet them through the eyes of other people; and their public personas couldn’t be more opposite.
Nicholas is known in Bruges by his Flemish diminutive, Claes. As an apprentice at the Charetty dyeworks, he’s a person of insignificant status, although his pranks, pratfalls and eternal good nature have won him the friendship of the other apprentices and the goodwill of a startling number of girls. Part of the book’s skill is in slowly introducing us to the real Nicholas: we move from the endearingly foolish clown to the more complicated, talented individual who is only really known to his employer, Felix’s widowed mother, Marian de Charetty. She has brought up Nicholas since he was ten years old and, virtually alone among her family and friends, can see the burning potential of the boy’s brilliant mind. She cultivates him, encourages him and, most importantly, trusts him – completely and steadfastly. Her late husband’s company is already a significant player in the Bruges market, but Nicholas’s visions promise to give the firm a truly international importance.
The development of these projects – ciphers, puzzles, condottas and alum – will be one theme of the series; another, I suspect, will be the development of Nicholas himself. Already here he gains a serious, darker side, and Dunnett changes the way in which she refers to him, to match his mood: apparently carefree, joking Claes contrasts with ambitious Nicholas. Throughout, his phenomenal intellectual abilities have to be weighed against the fact that he is still very young and has an awful lot of emotional baggage to contend with. He is illegitimate, and there is some mystery about the identity of his father; I would hazard a guess, knowing Dunnett, that the truth will turn out to be much more interesting than simply some ill-advised fling with a servant. Nicholas also knows that he is, directly or indirectly, to blame for a fair amount of heartache. By the end of the book he is deeply troubled by guilt and responsibilities that he can no longer share with others, and he doesn’t yet have the skill to block out the feelings (as Lymond might do). This will come, I’m sure, in time.
Dunnett’s characterisation is always excellent and a web of convincing relationships is at the core of this busy, dramatic, tightly-plotted book. There are many characters whose interaction with Nicholas will undoubtedly affect a good deal of what follows: Simon of Kilmirrin, of course, whom I imagine to be rather like a dandyish, less intelligent version of Lymond. The fleshy, vindictive Jordan de Riberac. The clever, bored, beautiful Katelina van Borselen and her alarmingly perceptive little sister Gelis. Tilde, the sensible and thoughtful elder daughter of the Charetty family (who reminds me a bit of Philippa, for now anyway). However, in this book, there are two key relationships for Nicholas: that with Marian de Charetty, his tireless supporter, and that with Felix, his master, friend and ringleader.
There will be spoilers in the next two paragraphs, so please skip on if you prefer. Marian de Charetty is one of my favourite Dunnett characters (so far): I love her dignity, competence and calm, and her affection for Nicholas. Many writers wouldn’t bother to explore the character further, but Dunnett’s instinctive humanity lets us into Marian’s private space, to see her alone and lonely, letting her hair down for her own pleasure now that her late husband can no longer admire her, and trying to reconcile herself to the fact that this may be all there ever is. It’s because I’ve seen Marian’s secret loneliness that I’m so thrilled when she finds well-deserved happiness with Nicholas.
And then there is Felix. I find Felix irritating, for the most part. I suspect I’m supposed to. I find him irritating not because I find him unconvincing or badly-written, but because he’s so infuriatingly plausible as a self-centred, immature teenage boy. Yet even Felix, who could so easily be two-dimensional, is given his reasons: his sense of insecurity, born from his aristocratic aspirations, his mercantile background and his unspoken knowledge that his servant Nicholas has a greater aptitude for business than he ever will. His fondness for Nicholas – because there is a genuine mutual affection there – is one of his redeeming features. However, as so many of you will know, virtually no one is safe in a Dunnett novel and Felix, just on the cusp of becoming the man everyone hoped he would be, is one of the first losses. Everything happens so quickly – in little more than a page – and yet the simple, exquisitely understated scene remains the most powerful (for me) in the entire book. Not easy to read with a dry eye.
Of course, one of the main joys of a book by Dunnett is her descriptive verve. The fabrics, houses and ceremonies of Bruges give her a splendid canvas on which to work, and she returns dazzling visions of Venetian galleys decked with flags and glittering with trumpets, or of elegant festivities, such as this gorgeous glimpse of a Carnival dance:
Once, there came winding under the trees an arcade of dancers, linked hands high, sleeves swaying below finials of monstrous and beautiful headgear. In the icy February night, the women’s headdresses bloomed like camellias or lily-spikes; or seemed fit for eating, like gourds and pastry-puffs and heaps of sugared sweet things, bound with angelica.
It’s like an illumination from a Book of Hours and I hope it gives a sense, for the uninitiated, of how Dunnett manages to convey every detail of her world without weighing the reader down with research. On virtually every page there’s a turn of phrase which is unusual enough to make you pause, but so perfectly suited for its purpose that you can’t think of anything more appropriate. Who else would think to describe the ‘snapdragon silks’ of an army’s tented camp, or to describe the Venetian flagship in Bruges, ‘with its burden of lights and flowers and music, of unreeling silks and swaying fringes… like a garland made by a goldsmith’? Her writing is sumptuous, rich and slightly intoxicating: Chateau d’Yquem for the mind.
I imagine the series will follow a similar formula to the Lymond Chronicles, with each novel introducing us to a different part of the Renaissance world. As I’ve said before, The Spring of the Ram was my introduction to Dorothy Dunnett, and so I already know where we’re bound next: Trebizond, the last, glittering outpost of Byzantium.
Next in this series: The Spring of the Ram