Desert Isle Keeper
I’d like to mention the work of Dorothy Dunnett. This author, though a historical novelist and not a romance author, has had a profound effect on my romance writing, and I’d say that her novel Checkmate is one of the best romances ever written.
However, it’s the last in a series of six thick books about Francis Crawford of Lymond set in 16th century Europe. I doubt it would work without the other five which are not really romances, and very much historical novels. I think they’re marvelous and engaging reads, but readers who don’t care for too much history probably wouldn’t enjoy them.
Lymond is the ultimate romantic hero — gorgeous, sexy, intellectually brilliant, artistically gifted, supreme leader of men, and deadly with bare hands or weapons. This is romance is the high manner as well, as he suffers torments, fights evil, and affects the fate of nations.
Philippa is one of those ordirany heroines who snares the brilliant man, though by the end of the series her adventures have shaped her into his true equal.
By Checkmate, Lymond is already married to Philippa, but the marriage is definitely one in name only. Two books before, Lymond discovered he had a baby son who was in the hands of his deadly enemy, and he set out to find and save the child. Philippa, an interfering young teenager whose life has intersected his at various points, decides that she has to follow to look after the baby. (Not one of her brighter moments, but it sets up the rest of the saga.)
Of course Lymond tries to send her home, but by then various factions are thwarting his every move, and she ends up in Suleiman’s harem, yet another pawn for him to rescue. At the end, the Sultana arranges for them to spend the night together, and though nothing happens, he insists on marrying her before finally sending her, well escorted, on her way back to England. After all, through no fault of his own, he is now an opium addict and not at all sure he will live.
In book 5, Ringed Castle, he returns from Russia to England, falls in love with Philippa, and promptly decides to save her from himself. He does have a point, since his adventures ever since being a galley slave at 15 have not exactly been savory and the whole world agrees that she’d be better off without him. Unfortunately, the Pope is in the power of the King of France, and the king demands a year of Lymond’s military expertise as the price of his annulment.
Thus we enter Checkmate. Philippa, as wife of a Scottish lord (which Lymond is) is commanded to serve Mary Queen of Scots at the French court as she prepares for her wedding to the French Dauphin. Lymond is trapped there by his service to the king. He is courteous but cool, desperately keeping his wife at a distance, but also trying to stop her interfering yet again in his life. Now she has decided that his family needs him so some shady mysteries about his parentage must be cleared up.
Philippa has not yet realized why she’s so obsessed with this man — this friend of her mother’s — but she’s happy enough when court functions throw them together, and well able to match him in style and wits.
They are heading off in a coach to their first such function.
“Your hostess, Madame de St. Andre called on me this morning. She thinks, as a maiden lady, I should wear my hair down. Bow. To your right. Someone is bowing to you.”
Lymond said repressively, “As a maiden lady, you would wear anyone down, including Mme. de St. Andre, particularly if you were looking like that.” He bowed to his right. “Were you?”
Philippa gazed down consideringly. Her pointed bodice, outrageously stiffened, was latticed with large pearls in goldfoil, and her pearled girdle had a tassel of bullion that would have felled an ox at ten paces. Her hair was braided under a high-crowned velvet hat with a number of trembling jewels arranged under the brim, and an ostrich feather. “I can’t remember,” said Philippa. “I think I may have put on something more elaborate.”
The contemplative brown eyes inspected him. “What about you? I don’t noticed you going about in crewel garters and wadmole mittens, that I can recall.”
His profile remained undisturbed. “I do,” he said. “I wear them at night. Whereby presumption and arrogance shall be wishstanded, malice and contention expelled and carnal liberty refrained and tempered. The Tsar used to get very fussed.” He returned the salutes of another group of gratified merchants.
Then one night some enemies manage to cut them off from their escort and they have to run and fight for their lives through the back streets of Lyons. The battle Lymond has fought to stay detached, is lost.
Since the flight from Greece when he had been sick with opium, she had never seen unleashed, for such a span of time, his strength, his gaiety. and his physical charm.
Every circumstance conspired, like a merchant, to display them to her. Sweeping like birds from space to space of the tall houses scaling the hillside, they used what fortune suggested to defend themselves with. . .
His eyes were on the south; his hands held two flaming brands which streamed in a soft flowing air that had melted the fog to scraves and streamers wreathing the chimney tops. Fed by flame and by moonlight his hands and hair and shirt contained their own glow, like the globe of a sorcerer.
But he was not a figment of daydream or of fantasy. He was the quick-witted man who had raced with her; the man whose strong wrists had pulled her from trouble. . . Whose essence, trapped by necessity was, it now seemed, warm and joyous.
And she, of course, falls in love — or recognizes her love — and lets him see it.
The wine had been too strong for her, as it had been for others; and like the others she had stepped from the safe shores of friendship. She stood now in another country, whose sun burned and whose air was too rare for breathing. And she stood there alone.
As is only natural with someone who believes she has admitted an unwanted love, Philippa avoids him as much as possible, and mirrors his own cool detachment when they have to meet.
The whole progress of this novel is a lush and deeply passionate story of two people who avoid meeting, and if they have to meet, avoid touching, and who never stop thinking of the other. The language is rich and complex, the plot high-powered and dramatic, their encounters completely unforgettable.
When Lymond — plagued by crippling headaches and guilty over someone trapping her — seems near suicide, Philippa breaks the unspoken rule and invades his sanctuary to speak to him alone. Both are formally dressed and they sit carefully at a distance.
“I am going to hold you, Francis, to our marriage.” It was the first time in all the months since Lyon that she had called him by his name. A flame showed, sudden and blue in the depths of his eyes, and then died. The pulse, beating above his drawn brows, told her all at once that he had a headache.
“There is no way that you could hold me,” he said. The wind sighed a little, softly wailing, in the roof windows. the candles burned, repeated over and over in the glazed windows.
The long empty room filled with the scents of cypress wood and leather and ink harboured them without taking sides, without intrusion. . .
“Of course: never against your will,” Philippa said. She rose. Her robe rustled. She moved round the chair and spread her skirts on the arm of it, a little nearer than before to the table. She said, “Then tell me what you feel for me is infatuation. That you object to being tied. That, like poor Jane Shore’s lover, you find yourself more amorous of my body than curious of my soul? Then I should agree with you. That I should want to be spared.”
A trickle of wax, occasioned by the draught of her movement, ran like an escaping spirit down the stem of a candle and there stiffened, extinguished as an unwanted emotion. Lymond drew an uneven breath. “What is temptation, if not that?”
“Then tell me. And make me believe it.”
It was a moment before he replied. Then, the shut mouth curled, in something not quite a smile. “Gould bydeth ever bright. . . It would be a pity to cloud it,” he said. “That is one blasphemy I cannot bring myself to commit. I love you, Philippa, in every way known to man.”
Is that the end? Not at all, at all.
I can only dream of matching Dorothy Dunnett’s poetic writing style, but I try to emulate her in some ways. I try to set up situations of restrained passion, and then convey the lovers’ feelings without always resorting to the overt and obvious. I try sometimes to push characters into truly impossible or unbearable situations rather than the flimsier, more contrived conflicts, but I also seek to avoid melodrama. I try to avoid characters who think their problems should rule the world, or give them rights to abuse others. I always try to preserve a sense of humor, especially the ability of the characters to laugh at the absurdities of life. I try to always have the characters be honest and honorable, and therefore worthy of each other. I’ve nothing against gorgeous, brilliant, and gifted, either.
Ironically, when I was writing my first novel, (Arranged Marriage which wasn’t my first to sell), I was under Dunnett’s influence and knew it, but I restrained myself from calling the hero Francis. Instead, I called his friend Francis, and the hero Nicholas. Many, many years later, Dorothy Dunnett started a new series with a new hero (not, alas, in my opinion, as interesting a character as Lymond) and called him Nicholas!
I think every lover of historical romance should at least try Dunnett, starting with the first book, A Game of Kings. They are generally available in libraries, but they are also being reissued this year by Viking Press. They’re a specialized taste, but if you do like them, there’s a long and bountiful feast awaiting.
by Jo Beverley