Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2020

Niccolo Rising (The House of Niccolo #1), by Dorothy Dunnett

It’s taken a good long while for me to read Dorothy Dunnett’s classic work of historical fiction, and I must confess that what with the bushfire catastrophe absorbing most of my attention, Niccolò Rising hasn’t had my full concentration.  That’s no fault of the author: it’s a fine novel, and I can see why there are legions of Dorothy Dunnett fans. It’s just… well, all Australians understand about the anxiety that has commandeered our thoughts…

Niccolò Rising is the first novel in the series.  The House of Niccolò was written over a 14 year period and consists of

  1. Niccolò Rising, (1986) set in 15th century Europe and introducing the hero of the series
  2. The Spring of the Lamb (1987)
  3. Race of Scorpions (1989)
  4. Scales of Gold (1991)
  5. The Unicorn Hunt (1993)
  6. To Lie with Lions (1995)
  7. Caprice and Rondo (1997)
  8. Gemini (2000)

I was only half way through the book when I wanted to know more about Dunnett (1923-2001), but Wikipedia wasn’t very forthcoming about aspects of the novel that interest me: the themes of transcending the restrictions of class and gender.  However, a talk reproduced at the Dorothy Dunnett website was more illuminating…

The series arose after the success of The Lymond Chronicles (1961-1975) and was inspired by Britain’s swing to the Right under Margaret Thatcher and the rise of yuppies and city wheeler-dealers.  (We remember these people well in Australia, Alan Bond et al.)  Dunnett had a background in business and trade working in the Board of Trade when Scotland’s economy was recovering in the postwar period.  She understood how business worked, and as the website says:

… Dorothy looked at a time period a century earlier than Lymond, when the Renaissance was just beginning to affect Europe and the newly developed Double entry book-keeping systems using the quite recently imported Arabic number system* were revolutionising commerce and trade. Banking in particular was becoming an important aspect of business.

She wanted to explore these developments and look at how for the first time it was possible for someone with the right skills to move up from a lowly position in society to a position of power – just as was apparently happening in the London financial markets of the 1980.

*There’s a witty mention of this when Roman Numerals are noted as much more difficult to fiddle with than their Arabic replacements.

If not for the blurb, one might read for quite a while without the book’s hero being revealed.  Even so, it comes as a surprise:

… none is bolder or more cunning than Nicholas vander Poele of Bruges, the good-natured dyer’s apprentice who schemes and swashbuckles his way to the helm of a mercantile empire.

The novel is bookended by wild scrapes, the kind of nonsense that immature teenagers indulge in.  These scenes cunningly lure the reader into making premature judgements about the characters, which makes it all the more enjoyable to form a tentative profile of the surprising hero.  He is built like an oak tree with dimples and seems reckless to the core until it becomes clear that some of his adventures are actually calculated risks.  Amongst his fellow workers he is jolly good fun, and his capacity for mischief leads his ‘betters’ (a notary and the son of his employer) into some of his more dubious activities.  When they go wrong, he bears the brunt of the punishment stoically, apparently without grudge and bouncing back from adversity seemingly unscathed.  The qualities that enable his astonishing rise from bastard wastrel to impressive entrepreneur are well-masked for quite some time and even then they are often opaque except to the reader: he is quick-witted though prudent in his responses; he is a whiz with numbers and adept at cracking the codes that merchants used to keep their affairs private; he speaks multiple languages; and he is very attractive to the ladies. Even those socially out of his reach.

His employer is Marian de Charetty, owner of the Charetty company in Bruges and Mouvain.  She runs the business on her own after the death of her husband Cornelis.  Felix, her headstrong, impulsive and often selfish son, is only 17, and too young to manage the business, so she has good men about her as support staff. I liked Marian’s characterisation which seemed authentic to me: Dunnett was writing in the wake of second wave feminism, but though this female character has all the qualities needed to be a successful businesswoman, Dunnett has kept her securely in the culture  of an era which placed women in the domestic sphere and made only reluctant space for a widow in her particular circumstances.  There is never any doubt that when Felix is old enough he will displace her, and her years of experience will be discounted, and there are no fanciful scenes where Marian exhibits a 21st century sensibility about this unreasonable state of affairs.

The way in which the apprentice transcends his class is handled differently.  The social implications of his rise are made explicit in the scene in chapter 25—foreshadowed by the blurb—in which there is a proposal of marriage between social unequals, marriage being the only way that he can rise above his lowly status.  He lists both the impersonal and personal consequences for them both, a catalogue of societal objections still familiar to anyone observing relationships between unequals, whether royals or commoners, though class consciousness is more pervasive in Britain than it is here in Australia.  And it is made clear that the differences are not merely snobberies: despite his capacity to observe and learn, his background and education puts him at a disadvantage in all kinds of contexts.  He has not learned, for example, as his ‘betters’ have, how to fight skilfully against swords, and his uncertain parentage creates ethical dilemmas for him as well.

Niccolò Rising is a lively book, full of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing to the end (though I did predict two marriages, and the fate of one character well before they occurred!)  There is much more to this book than I have outlined spoiler-free here, as repeat readers of this series will attest.

Thanks to Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large for the recommendation!

Author: Dorothy Dunnett
Title: Niccolò Rising (The House of Niccolò #1)
Publisher: Vintage Books (Random House, New York), 1999, first published 1986
ISBN: 9780375704772. pbk., 470 pages
Source: Kingston Library



  1. Dorothy Dunnett was one of my mother’s most beloved authors. She has always had a cult following I think, and she supplemented her massive historical tomes with a series of murder mysteries with a female detective.


    • I can see why she would be a favourite.
      From what I can see she was also clever at including a teaser at the very end of the book so that the reader can’t wait for the next one to be written.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sometimes I think there’s telepathy going on Lisa for I have just discovered D. Dunnett and being Scottish is a draw of course. Your review has moved me forward to begin the reading. I too have been distracted for weeks with the state of our country and friends and family close to the devastation. Life is looking very different in this Lucky Country.


  3. Well, Scottish blood is the only one from the UK that I don’t have: I have Irish, Welsh and English DNA, (plus some European bits and pieces as well) but when I was a child we had close family friends who were Scots and so I grew up humming Scotland the Brave and A Scottish Soldier and in Australia had a lovely kilt from Fletcher Jones.
    Mind you, I don’t think the Scots are coming out of this one too well, at least not at Roxborough Castle.


  4. My work here is done! :-) I’m so glad you enjoyed the book.


    • Clearly I will have to set myself a little project to read them all:)


  5. Reblogged this on Tasmanian Bibliophile @Large and commented:
    I’m always delighted to recommend Dorothy Dunnett’s novels!


  6. Interested to hear your thoughts as I know Dunnett has quite a following, though I’ve never read her. I tend to shy away from historical fiction as a rule, but if the quality of writing is so good I might be tempted…


    • I’m choosy about my HF as well. I mean, I read Jean Plaidy as a girl, but I grew out of it. But I am a fan of HF that reveals something more than just ‘life or relationships at that time’.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sounds like fun. Dunnett isn’t a name I’ve noticed in the audiobook aisle. I’ll keep a lookout.


    • I’d be very interested to know how you get on with an audio version. Time and again I had to pause and backtrack in the text to untangle something and the cast of characters is so huge I had to check the list at the front of the book every now and again to remind myself who someone was, e.g. Dunnett would refer to ‘the chamberlain’ without giving his name, and I couldn’t join the dots until I had both. (She does this deliberately, it’s not a flaw in the writing).
      But it would be lovely to hear the book read in a Scots burr…


  8. I had a work colleague who raved about Dunnett though she didn’t give a clear picture of why she would be an author I’d like. So I never ventured into her work. Sounds like she’s worth trying though – I like the idea of drawing parallels between history and contemporary life.


    • I think with your business background there would be a lot you’d appreciate in this novel. In our numbers-obsessed world, people often downplay the ability to ‘read’ people because you can’t measure it, but this novel shows it’s crucial to the hero’s success.


  9. I have had Dunnett on my TBR list for so long!


    • This one? Or The Lymond Chronicles?


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: