The following article is basically the text of a talk I gave at the April 2012 Dorothy Dunnett Society Weekend. It has been some time in preparation – the original version was written about four years earlier but various reasons prevented it from being published or presented at the time and I saved it until now as I always felt it would be better given as a talk first.
Before the talk I asked the attendees to give me their ideas for a single word to describe Marthe. Rather as I expected the majority were not positive. I hope I gave them enough reason to reconsider their positions on a character I’ve always had a lot of sympathy for, and I hope the same will apply to the readers here, and that there will be some discussion on the points I raise, whether here or on the various discussion groups. I enjoyed researching it and, as with the talk I gave on Dorothy in the Carnegie Library in Dunfermline, I enjoyed being able to speak aloud her characters’ words and phrases and her delightful descriptions, and I hope I did them justice.
Introduction and review of the audience suggestions
Good morning everyone. The full title of this talk is Marthe – Tragic Pawn or a Lost Soul Redeemed, and I hope it’ll encourage you to think about this crucial character in the Lymond Chronicles and perhaps reassess your impressions if you agree with my ideas.
I asked you all beforehand to give me a single word describing Marthe – let’s have a look at some of them.
Ruthless, Ill-fated, Indecipherable, Tiresome, Untrustworthy, Transgressive, Conflicting, Calculating, Intriguing, Closed, Alter-ego, Obsessive, Misunderstood, Disappointed, Needle, and finally Lucky. (I believe the last one was a reference to her having married Jerott!)
Clearly I have my work cut out here!
I have a single word which Dorothy used to describe Marthe, and I believe it gives us a unique insight into her actions and her decisions before the end of Checkmate.
What that word is I’ll come back to later but it was enough to encourage me to search for more textual evidence for my gut feelings about the ideas behind Marthe and the ultimate impression that she is meant to make on us.
Marthe is probably one of the most confusing and enigmatic characters in the Lymond Chronicles. From reading letters and internet posts (and the suggestions you’ve just given me) I would say that the majority of readers either dislike her or are at best ambivalent about her. Some may even regard her as a mere plot device.
However I always had an instinctive liking for Marthe – after all she’s blond and gorgeous and we men need a romantic fantasy object as well! Why should you girls have all the fun with sexy characters like Lymond and Jerott?
I’ve come to rely on my instincts because, right from the beginning, I felt lucky, felt an affinity with Dorothy’s writing, felt I was on the same wavelength, understood at least part of the psychology of the way she wrote, the values she discussed and the connections she made. Of course that may be simple self-delusion – we all like to think we understand more than we do when faced with genius! But maybe that apparent affinity was why I didn’t have the problems that some had with the first 100 pages of Game of Kings, though of course being Scottish did help!
To me there was never any danger of Lymond not turning out to be a hero – Will Scott’s early view felt very much that of a young man being shocked and manipulated by someone who had seen far more of life than he had, while by the time of the encounter with Christian Stewart and his recovery from amnesia there was no doubt in my mind that Lymond was on the side of the angels.
But I digress; like Dorothy herself I get carried away when talking about Lymond, we were talking about Marthe.
So let’s take a look at her character as it’s presented to us.
She’s had a pretty loveless upbringing with no father or mother to guide and protect her, possibly been abused by Gaultier – there is a suspicion that he is worse than just a miserly old moan, and she seems to be merely a pawn in a far larger plot being conducted by her grandmother the Dame de Doubtance. Imagine having her as a grandmother!
When we meet Marthe in Pawn in Frankincense she casts a rather aloof and somewhat bitter figure:
- bitter about being uncared for
- at being cut off from the sort of advantages that Lymond (and even more, Richard) has as a member of a noble family
- about being a powerless woman in a man’s world
We find that she has resorted to looking for love with Guzel – surely a desperate choice of partner whatever you think of Kiaya Khatun. She’s worldly wise and for a long time despises Jerott for being naive and idealistic, and for lacking in political and personal insight.
She’s embraced a Muslim religion that seems to offer her a status that Christianity denies her. We see her being cold and cynical, see her leading poor Jerott into situations he isn’t remotely emotionally equipped to handle. Later, in Checkmate, we even see her stabbing Danny after rejecting Sybilla’s attempts at reconciliation.
Doesn’t sound much of a character reference does it?
And yet there is much there to like. She is certainly highly intelligent and learned, skilled in the antiques trade which requires a broad understanding of many subjects, and of course, as the virtual twin of Francis, she’s beautiful. Ok we know from Gabriel that beauty isn’t always to be trusted – a lesson that will be reinforced with Simon in House of Niccolo – but there is never the feeling with Marthe that it’s being used as a disguise; she’s a very upfront character.
Let’s look at a few descriptions of her:
The first time Philippa sets eyes on her:
“The face of a Delia Robbia angel, set in gleaming hair, golden as Jupiter’s shower.”
Later when Lymond tries to stop her from sailing with him:
“Looking into that angelic, fair face Philippa saw the authority she had missed before: the small lines round the mouth; the winged curve of spirit on either side of the fine planes of the nose: the faint, single line between the arched brows.”
There is a scene below decks with Philippa after the latter has been shown the galley and Marthe tells her that Lymond was once a galley slave. Marthe smiles, and from Philippa’s perspective she’s described as having an enchanting smile. Not beautiful, not confident, enchanting. Had a man been quoted using that description it might conceivably be interpreted in a negative way, but surely not from the point of view of Kate’s sensible daughter. Indeed it’s notable that these first three descriptions we have are all from Philippa’s point of view.
The next one is from Lymond’s viewpoint:
He did not need to turn to know how she looked. Mantled in the satin of her gilt unbound hair, with the wide severe brow, the white skin, the borrowed skirts and the pearls she had, unaccountably, produced, each one as big as a hazelnut, she was a vision to make all the arquebuses droop and the crossbowmen slacken and sweat.
And this from Jerott’s eyes:
A woman high, cool,remote as a cloud forest, trailing mosses and bright birds and orchids; a woman with a body like moonlight seen through a pearl curtain.
And even in the midst of an argument he thinks this:
And in spite of all that, he remained obsessed with her: with the long veiling lashes round the intense blue of her eyes; the high polished brow over which her hair fell, cream and ochre and lemon and chrome in the sun; and the colour of the sun on her cheekbones and the thin bridge of her nose. The slimness of her arms … the long, slender bones of her foot. Her voice; her wit; her laugh when she was entertained.
Isn’t that a wonderful collection of descriptions, and no negative connotations such as we see with Gabriel or Simon.
Certainly she has issues of self worth and seems engaged in a battle with the world, particularly the male world, but another positive aspect of Marthe which we are shown is her ability to learn from her mistaken beliefs. When she becomes trapped in the seraglio and later complains to Philippa that no-one had come to rescue her, she is astonished when Philippa tells her that she would have risked her life in a rescue attempt; but she takes it on board. Here’s the passage:
‘Yes. For Kuzum,’ said Philippa. She hesitated, guessing. ‘People help one another. Wouldn’t… Mr Blyth perhaps do the equivalent for you?’
Marthe laughed, without amusement, deep in her long throat.
‘Mr Blyth put me here. Mr Crawford and I owe each other nothing. My uncle I hate and you I do not know. No one, as far as I see, has endeavoured to engineer my escape.’
‘I think . . . that was only because they didn’t know you were a prisoner,’ said Philippa. She was rather pale. She said, in a small voice, ‘I would do it for you.’
The colour left Marthe’s face too, in patches; then flooded in, deep rose over her brow and cheeks and slim neck. She stood up. ‘Because I look like my brother ?’ she said.
Philippa’s dark brows had met in a straight line; her brown eyes opaque with a new self-control fighting with a faint and horrified understanding. After a while she said simply, ‘No. Because I know what it is to need help.’
For a moment longer Marthe studied her; and Philippa rather bleakly wondered what amused rejoinder, what cutting remark she had called on herself. But Marthe in the end said merely, ‘Then when I need help, I shall have to call on you, shan’t I ?’ in a voice whose coolness and impatience did not ring entirely true. There was a silence, and then Philippa said awkwardly, ‘I didn’t know. … Is Mr Crawford your brother?’
The blue eyes this time were both cool and amused. ‘If he knew, he might prefer you to put it differently,’ said Marthe. ‘I am his bastard sister. We have the same failings. Didn’t you guess ?’
We know that she has a genuine appreciation for fine objects and for antiquity from her swim in the sea when she finds a marble figure of Cupid. We feel robbed of further insight into her character when Jerott spoils the moment. She appreciates and is knowledgeable about poetry, and crucially uses it to help Lymond through the worst of his cold turkey at Volos. And we discover her sense of humour and fun in the glorious episode at Mehedia where she plays the part of Donna Marie Mascarenhas in an echo of Lymond’s own impersonation of Don Luis from Game of Kings. Surely two of the most exuberantly uninhibited examples of Dorothy’s own sense of humour. There is that lovely moment of discovery when Lymond remarks that she enjoys this, and she replies simply “of course”. And there is this glorious piece of deadpan comedy:
‘My father,’ said Marthe. ‘unhappily, was not a fastidious man. I have several of Senor Maldonado’s brothers as well in the household. They also suffer from fits.’
‘Of the same kind?’ said the captain, gazing.
‘Approximately,’ said Marthe coolly. ‘They scream, struggle, and try to throw off all my clothes.’
I mentioned Volos a moment ago and it’s a very important section in my view – it gives us some remarkable insights. Curiously I don’t see it discussed very often – it seems that the fatal chess game absorbs so much of readers’ emotions that they almost forget about the last section of the book from the escape onwards.
At Volos Francis is at the lowest possible point and his survival is in severe doubt. In excruciating pain he throws Jerott out of his sick room and threatens to kill Marthe if she enters, and he attempts to blank out the pain by concentrating on poetry. Unexpectedly Marthe joins him and leads him through the poems and the pain. We see that it costs her but also that she learns from it, and that they connect. Here is the most telling passage:
‘. . . You see,’ said Marthe. ‘I am not here to mock. I have worn out my revenge. You have guided me into a world which has been closed to me all my life. You have shown me that what I hold by, you hold by and more. You have shown me strength I do not possess, and humanity I thought belonged only to women. You are a man, and you have explained all men to me. . . .’
The next day they talk again:
Staring down at his spent face on the pillow, Marthe’s expression was wry. ‘The wife who calls you Mr Crawford,’ she said. ‘The child you don’t even know.’ And as he didn’t answer, Marthe said suddenly,
‘How many souls on this earth call you Francis ? Three ? Or perhaps four ?’
For a moment he looked at her unsmiling; and for a moment she wished, angrily that she could recall the question. Then quite suddenly he smiled, and held out his hand. ‘Five,’ he said. ‘Surely? Since last night.’
So at the end of Pawn in Frankincense it seems they are friends and that she has grown away from the bitter figure we were first presented with.
But then he goes to Russia, with Guzel. While she, marries Jerott.
We see nothing of Marthe in Ringed Castle and it’s 3 years before they meet again in Lyon. When we do she seems to have reverted to the bitterness and it’s clear the marriage is not going well. Jerott is drinking again and she hardly seems able to stop taunting him. Why is not entirely clear at first, although we have some clues.
Her thoughts when she watches Lymond entering Lyon:
Conscious of her own singular beauty she had wondered if he had lost his own looks, but this was not so. Indeed, he had come into them in an odd way; the pastel colours subtly enlivened by the snows of Muscovy; or what he had found there. The thought did not please her.
So it seems she resents that he has lived with Guzel, her former lover, but there is more to it than that and only one real clue as to what is wrong with her marriage. We hear it when Lymond talks to Jerott in Paris, and after discussing military tactics, asks why he married her.
‘I know what you feel about her. Why did you insist on marriage?’
Beneath Jerott’s drawn brows, his splendid dark eyes were stark with misery. ‘She thinks it was to compensate for her birth. I suppose it was, I loved her. I wanted to give her a position.’
‘She has a position,’ Lymond said. ‘It is not that of housekeeper, nor a mother, to you or your children. Marriage has weakened it: she is fighting not to lose it altogether .’
It hurt. ‘You mean,’ said Jerott, ‘she wants to be like Guzel? A courtesan selling her body round Europe for power?’
He had meant to wound. But instead Lymond said, smiling faint ‘No. Not like Guzel. Kiaya Khatun is above and beyond any male criticism, whereas Marthe is aware of shortcomings. She requires to taught, Jerott; not to be worshipped.’
Lymond you see, understands. Marthe has been put on a pedestal by Jerott when what she needs is to be nurtured and to further expand her mind to its full potential. We get more of an idea later when she surrounds herself with poets and musicians. She needs to grow and explore and Jerott’s love, for all that it is well-intentioned, is suffocation to her. We can imagine that the communication between them will easily break down and the more Jerott tries the more she will push him away with barbed comments until, unable to understand, he resorts to the wine flask.
We later hear Jerott’s mind watching Lymond and Philippa regaling his friends with the hilarious failed banquet performance and his despairing hope that Philippa isn’t falling for Lymond as he fell for Marthe.
The knowledge that one had his total friendship but never the key to the innermost door. …And there was an innermost door, which Marthe did not have, and had never had, although his hopes of that, and that alone, had been his reason for marrying her.
Yet Jerott is a biased and unreliable witness – I believe that Marthe has that inner door, but that Jerott doesn’t have the key.
With a perception that few others possess she realises that Lymond and Philippa are born for each other and tries to push them together at a time when everyone else wants to keep them apart. Her only failing being that from her tough, street-wise perspective she can’t see the emotional torture that each is suffering. It causes the cruel jibe about Guzel that Lymond uses in anguished self-defence in that same scene and it seems for a while to have revived her hatred.
We have the scene where Sybilla goes to visit her with Danny and reveals that she wanted to raise her. That scene is rife with many subcurrents and yet Marthe seems not entirely averse to Sybilla by the end. And she seems to act from good intentions. She goes back to Jerott, and she visits Philippa at Sevigny – although the result of that is the opposite of what she hopes for as Philippa decides to leave for England rather than overcoming her trauma and consummating her marriage.
After Sybilla revives Francis from the coma things change. He has promised to return to Scotland and when Marthe visits him – ‘How do you take leave, for all time, of a brother?’ – and asks for continued contact, he refuses because of what it would mean for Richard. That seems to trigger a renewed outbreak of animosity, but if we look closely it’s not towards him but to Richard and his family. In fact she seems to be angry as much on Lymond’s behalf as her own.
She retrieves the hitherto missing documents and when Danny tries to snatch them she stabs him. It’s only his mail shirt that saves his life.
With that stabbing scene at Blois we’re set up to believe that Marthe has travelled to England with the intention of revealing Sybilla’s secret to Richard. She says so herself.
But is all what it seems?
Danny clearly likes her despite his failed attempt to seize the papers, and we’ve been led to have some respect for his judgement and powers of observation. Nostradamus appears to be advising caution in his very carefully phrased reaction. Marthe herself seems to be more in shock than Danny at what she’s done.
Which brings me back to that word that you’ve doubtless been wondering about.
The first reading of books as complex as these is always a compromise between watching the plot, keeping track of the characters, and understanding the hidden meanings. We can’t apply our full attention to them all. We re-read, whether in full or delving into certain chapters, to fill in what we didn’t catch the first time, or the second, or the tenth!
Inevitably it blurs into a single picture of understanding, so there is a danger in looking back that you think you saw more than you really did that first time.
I’m glad that I documented at least some of my reactions at the time in the old newsletters because it reminds me of the feelings I had in a more reliable way than memory, warped by subsequent re-reads, can hope to do.
So I don’t think I could claim that I noticed what I regard as the key word relating to Marthe on that first read. However it may well have been on the second, or in one of my first few mini-readings of that emotionally devastating scene that is the climax of Checkmate, that this one word suddenly leapt out of the page at me. One which, in all the years of online discussion, I’ve never heard anyone remark on, but which to me speaks volumes.
Here’s the section it’s contained in. You all know it – it’s probably engraved on some of our hearts.
The blond rider is cresting the hill and Austin Grey has just stepped from his hiding place:
“At point blank range, there was no possibility of missing. He aimed into the fair, weary, rancourless face, and then at the heart, and both balls found their mark and brought death in the end, not with the sweet ambiguity of an arrow but with the finality which frees the earth at once of body and soul, and all that was good or bad in either.”
Did you spot it?
One of the dictionary definitions I looked up said:
“not possessing a long-lasting resentment or deep-seated ill-will”
Why would Dorothy use that word there? She doesn’t waste words – we’re all long familiar with the fact that every single one counts, and this was her at the very peak of her skill, writing the climax of a mighty 6-volume series that was rewriting the rules and standards of historical fiction. It can’t be there by accident.
It isn’t needed to convince us that this is Francis Crawford on the receiving end of the fatal shots. It wouldn’t fit his character anyway, whatever his faults he’s never been given to rancour so it would make no sense to mention here.
She’s already engaged us in a masterly juxtaposition of scene and perspective. We’ve been so much in Lymond’s head at this point, something that’s hardly ever been the case in the rest of the series, all through the capture by Margaret Lennox and his shamanistic preservation of life in the cold tower, and the ride back after his release; plus a little in Philippa’s mind, who thinks only of him. In a positively cinematic piece of scene cutting we’ve just been on the other side of that hill with him. On the edge of our seats and scarcely daring to breath as we hear, or more accurately feel, the raw tortured emotions of the two of them, we can think of no-one else. We need no convincing!
So why “rancourless”?
It has to be describing Marthe.
And it has to be a message, conveying in a single word a story Dorothy can’t show us any other way.
My interpretation is this:
Marthe’s had her crisis, been shocked to the core at what she almost did to Danny, and impressed by his loyalty, even while wounded, to Lymond, as well as his concern for her. She’s rethought her jealousy during the journey and detention in England, and seen the truth of Danny’s statement that what hurts the Crawford family hurts Lymond.
She was no longer planning to reveal the papers to Richard – she was going to give them to Francis!!
If I’m right then Dorothy has just done something few other writers could have imagined, let alone pulled off. She’s implied an entire character revelation and resolution in a single word!
If we’ve spotted this coup then perhaps we get some confirmation of it later. Sybilla thinks that maybe she was coming to give Lymond the papers or maybe reveal them to the family. Consider this in the context that Dorothy has taken the time to tell us back in France that they are originally addressed to Lymond, not to Richard, and that Marthe rewrapped them using Jerott’s seal. Surely if she was bent on revealing them to Richard she’d have readdressed them in case of accident?
What Marthe’s exact motives were is more difficult to say. We necessarily have little to go on and have to rely on instinct. Perhaps it was her only way of showing her brother that he could trust her, that she could after all maintain some contact with him without them hurting each other, though whether there could ever have been any wider contact with the family is open to doubt unless one gives Richard rather more credit for perceptiveness and discretion than we, and Lymond, have tended to. But then Richard, for all his failings, is a Crawford too, and despite some blind spots is certainly not unintelligent. Moreover he loves his brother and mother deeply enough to ignore things that might worry other men.
Marthe’s tragedy is that she dies at the one point in her life when she has come to accept who she is and perhaps allowed herself to be motivated by love instead of jealousy. Perhaps that inner door that Jerott sought had at last opened a little.
So to return to the question in the title of this talk.
Marthe is both – Tragic, though no longer a pawn; and a lost soul now Redeemed.
Perhaps the real tragic character of the series is Jerott, but that is another story…