Marthe – Tragic Pawn or a Lost Soul Redeemed

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.

Chippy (3)
Tragic (3)
Bitch (2)
Complicated (2)
Bitter/embittered (2)
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.

Marthe’s character

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.

The Word

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?


Marthe, rancourless.

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.

Why “rancourless”?

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…


Marthe – Tragic Pawn or a Lost Soul Redeemed — 35 Comments

  1. I am printing it out. I really don’t like reading things like this on the computer.
    Will certainly get back to you.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Bill. I have something else to add. I never doubted that ahe was coming to give the papers to Lymond. But there is a scene you leave out of your analysis, or part of it, that I find very telling and also hatd to parse. The last time Francis and Marthe meet, she aaks him, “‘Lord, is there nothing in the cup for me?/while you were drinking, I was singing to you.’ The detachment had gone from his face, but not the strength. He shook his head: and rising, Marthe turned and walked from the room.”
    I believe that is her telling him she loves him. not as a brother, and that she is aaking whether there is a chance for her. He sees it for its true meaning, hence the loss of his detachment. And he answers her question about the cip qitj tje teuth. He shakes his head:she cannot have hisnlove beyond that of a brother.

  3. Sorry that got away before I finished. Plus trying to compose on a phone. Shd have read “he answers the question about the cup with the truth.”

    His response colors Marthe’s actions and explains her stabbing of Danny. Hence her threat to “publish it where it will hurt most, ” and her wish to “direct the pieces” and control the endgame. But it is because she loves Francis that in the end she gives up her need to hurt him. And because in the end she understands she cannot direct the pieces.

  4. This is an amazing analysis–thanks for putting it up on the blog. It was a great read. I’m glad, at the end of her adventures, that she had no rancour towards her family, despite the lack of love and care in her childhood and youth.

  5. Hi Nancy. Thanks for this – that is a scene I have thought about a lot over the years, and have changed my mind about it and worried about it many times. At one point I compared it to the scene with Nicholas and Bonne and wondered if the message was a parallel – that Lymond was rejecting Marthe, but thankfully (because I don’t like that thought) I decided not.

    I didn’t go into the scene in detail in the talk, merely referring to it briefly, as I felt it would take too long and the time available was limited. Your interpretation of it is one I have thought of on a number of occasions, and I certainly don’t rule it out completely. However my gut feeling is that her love for him, which I’m sure is genuine, is not quite as overt as wanting him as a lover. After all she has tried to get Philippa to sleep with him and she knows that they are made for each other. I think she wants him as an intellectual partner and I feel she realises that she needs his experience and learning, his respect and understanding, for she knows that no-one else can provide the teaching, wisdom and inspiration that she requires in order to fulfil herself. I read his loss of detachment as being caused by wanting to be able to help her but knowing that it is impossible now that he has given his word to Sybilla to return to Scotland. He’s forced to choose between Marthe and Richard.

    However the point of this talk was to provoke discussion, not just to expound my own views, so there is mileage aplenty in this subject yet and I’m open to persuasion. For example one person at the DDS weekend told me she thought that Marthe was going to give the papers to Philippa – why else would she have been arriving at Flaw Valleys rather than Midculter, and that is something I hadn’t thought of – but I will now!

    best wishes

  6. Bill,

    Thank you for pulling that key word out of the paragraph. It’s a gift that completes the picture for me. I also believe that she was wanting his love as more than a sister, even as she knew it could not be. She then processed her frustration and disappointment that there was nothing in the cup for her. And perhaps Lymond, in his demonstration of love and loyalty for Richard, showed her again that what she holds by, he holds by and more. The subsequent violence on Danny and her imprisonment, among other things, worked some magic. In her reappearance her face is rancourless. A great gift of a word, Bill. Thanks.
    The way you expressed the following sentence so clearly tied some things up for me.
    “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.”
    I would have love to have heard it all in your presentation.

  7. Hi Bill: it’s certainly open to interpretation. How do you interpret his shaking his head if not as an answer to her question: “Is there nothing in the cup for me?”. And if he is answering essentially by saying, “no, there is nothing in the cup for you,” what is he telling her? Because as a sister he could certainly have had a relationship. And remember that she has recently learned and confronted him with the fact that they are not full brother and sister. And as long as she thought they were, she would do all in her power to fulfill the Dame’s wish that he marry Philippa. I think when she learns they are only half related that she feels able to profess her love, albeit indirectly. Lymond reads this and very explicitly rejects it with the shake of the head. I can’t figure out how it works if not that way.


  8. hi bill, thanks for this! I too like Marthe. And I have always puzzled over the “cup” discussion — I saw the possibility of an incestuous offer, but simply could not give it credence, it doesn’t fit with anything between them to date. So, the idea that Marthe is asking for acknowledgement, as a sister, and Francis is saying that since he is going back to Scotland he will no longer have any doings with her in order to protect Richard, that she can’t be welcomed as family, makes perfect sense.

    Especially because he has no idea that Austin has already mentioned Marthe to Richard, and because in my opinion Francis continually underestimates Richard’s perspicacity and sensitivity — which IIRC at some point at the end of Checkmate, when we are in Lymond’s head, he recognises. (I am certain Richard would have risen to it, as he did in response to Austin; he would have thought, and they could have let him think, that Marthe is Gavin’s, and that would have been that.)

    I like Marthe, in many ways I admire her. I feel DD does her a bit of a disservice in PiF, when she is explaining why she wants the treasure — those goals, to have a house, a life, friends of her own choosing — they are absolutely universal goals. And Jerott belittles her, taking the sexist way out — where are your children? — as if having children is the only goal for a woman to strive for. Marthe was trapped in the amber of her time, like Oonagh, and both tried to break out and fulfil roles that weren’t traditional; the problem for both is that neither had the independent means that would purchase for them independent lives.

    Don’t get me wrong — I do think Marthe is bitter, and mean, at least some of the time. But, as with all DD’s characters, she is a rounded person, full of inconsistencies and complexities.

    And the idea that she was bringing the papers to Philippa – hmmmm!

  9. This is a wonderful talk/essay, Bill. I, too, have always been intrigued by Marthe, and you have enhanced that appreciation immeasurably. I tend to think that the “nothing in the cup” sequence does mean something more than a sister, but I agree with you that she is seeking a mentor/teacher in him to aid in opening her own door, the one that Jerott cannot find. She would like to be part of the family in some way (and as a great fan of Richard’s, I think he would, ultimately, have welcomed her).

  10. Bill, it was a privilege to listen to this talk at the Dorothy Dunnett Society Edinburgh weekend. I’m so glad you overcame your sore throat sufficiently to be able to give it and thank you for posting it here.

  11. Hi Bill, hope all is well with you. Well, there goes my contribution to WG for the immediate future! A JOKE. I agree with many things that you said and my word would have been ‘brave’. I very much like ‘rancourless’ and have noted it for many years – but at this particular point in the endgame of CM, I would have also applied it to Francis who has accepted his fate, but does not believe that he will achieve anything more for Scotland, (which, of course), he could not if we are talking real history. How clever Dorothy was to install herself in a time or place where she cannot enter the realms of fantasy!
    Regarding Danny, I think she was shocked badly, by what she did. ‘I had to..’ she says to Nostradamus and more or less binds him to looking after D. until he can do whatever he does, which, incidentally, I don’t believe will be going back to the Knights. Jerott mentions him as a possible companion if he too goes back.
    I am more or less in Nancy, Maria and Lisa’s camp about her love being not entirely pure – but neither is mine, (or theirs!). To fall for Francis lasts forever. ‘…is there nothing in the pot for me?’. That is complete desperation and loss of considerable pride, even though she knows what is to happen between him and Philippa, and has the fatalism that maybe is part of believing in Allah. I don’t know enough about Muslims to judge, even though half our village is Muslim and from the French Colonies. She certainly has a slightly ‘witchy’ ability about her, but growing up with The Dame and being born of Beatris, (of whom we know nothing!), or at least, very little, but she grew in an atmosphere of musty mysticism and Dorothy lets us have our own opinions about that.
    Her spleen was vented and vented, when she has found the marriage lines – THIS is what I will do, I will not be ignored – but to give the papers to anyone other than Sybilla and Richard has never occurred to me. What would Philippa do with them, other than show Francis and his mother? I am not a great lover of Sybilla, (surprise!), I think she was supremely selfish, perhaps because she did not have enough of her Francis, and wants to keep her son’s love for herself.’What was he like?’ ‘Like you.’ Marthe also could swing both ways for love and Guzel was very special, if not very virtuous. She too tried to go against the fate, demanded by Camille.
    So what do I think? I think you gave them an excellent talk with much food for thought, and for me too – you told me something I had never considered and for that I thank you. Maybe she would have ended her days by the fireside with Mariotta, embroidering and talking about the grandchildren. No, that doesn’t work for me – she had a brain and had used it and wanted to continue using it in her chosen fields. So perhaps…..I’ve already wrestled with Gelis, and that was really difficult – maybe I’ll try to think again about what you’ve said, and I’ll write it down, probably for WG, but I’ll send it to you first – promise. Richard joins me in sending our best regards to you. We’re living in genteel poverty, but are happy in our village. Take care Bill x K&R.

  12. Dear Bill,
    this talk did the world for me in reconciling the image of Marthe I took at face value after my first reading with the gut feeling I had all the way – that she’s a victim of her times, of her temper and, alas, of her intelligence. I’m not a very seasoned Dunnett fan, only two years’ acquaintance, and I have to struggle with the language at times, too, but her female characters are without exception demanding to the readers’ compassion: Gelis and Marthe, Philippa and Kathi, Güzel, they all have their flaws, but with some the flaws seem so overwhelming you tend to stop thinking along. Thanks for helping! 🙂
    I would like to add my 2 cts to the cup scene as I could so relate with Marthe here. IMO she wasn’t in love love with FC but wanted his friendship, his commitment, wanted to be trusted, in short she wanted him as her brother in the best sense. That he placed Richard above her felt – to me – like the ice cold brush-off he never intended it to be but couldn’t help dealing out. A truly tragic scene which drove tears to my eyes. If her reaction was obnoxious it’s exactly what a young woman would be in that moment, I think.
    Her death… was an oblation to a stunning climax of the whole series, and yet, I doubt there would have been a place for her in the world as it was then. Too self-assertive, and at the same time not cunning enough, or rather, not sophisticated enough to assume the necessary roles to get around regardless.
    With my best regards

  13. Christiane Schreiter – my thanks and congratulations for your ‘Educating Nicholas’ in WG 114.
    I admired it greatly, the way you stripped the dialogue into absolute essentials and in particular, your handling of the conversation between Nicholas and ‘Callimaco’. Also my dear Ludovico – a magnificent characterisation of a true religious.

    Thank you very much. Please write more.

    Kate Hannam.

  14. Started rereading Game of Kings in preparation for finally getting into the rest of Dorothy’s works.

    Keep wishing I’d taken advantage of my time at JT to collect the series (signed!). As you say, she was as an accomplished researcher as she was a fine author – I keep finding myself reaching for the dictionary every other page, and then when that fails (and it generally does) Google.


  15. What a great analysis Bill, engaging and convincing. Whenever I have thought of Marthe, I have wavered between ‘chip on her shoulder’ and thoughts along the line of ‘tragic pawn’. Is there not a line somewhere – was it Nostradamus? – who told Marthe that because of her something remarkable would make its mark in the world/ or be left to the world? It was unsettling to think her role was to ensure a greater life was not cut short. Unsettling, I think, because the Dame de Doubtance countenanced it. Now I have so much more to think about.

  16. Happened upon your post about Marthe from PINTREST of all things! I am presently rereading “Checkmate” for the ???th time, and am only about 1/4th of the way through. I do look forward to rereading all the lush language. Thanks for the thoughts on Marthe and your very astute conclusions. She is such an “out of her time soul” with her many varied experiences that many women of that time had no knowledge of, and which I felt left her almost incapable of leading any type of normal life. When she finally found some way to go on, her antiquities, her circle of artists etc., then the Crawford connection would resurface and both show her the family that she never had, and possibly make her more upset that she wants what she can never have. This might be the loving upbringing she feels that Richard, Francis and Eloise had, or might be some future that is denied her. Anyway! It is late here and I just meant to say thank you for sharing your talk with those of us that happen on this site. It seems whenever I try to discuss D. Dunnett I ramble on!

  17. Thank goodness I found this Blog! I just completed my first read of the Lymond Chronicles (literally–today I finished *Checkmate*) and the character of Marthe is bothering me. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for good ol’ loyal Jerott, and Marthe is so horrible to him, so my one word for Marthe at the moment is “bitch.”

    Here is my comment on the Big Scene, when our hearts stop because we think Lymond is shot dead but then discover it is really Marthe. Is it possible she learned about Austin Grey’s murderous intentions while held captive by the Lennox family in England, and once released she rode to Flaw Valleys to draw the bullet on purpose? Sadly, this would add to Lymond’s list of people who sacrifice themselves for his sake. However, it would fit with the Lost Soul Redeemed theme.

    Thanks again for the excellent discussion!

  18. Kate and Martha, welcome and thanks for your contributions. Apologies for not approving your posts sooner but for some reason I didn’t receive the usual notifications that they’d been posted and have only just seen them having been too busy with work to log in recently.

    Kate; yes, out of her time is an apt description of Marthe. She has so many of Francis’ attributes but while he, as a man, can shape the world, she has little opportunity to do so due to the attitudes of the time towards women.

    Martha; well there were a few others who used the ‘bitch’ word so you’re not alone! Congratulations on finishing your first read of the series – you can never repeat that wonderful experience but you can get so much else from re-reads and it sounds like you’ve joined those of us obsessives 😉 Will you be reading the House of Niccolo?

    Your idea of Marthe deliberately sacrificing herself is certainly possible and I’ll need to give it some serious thought. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any textual support for it but there are always more things to discover on every re-read. Have you come across any yourself?

    best wishes

  19. Bill, at the moment I have no textual support for my theory. I think it springs from the part of my brain that could not accept the alternative–that this was a bizarre, freak accident.

    I already had this little seed in my mind and when I read this discussion about the author’s carefully chosen use of the word, “rancourless,” it just seemed to fit. I will give this more thought, but as you suspect I started the House of Niccolo series and now I am knee-deep in Nicholas!

  20. To me, Marthe was tragic and possibly the most interersting, complex, and enigmatic character in the whole series. In a way, I was a bit in love with her and hoped that she would ultimately find some degree of contentment. But I believe that she was doomed from trhe beginning. Sometimes, there is just no way up.

  21. Love these analyses, but I am completely baffled by something Lymond said to Marthe after meeting them on the terrace; “the Superintendent of the Five Camels?” What is this reference?

  22. I think there is also something else, that I am seeing in the midst of the rising up of the angry in the US elections. I used to work at NGOs, and I met not a few folks who had some deep anger, and were looking for a cause, a place to put it. It just came to me, re-reading, that Marthe is one of them.

    Where does the anger, as a motivator, come from? Who knows — for Marthe, who has been dealt a harsh hand by life, it would seem that anger is her defense, her go-to emotional state. She uses it against Francis, Jerott, Philippa, Sybilla, Richard, certainly Gaultier and the Dame (the last two perhaps more appropriately).

    But it is unfulfilling, and not self-flattering, to just be indiscriminately angry. For the angry person, the cause is his or her excuse, a more acceptable and outward-directed expression of anger than just a free-form resentment of the world (she resents the birds in the trees, Jerott says at one point). Having a cause creates its own righteousness. That requires also that the injustice be inflated, to justify the outrage.

    Marthe decides somewhere in CM that her brother is her cause, and she can be angry on his behalf at the injustice she considers was done to him — Francis’ family done him wrong, and needs to be brought to justice. And, aha! the means to do so fall into her hands.

    But in the confrontation with Danny, where she actually does injure someone, and also listens to what he has to say; on the long journey; in the period of incarceration; somewhere along the way the righteous anger cools. She is, unlike at least some of the Angry Ones I have met, very intelligent. The message sinks in — this will not help things, and won’t do any but harm, even to the person she has taken as her cause. So, she is rancourless, coming over the hill. No more anger — at least for now, at least in this context. And that change makes me like her very much indeed.

    I look back at other episodes, and it all fits for me; from her malice in Djerba to her surprise and discomfiture when Philippa offers friendship in the seraglio.

    I like Marthe. I am sad that her life has conditioned her to respond, so often, with wounding, protective, self-immolating anger.

  23. Hi Lisa, apologies for the late reply due to a family illness and bereavement.

    Thanks for that additional insight; yes, I think that’s a very good description of Marthe’s internal feelings, and in some ways it makes her “conversion” all the more plausible. If only Jerott could have seen her without that anger they might have been reconciled…

  24. Hi Jayne
    Sorry for the late reply – a family illness and bereavement.
    I wonder if autocorrect mangled your question, which puzzled me at first since I couldn’t immediately find the quote?
    The phrase used is in fact “Superintendent of the Five Cereals” which is yet another of Lymond’s literary or mythological quotations. You can find a reference to it in a description of a Chinese deity Liu at

  25. Greetings All
    Firstly, I apologize for the length of this comment .. A consequence of many years of not being able to share my thoughts in a forum.
    Though definitely not new to the works of Dorothy Dunnett – first read GoK in the mid-seventies, I am new to these discussion blogs. I have re-read both the LC and HoN series quite regularly and each time find something new. I finished my latest re-read of both sets last year and am again now reading GoK. It’s like returning to an old friend. (I do read other authors as well and have read all of the Outlander series as an interesting comparison .. But that would be for another discussion)
    So have a little way to get to the introduction of Marthe and then on to CM.
    For me Marthe has always been an intriguing enigma and such a tragic character – out of place and out of time – used and abused by the Dame and Gaultier; unfortunately being on the outside looking in, in regard to Francis, wanting so much to be part of his life. I don’t think the cup scene involved covert sexual desire, but rather a desire to be part of this man’s circle of influence.. The one man who really understood her (not like Jerott) and with whom she could share an intellectual equality. But to do that Francis would have to expose the family secret, which would hurt Richard in so deep a way. I can’t remember just now whether at this stage Francis knew Sybilla and Francis (1st Baron) were married but if so, if Richard knew the truth he would feel honour bound to relinquish the barony to the rightful heir i.e. Francis. Just like he sacrificed the boy he believed to be his own son, Khaireddin, who poor thing was already corrupted and tainted, for the other boy, Kuzum, who had a better chance of a good life, (also because Kuzum was loved by Philippa, Francis out of a sense of compassion for Philippa and self-sacrifice, thinking he himself would die soon anyway, would save that boy) Francis had to sacrifice Marthe for his brother’s benefit. Complicated isn’t it?
    That’s another thread running through the books .. Sacrifice of one sibling for another; and is repeated in HoN.
    I’ve noticed a few people not being too happy with Sybilla saying she was selfish in how she dealt with this situation. Then also Francis (1) being selfish and headstrong .. causing the death of his sister; how Jodi (Sybilla’s father) didn’t like Rankin/Francis.
    Re the two Ks, I’ve always been sure I knew which boy was which and that Francis sacrificed his own son. But have recently read a rather convincingly strong argument for the reverse – again using the symbolism of the colors : silver and blue, red and crimson, apricot, sea-shells and peaches/apricots. I’m confused once more.
    This piece argues that Francis was deliberately misled so that he would eventually unknowingly save his real son.
    Link here, though you’ve all probably read it.

    (That in turn leads me to the other great tragic female character : Oonagh – for another time perhaps)

    More reading is required .. but that’s a task I can happily take on. Back to my slow reading of GoK. What a wonderful obsession 🙂

    Isn’t interesting how we analyse these characters as if they were real and even living now?; but that is due to the power of the writing skill of this marvelous woman. I only wish I had had the privilege of meeting her.

  26. Bill-Long time no see. Not in mood for computer conversations, etc. though I do love all of you and wish I could take more part in all the ongoing conversations taking place on-line. Just happened to stumble onto your ‘speech’ about Martha. Don’t know how and could prob. not find it again (bookmark!)but found your summary of Marthe very interesting. I am among those who just let her trail along in the story and did not try to analyze her at all. My word too, would have been ‘bitter’, which she certainly was. But, as always, your comments made me stop and think. About Marthe. Who she was and who she wanted to be. I too felt grief for her after the cup scene, but never interpreted it to mean a sexual attraction and do not now. Wanting to be ‘one of the gang’ would be the easiest way for me to describe her. One of the Crawfords, or the elite group Francis accepted, loved and trusted. The one thing Francis could not give her. Acceptance. I can see a place for her in Francis world, if she was indeed taking the papers to him. But that would have been a whole new book! I am always thrilled at running across DD references. I miss our short ‘challenge’ game, or was that Simon. I did get the answer to the second one, but as there could be so many challenges and I am on here so little, there would be no point. I do not know if or when I shall write you again, but thank all of you at Marzipan, esp. you and Simon, for the welcome, friendly and knowledgeable exchanges. I wish you all well and wish to say, for all time to come ‘HAIL DOROTHY’, the GREATEST! I would look forward to meeting her in the hereafter, pen in hand. Her, and your, devoted friend, Ruth Conley

  27. Loved the Lymond Chronicles; hated House of Niccolo, which I began reading last year and dropped halfway through the fourth book. I found him appallingly arrogant and irredeemable.

  28. Now Gail’s post above has got me remembering – oh, the sadness of Kuzum-Khaireddin …

    I remember even at my first reading of Pawn, way back, ultimately not being too fussed with which child was saved and which killed. I was sixteen then, and I’m a lot older now, but I haven’t really changed my thinking. So I never tried very hard to work out which child was which, although I vaguely thought I thought, for a few reasons, that the one saved happened to be Oonagh’s child.

    But it didn’t matter. Not in a callous way, but in a tragic way, because, I thought, it doesn’t profoundly matter to Lymond.

    Lymond doesn’t know which child is which. But, given his extraordinary approach to the world, he doesn’t focus on that greatly. On the intellectual, logical level on which he always strives to function, but also on the level of decent humanity and even love.

    He wants to save them both. He thinks them both worth saving, worth loving, worth being allowed to show their potential, regardless of who their parents might be. Because of circumstances, he is able to meet and form a bond with one child; and it is the child who has suffered most, which tears at him. But as he says to Jerrott, ‘I’ve seen the other child too. There is nothing to choose between them …’.

    He feels an abject failure and anguish at losing one – either one. The loss of that one powerfully affects his ability to form any kind of relationship with the other (as he acknowledges to Richard in Ringed Castle).

    At some point, one feels, probably even before Checkmate, the likely parentage of the child who survived should begin to show in looks. Richard says in Castle, ‘He has the exact Crawford colouring’, which colouring is by no means not distinctive. Moreover, Gabriel was sufficiently different from Lymond in colouring, features and build, and Joleta was very different from Oonagh. Is it, then, a useful thing on Dorothy Dunnett’s part that the parentage remains in doubt even at the end of Checkmate? Kuzum, Sibylla says, ‘May be Oonagh’s child. Or may be Joleta’s. Marthe knew.’

    The persistent ambiguity leads me to suspect that, although I understand Dorothy Dunnett said she left clues, she also perhaps thought that working out which child survived and which did not was a little beside the point. The point is more that either child dying is appalling, not least to Lymond, and especially when he feels that it is his failure that has caused it.

    But there is, I think, a further book. It is suggested at the end of Checkmate that Lymond may remain unable to forge a relationship with the surviving Kuzum-Khaireddin (… ‘Kuzum will always have Kate …’). Yet the boy is being brought up to think of Lymond as his father (‘My father doesn’t cry’). What might this apparent rejection by his father do to the boy in later years – aged fifteen, eighteen …?

    I like to hope that Lymond will eventually at least be able to bring to a relationship with the boy the sort of affinity and affection he has shown towards other children through the series (eg, his nephew, the young Philippa, the child Queen Mary) that is strong enough.

    It’s late here. I hope all that is coherent.

  29. I wonder, if we say that Lymond feels forced to choose between Marthe and Richard towards the end of Checkmate, are we forgetting that Richard has met Marthe while Lymond was unconscious? Richard has already had to explain her to himself somehow. He also must know that Lymond and Marthe have been associated in France, if not during the events of Pawn also.

    There is, therefore, no great need I think for Lymond to reject a friendly or even sibling relationship with Marthe for Richard’s sake, especially over the distance of Scotland to France.

    I think it is the other thing he is rejecting, her love for him as more than a sister, as I discussed in my posts under the blog about Jerott. And when he has to reject that, it would become difficult for him to offer merely friendship or a sibling relationship with her. Hence, there is nothing really that can be said.

  30. Regarding the identity of the children. Oonagh’s/Francis’s child was branded while very young. Without Dragut’s knowledge. It would then seem a simple matter to identify that child–unless Gabriel’s child was also branded, or you are saying the children were switched before the branding. We are never told about another branding nor is that brand ever mentioned in the search for the right child. If you say no other living person knew about the brand, Kedi would have known which child it was. And surely Phillippa would have noticed it on the child she adored. So it was Gabriel’s child that was branded and died @ Lymond’s hands?

  31. Ooooh, interesting …

    I always felt, if they were switched, it was before the branding, because of the ‘unexpected, deep, throaty chuckle’ that Oonagh hears from the baby shortly before it is branded (Disorderly Knights, Part III, X). That description of the laugh just didn’t sound like a reference to Lymond to me – more like a reference to Gabriel.

  32. Ooooh, interesting …

    I always felt, if they were switched, it was before the branding, because of the ‘unexpected, deep, throaty chuckle’ that Oonagh hears from the baby shortly before it is branded (Disorderly Knights, Part III, X). That description of the laugh just didn’t sound like a reference to Lymond to me – more like a reference to Gabriel.

  33. Archie tells Lymond, when he’s telling him about Philippa having gone after Kuzum: ‘It was the right size and colouring; it was branded …’ And when Gabriel has had Kuzum beaten, the narrator describes Kuzum’s pain, crying and terror, and says, ‘It had happened before’ although Kuzum did not ‘remember his branding’. There are a couple of other places where Kuzum’s brand is mentioned. So I guess we can say that the Kuzum-Khaireddin with Philippa in the harem was definitely branded.

    After Lymond has attempted to kill Gabriel at Zuara, Jerrott tells Marthe about the two children: ‘And the identity of the children was a device of Gabriel’s caprice. Both are branded; both were in Dragut’s harem. No one knows one from the other. …’ I don’t know, though, that we ever directly see or have described the brand on the Kuzum-Khaireddin whom Lymond becomes close to. Maybe we are meant to assume that he has looked for the brand and found it, because it is something he would do.

  34. Btw, 3 yrs on, Lymond didn’t know he was legitimate when dealing with Marthe’s beseeching re bottom of the cup – so as a bastard he had nothing to offer. Marthe’s papers prob included marriage lines that she thought were the only copies and worth something to all the Crawfords.

    Also. Lymond always knew who his father was. The only thing he didn’t know about was the marriage.

  35. What Marthe wanted was a family that would help fulfill her desire for art, music and intellectual stimulation in a warm and accepting setting. I always understood the “there is nothing in the cup” for Marthe as meaning Lymond would not, could not, take her to Scotland as a member of his family. As a bastard, which Lymond thought he was, he had not the position, and he wasn’t aware that Richard had met her—it was not a promise he could make, or would make, to the detriment of his family. That in itself is tragic, as Richard did already know about her and Sybilla had said as much “Come home to me.”

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