An Extract from the book:
5. Mistress Martha
When a character as exotic, beautiful and passionate as Martha Morgan walks into one’s life in the middle of the night, when one is at a low ebb, one cannot fail to be impressed! I suppose I fell in love with her there and then, and have remained in love ever since. (My wife Inger doesn’t seem to mind too much, since she and Martha might just be closely related!) An author MUST love his heroes or heroines if he is to inject passion and realism into his narrative and his portrayals of character. I love some of the others too -- especially Joseph Harries, Bessie Walter, Owain Laugharne, Patty Ellis and Amos Jones. Perversely, I am also quite fond of some of my villains, including Moses Lloyd, George Price and Alban Watkins. Nobody is all bad or all good, and I have tried to show that some of the villains who prowl through the pages of the Saga are also victims, pushed into the pathways of evil by force of circumstance. Even Martha, the matriarch of Plas Ingli, is anything but perfect.
Virtues and Vices
At the beginning of On Angel Mountain Martha is pregnant, confused and suicidal. She is suffering from morning sickness, and she has just been forced into a hasty marriage by a family obsessed with status and reputation. She loves her new husband David, but so low is her own self-esteem that she thinks he will be happier without her. From that low point she gradually struggles uphill to achieve some sort of equilibrium, and with the support of her new family (and new friends like the Wizard of Werndew) she discovers that she is loved and appreciated by others. As the very young mistress of a struggling estate she starts to assert herself -- then she loses her baby and plunges into a black and very prolonged depression. Is she a manic depressive? Probably not -- but then I’m not a psychiatrist! She certainly wallows in her misery, on that occasion and on a number of others later in the stories, but she does have a capacity for switching from misery to elation quite rapidly -- and as she grows older, she learns how to banish her demons. And she is anything but a self-obsessed introvert.
She has many virtues, as befits a heroine. She is more liberal, more tolerant and more free-thinking than she has any right to be, and in that sense she lives “outside her period in history.” But that’s how she came to me, and I had to be true to the picture of her which I held in my mind’s eye ever since that strange night of delirium on Gran Canaria. Over and again I pondered whether I was creating “a modern woman in fancy dress”, but repeatedly I decided that every heroine worth her salt has to stand out from the crowd, and has to be more beautiful, more passionate, more impetuous, more intelligent than all of the other women who wander in and out of the stories. Think of Lizzie Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, or Moll Flanders, or Jane Eyre, or Portia and Ophelia in the works of Shakespeare! If they were not “over the top” in some way, would we remember them?
One of Martha’s characteristics is her unpretentiousness. Most of the members of her class kept their distance from labourers, servants and tenants in the early nineteenth century, and worked hard at maintaining their status and protecting privilege and power. In the stories, Martha hates all of that, and is drawn instinctively to the underprivileged. She identifies far more closely with Patty the prostitute than she does with Mistress Maria Rice, and not just because the latter is mean-spirited and arrogant. Her biggest friends, as she goes through life, are Ellie Bowen and Mary Jane Laugharne, who share her instinct for philanthropy and her dislike for pretension. And then, in Flying with Angels, when the large and earthy Mistress Delilah Gwynne bursts upon the scene, she can hardly contain her delight at the discovery of a kindred spirit. Martha’s close identification with the poor is forced upon her to some degree by the circumstances in which the Morgan family finds itself -- effectively bankrupt, and brought low by the inferno which destroyed all the estate buildings and which killed five members of the family. But there was no gaping gulf between the gentry and the “lower classes” in Wales, partly because most of the gentry were less affluent than their counterparts in England and partly because there was much less cash in circulation. The estates were smaller and very vulnerable. “In kind” payments were common, and there was a complex system of debt recording and debt adjustment among members of the same class and among different classes too. Meals were shared, and work was shared. Very strong friendships were forged between the masters and mistresses of the smaller estates and their servants, tenants and labourers -- and the sort of social divide that we become aware of in Pride and Prejudice existed only on the biggest estates. In her relationships with those who might be below her socially, Martha is picking up on the easy familiarity which already exists in the relationships between Grandma Jane and Mrs Owen or between David and Billy. But she takes that familiarity and mutual respect to a new level, and makes bonds that are so tight as to make Plas Ingli a unique and wonderful place. If the house is inhabited by angels, then Martha clearly has more than a little to do with it.
So for better or for worse, Martha is a nineteenth-century version of super-woman. From the beginning she is very beautiful and very sexy, and as she blossoms into womanhood she gains a reputation as the most beautiful woman in Wales. Little wonder that many readers have said that Catherine Zeta Jones has to play her when the film comes to be made! She is well educated, and has a very enquiring mind. She is a competent musician and a moderately talented artist. She speaks English, Welsh, French and Dimetian Welsh fluently. She reads widely, and is attracted to “subversive” or radical literature. Her liberal views frequently lead her into trouble, and it is quite natural that she should be concerned about the plight of slaves and convicts and all those who might be oppressed or victimized by the crown, the government, and impersonal institutions. She has concerns about voting reform and womens’ rights, and she sympathises with the Chartists -- at least until they start to split apart and lose control of extremist elements. She is immediately drawn to the Rebecca Rioters since she understands what their grievances are and sees (better than most of her peers) what happens to families struggling against poverty and disease. She is not particularly religious, but goes through the motions of being a worthy member of the established church and goes through life trying to be a “better person.” She flirts with Methodism for a while, and finds the devotion and kindness of the Non-conformists appealing. But at the same time she is irritated by their evangelical zeal and their unshakeable conviction that they are saved while others are condemned to hellfire and damnation. She is, as she admits now and then in the pages of her diaries, not averse to a little jolly sin now and then. She is also perfectly happy to shelter criminals, to drink smuggled gin, to tell lies, and to withhold her tithe payments in protest against the arrogance and insensitivity of the Church.
But Martha has a host of virtues too. She is brave, loyal to her husband and her family, and fiercely protective of those in her care once she is widowed and responsible for the safety of the Plas Ingli estate. She has enormous generosity of spirit, and makes spontaneous gestures of support when others might back off. Think about the welcome she gives to Patty the prostitute, or to Will the petty criminal, or to Zeke Tomos, who goes on to betray her. She often acts impulsively and on the basis of intuition and instinct. She makes huge self-sacrifices for the good of others. She puts herself in danger over and again, often because she is seeking to help those who do not necessarily deserve her assistance or her loyalty. For example, she plunges into the task of helping the sick and the dying during the cholera epidemic of 1797 without any thought for her own wellbeing. She goes to Ireland to help the starving during the Irish Potato Famine, and becomes seriously ill in the process. She sees beauty all around her, and takes an almost child-like pleasure in simple things -- such as standing on the mountain-top in the wind with her hair streaming behind her and her arms stretched out wide. She loves her children and her grand-children, and welcomes back Daisy, the black sheep of the family, when she returns after years of loose living in London. She fights to keep her family together when stresses and strains occur because of grief, or bankruptcy or other disasters. On those occasions she is a diplomat as well as a matriarch. In some ways she is also naive, and has a tendency to think well of others when suspicion might be more appropriate. But she trusts her family and her servants to look after her when she makes misjudgments, and indeed they do just that. She is a prudent and wise estate manager, and she knows how to inspire loyalty, give responsibility to others, and reward enterprise. She never stops learning, and wants others to learn and to better themselves -- to the extent that she becomes a great benefactor of the Circulating Schools. She is generous to a fault, and one of the ironies of the Saga is that having protected her precious treasure and left it in the ground as a “family insurance” for more than fifty years, she finally digs it up and gives most of it away.
As mentioned in Chapter 3, the thing that I love most about Martha is her sheer bloody-mindedness and her determination that she will not be overwhelmed by grief or misfortune, or even betrayal, and that she will bounce up again with a smile on her face whenever she is knocked down. That resilience is the characteristic that I admire most in other people. Martha is no victim and no stoic. And she is not exactly serene or gentle either. She is too much of a fighter to aspire to sainthood -- but maybe she does have some of the virtues of an angel. When readers say to me “Poor Martha! What a miserable life she has!” I have to remind them that she actually has quite a lot of fun. She has an active sex life well into old age, and enjoys the love and loyalty of all the “angels” who look after her. She makes opportunities for herself to do all sorts of exciting things, including riding out with the Rebecca Rioters when she is in her mid-sixties! And she never ceases to take pleasure in striding out over the common, climbing among the crags on her sacred mountain, lying on her back in the middle of a flower meadow on a June day, or watching butterflies and lizards with her children and then her grandchildren. She has jovial and influential friends too, and a busy social life surrounded by admirers. And more often than I care to mention, she seems to enjoy the freedom of being a “merry widow.” How many times, one wonders, was the episode on the last page of Rebecca and the Angels repeated, maybe in the company of other gentlemen?
And so to Martha’s vices. There are plenty of these. Her wild swings of mood make her difficult to live with, and her impulsive and erratic actions sometimes bring family and friends to the edge of despair. She does become very self-obsessed at times, and has to be reminded quite forcefully (by Grandma Jane, Bessie and Mrs Owen) that she should think more of the impacts of her actions on those who love her. She weeps a lot for the sins of the world and for the suffering of others -- but maybe that is a virtue rather than a vice. She is economical with the truth when it suits her, and she is sometimes quite devious in her behaviour. She learns how to “use the system” and does it frequently. In House of Angels, when she comes to realize what a devastating impact her beauty has on almost all the men whom she meets, she becomes arrogant and manipulative -- and again has to be admonished for her insensitivity. In Dark Angel she displays other sides of her character of which she would not be proud. She becomes besotted and obsessed with little Brynach, and “loses” her own children emotionally. She does not even see their suffering for what it is. She becomes paranoid about The Nightwalker, and mistrusts those who are trying to protect her from herself. She interferes endlessly in other people’s business, and throughout her life she displays a tendency for getting involved in mighty issues that would be best left to others to sort out. In Rebecca and the Angels she tries to tackle the tollgate grievances by becoming an honest broker or go-between, working with the Turnpike Trusts on the one hand and the small farmers on the other. In Flying with Angels she even tries to end the Irish Potato Famine by travelling over to Ireland with nothing in her bag besides good intentions! As she gets older she becomes more and more eccentric, and by the time she strikes up her relationship with Amos Jones, in the last ten years of her life, she seems actually to revel in her irresponsible and unpredictable behaviour, to the embarrassment of children and grandchildren.
Occasionally Martha seems heartless when confronted by the suffering of others -- but we must not forget that Martha lives in an age which is brutal and in which death is very much a part of life. She kills three men (Moses Lloyd, Barti Richards and Zeke Tomos) with her own hands, and watches others die in horrible circumstances. She also sends many other men to the gallows and to the penal colonies through her personal determination to see justice done. Vengeance -- rather than the tendency to deep depression -- is Martha’s greatest demon. She agonizes about it in many sections of her dairies, wondering over and again whether she has allowed her noble and single-minded quest for justice to be transformed into a monster called “revenge”. At times she knows that she has taken too much pleasure from the sight of a judge with a black cap on his head, and she recoils from what she sees inside her own mind. She is indeed a heroine who is far from perfect -- and maybe that is why readers seem to love her as I do.........