|Publisher:||BBC Audiobooks America|
|Product dimensions:||7.12(w) x 6.58(h) x 1.57(d)|
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It is a black art, the writing of a history, is it not?--to resurrect the dead, and animate their bones, as historians do? I think historians must be melancholy creatures, rather like poets, perhaps, or doctors; but then, what does it matter what I think? This is not my story. This is the story of a father and his daughter, and of the strange and terrible events that tore them apart, so it is to those two unhappy souls that I would direct your gaze. As for me, I shall soon sink from sight, and you will forget me altogether. No, I am merely the one who happened upon the story, as you might happen upon, say, a cache of letters in the attic of an ancient uncle's country house; and blowing away the dust of decades, and untying the ribbon that binds them, finding within those crumbling pages a tale of passion so tragic, yet so sublime--as to transform, in that instant, the doddering relict in the bath-chair below to a spirited youth with a fiery heart and the blood of a hero racing in his veins!
Now in those days, as it happens, I did indeed have an ancient uncle, and for some time I had been aware that his health was failing; and being his only surviving relation, I had speculated that his property would come to me when he passed on. The old man had been living a life of seclusion ever since the death of his benefactor, the great anatomist Lord Drogo, so when I received his letter, asking me to come to him at once, I wasted no time. I need not describe to you the journey I took across the Lambeth Marsh, nor the house itself, for both Drogo Hall and its drear landscape will emerge strongly in what follows. Suffice to say that I rode across the marsh alone, and carried a loaded pistol with me; and upon arriving at dusk, I was admitted by a little bent man called Percy, who took me up the great staircase to my uncle's study and then vanished without a word.
I found the old doctor seated close to a blazing coal fire in a small gloomy room with a heavy Turkey carpet on the floor and thick dark curtains on the windows. He had a blanket on his knees, a tome in his lap, and a jorum of Hollands-and-water close to hand. As he turned toward the door I saw at once that he could not be long for this world, so frail did he appear, his skin in the firelight as white and brittle as paper. But on recognizing me a light came up in those dim and milky eyes, he fixed me with a gimlet stare and cried to me to come in--come in, for the love of God!--for the draft was a chill one; and he pointed with a trembling finger to the aged leather armchair on the other side of the fireplace.
But still I stood there in the open door, rooted to the spot. I was transfixed by the painting hanging over the mantelpiece. I had never seen it before. It was the portrait of a robust, broad-shouldered man of between thirty and forty years. He stood against a wild moorland scene, a pine flattening in the gale on the brow of a distant hill, and rags of black cloud flying across the sky. He wore neither hat nor wig, and his long hair was tied at the back with a blue ribbon, a few strands torn free by the wind. His shirt was open at the throat, his skin was pale, and his eyes were like great dark pools, full of life and full of pain but hooded, somehow, lost in shadow as they gazed off into some unknown horizon. It was not a handsome face, it was carved too rough for that, but it was a strong, complicated face, hatched and knotted with sorrow and passion, a big stubborn chin uplifted--the whole head uplifted!--lips unsmiling and slightly parted, and the expression one of defiance, yes, and purpose. I felt at once that the artist, for all that he had caught some fleeting expression of this fierce, romantic spirit, could not have done him justice, nobody could have done justice to this man. My uncle William nodded at me with a pursed smile as I closed the door behind me and moved to the chair by the fire, my gaze still fixed on the painting, and slowly sat down.
"You know who he is, eh?"
"No, sir," I said, "I do not."
"No? Then shall I tell you?"
It was Harry Peake.
The name clawed at the skirts of memory as I sat down by the fire and warmed my jaded heart on the image of that proud rough man. America--for some reason as I gazed at him I thought of America--I thought of the Revolutionary War, and of all that I had learned of that great conflict from my mother, herself an American who pined in exile for her country every day of my childhood. An incident by the sea--a burning village filled with women and children--a red-haired girl with a musket at her shoulder--these ideas tentatively emerged from out of the mind's mist, but all else remained shrouded and obscure. I found myself sitting forward in my chair and staring into the fire as I tried to remember. At last I looked up, and told my uncle I saw a village in flames somewhere on the coast of North America, but no more than that. For some moments there was little sound in the room but the hiss of the coal in the hearth, and the wind rising in the trees outside.
"Come, Ambrose, sit closer to the fire," he murmured at last, turning away from me, seizing up the bottle of Hollands at his elbow. "Here, fill your glass. You shall hear it all. I have held it in my heart too long. It has blighted me. I am withered by it. He never got to America. God knows he wanted to."
My uncle put his fingertips together beneath his chin and closed his eyes. Silence.
"Many a man," I murmured, "has never got to America."
A sort of sigh, at this, and then silence again. I waited. When next he spoke it was with a clipped asperity that belied the desperate pathos of what he told me. To know Harry Peake, he said, you must first know what he suffered. Then you will understand why he fell. Why he turned into a monster.
" 'Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families'--eh?"
He was quoting an author, but I missed the allusion.
"He devoured his young--?"
Then I had it. Tom Paine.
"Lost his mind. What a waste. What a mind."
"But who was he?"
Here my uncle turned to me, and again fixed me with that gimlet eye. "One of those cursed few," he said, "to whom Nature in her folly gave the soul of a smuggler, and the tongue of a poet."
And so it began. Much of the detail I have had to supply from my own imagination, that is, from the ardent sympathetic understanding of the tragic events my uncle William described. His recall was patchy, for time had worn his memory through as though it were an old coat. The seams had split open, there were fragments of alien fabric, rudely stitched, and everywhere the pattern was obscured by foreign substances, such as those that were liberally splattered about the papers I later received from him, blood, soil, gin, etc. So I was forced to expand upon the materials he gave me. But when it was over I felt that I understood, I understood the extraordinary life not only of Harry Peake, but of his daughter also, of Martha Peake, who died at the hands of her own countrymen, and who, by her sacrifice, helped to create the republic to which my mother swore allegiance, and whose spirit I have come to love.
Later that evening the wind came up, it started to rain, and I was glad indeed of the shelter of Drogo Hall, for I had no desire to be out on the Lambeth Marsh in such conditions. We supped in the grand dining room downstairs, and a strange meal it was, the two of us up at the end of the table, a single branch of candles to light us, the wind howling about the house and that peculiar little man Percy, now wearing a ratty scratch wig, presumably on account of the formality of the occasion, serving us with silent swiftness, appearing suddenly out of the darkness with tureen or decanter and just as suddenly vanishing again. From the high, dark-panelled walls of the dining room the portraits of the earls of Drogo of centuries past peered down at us through the gloom, and our con- versation seemed at times to struggle forward as though burdened by the span of years that separated us from the events of which we spoke, indeed that separates me now from that dismal stormy night so long ago.
My uncle sat in the great chair at the head of the table, a tiny slumped figure against the vast gloom behind him, and picked at his food with sharp little jabs like a bird. We ate cold mutton and boiled potatoes. He had frequent recourse to the decanter, which was filled with a sweet Rhenish wine, and with every glass his speech grew more fluting, more rapid, and more inflected with the fancies of a failing mind, such that I had constantly to steer him away from the wild places where he seemed inclined to wander, and back to the track of his narrative. And all the while the silent Percy flickered in and out of the candlelight like a moth, again and again refilling my uncle's tall crystal goblet with that undrinkable sweet white wine.
Oh, we talked on long after the last dish had been removed, and the candles had burned down to guttering stubs, and still the wind could be heard out on the marsh, and the boughs of the trees slapped against the high windows of the house. Later I made my way upstairs with a candle, to a cold room with a damp bed where I lay sleepless for many hours as the storm exhausted itself and I attempted to digest not only my uncle's mutton but his story as well.
Reading Group Guide
1. Martha Peake is constructed as a story within a story, presented by a narrator who weaves his own imaginings into a tale told by his uncle. How does this narrative device influence the reader’s impressions of the characters and the facts of the story as they unfold? Did you find yourself accepting Ambrose Tree’s interpretations of events, even though he openly acknowledges his use of conjecture to fill in the gaps in his uncle’s narrative?
2. William describes Harry as “one of those cursed few to whom Nature in her folly gave the soul of a smuggler, and the tongue of a poet” [p. 6]. How does Harry’s childhood contribute to his divided nature? Are both elements of his character essential to his survival in London?
3. Harry sees showing off his backbone as “a spiritual labour, a kind of penance. To humiliate himself before the crowd was to invite the contempt and disgust he felt he deserved. For he wanted to cauterize his soul” [p. 37]. Does his decision to write poetry show that he is ready to move on with his life? What motivates him to recite his poem to an audience?
4. How do the themes of the “Ballad of Joseph Tresilian”—at once “a story of tyranny” and “a vision of untamed Nature” [p. 51]—reflect Harry’s personal struggles? Is Harry, trapped by his physical condition and tormented by his moral failings, symbolic of England at the time? At the same time, how does he also embody the spirit of the American colonists and their outrage against the tyranny of the king?
5. Do the encounters between Harry and Lord Drogo support Ambrose’stheory that the doctor’s intentions are sinister? What do they reveal about English society in the eighteenth century and the values that shaped it? How does Ambrose’s description of Harry’s appearance in Lord Drogo’s Theatre of Anatomy [p. 75] reflect his own bias, as well as the prevailing sensibilities of his time?
6. The world still knew him for a monster. However fresh the springs of the spirit within him, this could not be overcome, for this, his body, in the eyes of the world was his nature; and glimpsing this, in his bitterness, and spite, he had jettisoned his humanity and embraced the monster” [p. 85]. Is this an adequate explanation of Harry’s deterioration? Is Harry’s outward appearance a mirror of his corruption or the cause of his decline?
7. What qualities does Martha display, even as a young child, that foreshadow her future role in America? In what ways does the relationship between her and her father symbolize the relationship between the colonies and England? What political message is at the heart of the final, violent scene between Harry and Martha [p. 145]?
8. How do you feel about Martha’s decision to marry Adam Rind? Is her deception justifiable? How do you think Adam and his father, Silas, would have reacted had Martha told them the truth about her situation when she first arrived?
9. After her baby is born Martha remarks, “None of the women had asked to hold him, but the Rind girls were eager to . . . Martha wondered why the women had behaved so strangely. Did they think the child bewitched?” [p. 292] Are children in general more willing to accept the unusual than adults are, and if so, why? What insight does the novel offer into why people are uncomfortable with those who are disabled or otherwise different?
10. In what ways does little Harry’s deformed back symbolize the challenges facing the new nation of America? How do the various reactions to Harry’s birth—from Martha’s own feelings to those of the family and neighbors—embody the philosophical and political differences between America and England?
11. In response to the rumors that Martha spied for the British, Silas Rind “put his considerable authority behind an effort to promote a different version of the story, one in which Martha played not the traitor but the patriot; and no ordinary patriot at that. Martha Peake, he made it known, was a heroine, and a martyr to the cause” [p. 330]. Do you agree with his actions? Is it legitimate to mislead people in order to further a cause?
12. The British officer, Giles Hawkins, also uses Martha in pursuit of political and military ends, lying about her father in order to get information about American preparations for battle [p. 257]. Is there a moral difference between Silas’s creation of a myth and Hawkins’s more direct trickery?
13. From Harry’s career as a smuggler to Martha’s role in the Revolutionary War, Martha Peake is filled with evasion, secrecy, and deception. How does the way the story is presented echo and/or enhance these elements?
14. Does the ending surprise you? Like his uncle, Ambrose withholds information over the course of the narrative. What examples are there of his deliberately obscuring facts about Harry and his relationship to the denizens of Drogo Hall? In what ways does Ambrose’s nightmarish experience in the cellar [p. 312] serve as a metaphor for his role as storyteller? How does the ultimate revelation about Harry’s fate relate to the opening line of the book: “It is a black art, the writing of a history, is it not?”
15. Are McGrath’s portraits of Harry and Martha equally effective? Does one character hold your attention or engage your sympathy more fully than the other? Would you describe Harry as an evil, immoral person, or does he evoke compassion? What flaws, if any, does Martha exhibit? What do you admire most about her?
16. The first half of Martha Peake takes place in London, and during her stay in America Martha witnesses only the early days of the Revolutionary War. Do you think the book’s subtitle—“A Novel of the American Revolution”—is appropriate? What might have been McGrath’s reasons for selecting it?
17. Does the book deepen your understanding of the causes of the Revolution? In addition to his vivid description of the setting, how does McGrath illuminate the historical realities and the cultural and intellectual atmosphere of the times? Are there any historical omissions made by the author?
18. What does a historical novel provide which is missing from works of history or biography? What does McGrath achieve by presenting the Peakes’ story in the guise of a dark and at times melodramatic Gothic novel rather than as a straight narrative, a diary, or another traditional form of historical fiction? What specific characteristics of a Gothic novel make it an especially suitable medium for historical fiction?
19. The technique of framing a narrative was common in nineteenth-century literature, used for example, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817) and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). In what other ways does the novel evoke the literary conventions of nineteenth-century fiction?
20. If you have read the novels of Charles Dickens, discuss the stylistic and thematic parallels between Martha Peake and books such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and Bleak House. As a modern novelist, McGrath is much farther removed from the events in Harry and Martha’s lives and from the narrator’s own time than Dickens was. How does McGrath’s contemporary point of view influence the way he portrays both characters and events?