The Surprise of Poldark -- by Susan Price

The Poldark series

"'I'm not sure," Ross said, 'that the maintenance and transaction of government is at all well served by the present system of representation and election...I have been taking more notice of the system as it exists in England today and it's like some ramshackle old coach of which the springs and swingle bar are long broke and there are holes in the floor from bumping over rutted roads. It should be thrown out and a new one built.'

 Ross Poldark goes on to argue that a situation where sparsely populated Cornwall could send several MPs to Parliament (all of them the puppets of wealthy landowners), while the densely populated new cities of the North were often unable to return even one MP, was desperately unfair.

The book from which I took this quote is 'The Four Swans', first published in 1976, when Graham was 68.  And here we are in 2022. Forty-six years after the book was published, two hundred and twenty-six years after it's set, and has anything much changed? The strings of our MPs are now pulled by big business as well as big landowners and, despite 'reform', our gerrymandered borders and 'First-Past-the-Post' system still ensure that tens of thousands of Britons are disenfranchised at every election.

I've been reading the Poldark books, by Winston Graham. I never expected to find anything as radical as the above quote in them. But then, I've found the books, and their author, rather surprising.

As I'm sure you've noticed, there have been two immensely popular television series based on the books. The first appeared in 1975 (forty-seven years ago, good grief!) and was avidly watched by my parents and much less avidly by me, if I was around.

Although thoroughly enjoying the series, my parents took the mick out of it something rotten. I remember the entrance of one character always being greeted with cries from the sofa of, "Oooh, ar-- 'tes the evil Georr-rr-ge War-rr-leggan, zo it be!" From this, and other comments, I gathered that it was all rather a pantomime. The thought of reading the books never crossed my mind.

The second series began showing in 2015 and this time round I watched it with my Scots partner who has a partiality for romantic costume dramas that nothing about him would lead you to suspect-- but, once again, there was a good deal of heckling and 'Ooh-aarrring' from the sofa-- especially when one or another of the characters romantically galloped a horse right to left, or left to right, over that same stretch of sea-cliff yet again.

This second series didn't inspire me to read the books either. But then came lockdown, during which my lifelong and major addiction to books became desperate. What was there to do, except read?

So a series of eleven books, all priced at a mere four quid on kindle? Yes, please. (Four quid is $4-84 to our American readers. Or it was when I did the Google conversion.)

To my surprise I found that the Poldark books aren't pantomimish at all. They're very good indeed. I suppose there was, after all, a reason why TV felt it was twice worth spending all that money on dressing up actors in costume and making stuntmen ride along the same stretch of cliff over and over again. (Or once and then repeated on a loop.) Thousands of readers, world-wide, had already decided that the Poldark books were A Good Read. They weren't wrong.

 And you know how people always say that the books are better than the film or TV series made from them? Well, let me tell you, the Poldark books are much better than the TV series, entertaining though they were.

 Because I'd had this idea that the books were pantomime-ish, the quality of the writing and the depth of characterisation took me aback slightly. Winston Graham had that great gift, the story-telling gift, which somehow keeps you gripped and reading, even though nothing described or threatened seems to be particularly surprising or important. And yet, it's impossible to see in what this gift lies, as Art disguises Art. Could it be the afore mentioned characterisation? What happens, even if not world-shaking, matters so much to the characters, and therefore matters to the readers.

I  know hardly anything about the history of Cornwall but it's evident that Graham knew a great deal. While the history is always in the background, never becoming a dry lecture, you're always aware of how the rise and fall of mine fortunes, the bad harvests and famines, the food riots and fear of the Revolution across the channel, the politicking in far-away London, is in part shaping the characters' thoughts and actions.

Winston Graham

I'm usually happy to read what a writer wrote, without feeling any need to know anything about their life, but I found Graham's books so surprising that I did a little research. I was surprised yet again to learn that he wasn't Cornish, having been born in Manchester, in 1908, the son of Winston Grime, a wealthy tea importer and grocer. He first took the name 'Graham' as a pseudonym but later made it his name by deed poll. (Perhaps he thought 'Grime' was a little lacking in glamour for the writer of best-sellers?)

He moved to Cornwall, with his parents, at the age of seventeen and lived there for thirty-five years.

Learning of his wealthy background gave me another surprise, as I'd been struck by the great sympathy Graham shows for his poorer characters, the miners, the fishers, the farmers and tradespeople who scrabble for a living. Nor are they ever merely objects of pity and charity, but are as varied in nature and ability, as alive and individual, as the squires and lords. I've read more than one book by writers of Graham's vintage who failed to grasp this.

He lends this understanding to his hero, Ross Poldark. And it's Ross, of course, who although being minor gentry, a 'squireen', marries the penniless, illiterate miner's daughter, Demelza.

Demelza by Graham
Demelza is a wonderful character, with Graham bringing all his sympathy and understanding to the creation of her. We meet her as a child, taken into the Poldark household as a servant, and we see her come alive to broader possibilities than she's ever known before: reading, writing, playing music. We see her explore them and very quickly learn and grow. She is never simply a prize for the hero or a pretty plot point. At times, Graham seems able to see through her eyes and feel with her nerves. He never makes her overly grateful for Poldark graciously deigning to marry her. She's too spiky to simply accept the views of 'her betters' -- or to pretend to be one of them-- and she's quite prepared, if undervalued, to throw over everything, walk out and earn her own living, as she learned to do when younger. Even though Poldark is said to have 'married his kitchen maid' and 'raised her up,' he is never able to take her for granted.

One of Graham's daughters said that Demelza was based on his wife, her mother, who helped Graham enormously in the writing of his books, as she was exceptionally observant about people and 'remembered everything'. If it's true that Demelza was based on her, then she was a lucky woman (and Graham a lucky man), as her husband obviously adored her.

The Black Moon by Graham

It should be said that Graham writes about all his women characters with affection, admiration and understanding. Nor are they all, by any means, plaster saints. They are human.

In this, if in nothing else, he reminds me of Terry Pratchett, the creator of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg.There are, in the Poldark books, a few instances of throw-away remarks smacking of 1930s and '40s sexism. For instance, we're told several times that women-- all women, but never men-- are 'unpredictable'.

But then, Graham couldn't exist outside his time, and such minor slights could be easily forgiven in exchange for A Good Read. It's less easy to forgive our shining hero, Ross Poldark, committing what this present day reader understands as the rape of his erstwhile sweetheart, Elizabeth. Neither Poldark nor Graham seem to feel this to be too troubling a matter-- but I withhold final judgement, as I haven't finished the sequence of books yet. As I write, I'm only up to Book 5, The Black Moon-- and in that book, Elizabeth is certainly shown as feeling justified hatred and anger towards Poldark. So perhaps a thread of story is being spun here.

A minor surprise-- but not actually due to Graham-- is that Demelza, in the books, is dark-haired and dark-eyed. (Left, a 1953 edition, and an unmistakeably 1950s Demelza, on Biblio). Yet both TV series, mysteriously, chose to show her with bright red hair. Maybe, back in 1975, when Angharad Reese was cast as Demelza, it was considered that no one could be better cast in the part. (My Dad certainly agreed. Ms Reese, he said, diplomatically, was the image of my mother when he married her.)

But why did the 2015 series also insist on a red-haired Demelza? Why didn't they cast a dark-haired actress and proclaim the virtue of actually being true to the book?

The red-haired heroine in the books is Caroline Penvenon, the wealthy, aristocratic heiress who marries the lower-class doctor, Enys. (Graham loves to mix up the classes: he does it at every opportunity. In fact, I'd venture that an overriding theme of the books is the Class System and its oppressive snobbery and avarice, which takes little account of someone's abilities and character.) On the TV, red-haired Caroline becomes blonde. Why? In the books, Elizabeth is described as blonde-- but the actress cast in the part is dark. Casting directors evidently don't bother reading the books.

'Warleggan' by Graham

It's not just the women. In the books, George Warleggan is not the pantomime 'evil George' that I'd understood him to be. Yes, he's selfish and calculating and, on occasion, callous and spiteful-- but he's also highly intelligent and capable of being generous and even loving when he chooses, even if there's usually some profit in it for him. Above all, he's insecure and driven by insecurity. On balance, he's a more complex character than any of the romantic heroes. Don't the villains always get the best tunes?

He's the grandson of a blacksmith and many of the upper class characters look down their noses at him because of it. Graham describes him as being powerfully built, with a thick neck, broad shoulders and short, thick legs-- an appearance which he's mockingly said to have inherited from his 'lower class' and highly skilled blacksmith grandfather. Yet both TV series cast, as Warleggen, slight men who you imagine would struggle with a blacksmith's sledge hammer. Honestly, why did Graham bother describing his characters?

But the Graham surprises keep on coming. Did you know he wrote Marnie-- the book the Hitchcock film was based on? I hadn't a clue. In fact, he wrote many and varied books besides the Poldark series. I read Cordelia, which is set in the Manchester of the Industrial Revolution and which I found just as gripping as any dashing about in Eighteenth Century Cornwall. And Stephanie, which I thought would be similar to Cordelia, but which is a drug-trade thriller set in 1984.

The man wrote so many books, he must have been writing in his sleep.

In short, if you haven't actually read the Poldark books, and you're looking for some cracking good page-turning reads, try the Poldarks. You could fare far and fare worse.

 

 

 And I could hardly leave this subject without posting this picture. 


For those who like that kind of thing.

 

 

 

 Susan Price's website can be found here.

Comments

Sandra Horn said…
Thanks for the recommendation, Sue - I never would have thought of reading the books. Didn't watch the televised version as I thought it wasn't my 'thing'. Will report back!
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks so much, Sue. What a brilliant (insert noun here - my various ones could be exegesis, analysis, encomium, panegyric, eulogy, tribute, explication, etc., etc.) Your enthusiasm (as reader, critic, researcher and, by no means least, writer) opens up the books' layers - surface and semi-concealed - to illustrate depths beyond the scope of most TV adaptations. I've never read Graham but for a few four quids he sounds a real bargain.
Jan Needle said…
I've never read them either, nor seen any of the TV. In fact all I know about Poldark is that my kids always used to insist on climbing into my car by an open front window, while citing Poldark. What's that all about I wonder! Great post though, thanks.
Peter Leyland said…
That's just great Sue. I've never read them or seen either of the series, but I have a real interest in the effect that reading books has on people. Although unfortunately my research has been curtailed now, I'm still eagerly collecting more examples like this one which I will print out. All best from Peter
I couldn't agree more. There is so much depth to them, and I was interested to read a bit about the author in this post too. The characters were so strong and their various motivations so well-written. I read the books ages ago, before even the first tv series. I didn't watch the more recent adaptation as I had thought the original cast 'were' the characters, if that makes sense.
Susan Price said…
Five commentators and only Cecilia has read the books! I completely agree, Cecilia: many of the characters could get up and walk out of the books... But it seems that TV serialisation actually puts people off reading the books! The opposite of what everyone expects...

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