Perfection is a full stop.
Give me the comma of imperfect striving,
Thus to find zest in the immediate living.
Ever the reaching but never the attaining
Of the mountain top (Memoirs of a Private Man, Book 2, Chapter 11, p. 312).
Dear friends and readers,
I read this book over the weekend I was at the JASNA — in the later evenings when I returned to our room. Thus unlike all the other Graham books I’ve read thus far I don’t have detailed notes from chapter to chapter, but I have managed a blog where I cite the pages of the important sections.
The book is worth while for far more than understanding Graham’s work, especially his historical novels and later mature realistic mysteries.
Winston Graham walking along cliff path, Porth Joke, Cornwall
It exemplifies all the typicalities of a male autobiography (man seizes opportunity, man gets ahead, man is success); rich in content about Graham particularly, his outlook, methods, and about the inspirations and background of the Poldark novels. There are useful sections on historical novel writing, on how he achieved human realism in his later mature mysteries, and much candor about the way deals are made to film books and how this kind of thing is so variously done.
For women the contrast of this Horatio Alger kind of story and say Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Slipstream (which I’m reading just now and is by an author often similarly ignored and who lived during the same era) is instructive. Even more for women, is the long section on his once famous novel (and it’s still in print), Marnie, which Hitchcock made a movie of (and tried to get big stars to come on board but could not). A strongly transgressive female (cold, not all feeling, not caring — we are told on IMDB she has “serious psychological problems”) who fascinated Graham. There’s a long book on The Marking of Marnie (an early film-making type book which analyses film and book sophisticatedly). I’ve ordered it. It’s in this book that Graham is called “an instinctive feminist.”
One interesting element about historical writing which he emphasizes in a more general way than he does in Poldark’s Cornwall is how important geography is to the historical novelist. The historical novelist has to want to visualize, imagine, live in a particular place, unearth and visualize and make it alive, and out of that comes the cultural patterns that people living at that time had to respond to.
So, first as a professional author: Graham’s early chapters include (especially Chapter 3) his long period of apprenticeship: how at 18 he began to write on his own and did not attempt to go to university nor get a job that was unsuited to his temperament or would have used up his time and not allowed him to develop his gift for writing. He was very lucky in being the second son, born much later than the first, to a woman who had sufficient private income to support them both. She could, however, have been intolerant and bowed not only to the norms then and now, but the ridicule heaped on her son for “doing nothing.” He was fortunate in one relative: his father’s younger sister, an unmarried woman, persuaded him not to leave his ms in the drawer, to type it, and then she bound it lovingly in two boards and it was sent to Ward and Lock (publishers of Trollope volumes in the early 20th century).
“Life is not kind — nor is it in any way even-handed (Book 1, Chapter 3, p 38)
From a very young age, he wanted to write (age 5); the writing industry or literary marketplace at the time included many small publishers to whom an author could send manuscripts; if and when, an author was accepted, the contract was simplicity itself. He had actually stockpiled novels (novels he had written and not sent out) and was able to keep up attention to himself by sending along a novel quickly after the first to be published, and one after that. He was reviewed in big dailies and locally. This is a modest chapter as he does not praise what must have been gifts to draw positive attention to himself.
Later in the book we see how he was picked up by Book-of-the-Month club after he had written Marnie and that book had been filmed by Hitchcock.
He calls himself “the most successful unknown novelist in England’ (p. 117); the first choice was a historical novel, The Grove of Eagles (Cornwall, 16th century). Although not personally known as a name until the film series, Poldark, his books sold widely and it was certainly noticed by publishers, and once he was one of the Book-of-the-Month club choices among the non-chattering classes his “name” spread. We see how step-by-step his career built: from his abilty to socialize easily and make friends, to his Poldark novels being picked up by film-makers who persisted in wanting to make a film series (comparable to Gone with the Wind he says — that is, a historical saga), and how through several successes (selling modern mysteries, US Book-of-Month-Club, Poldark novels and films, Hitchcock films), he got into groups of people who led him to join a London club, the Savile (p. 112), where he met the finest authors and minds of his era.
Second, as the autobiography of a male. It follows (almost uncannily if you know it) the outline of Trollope’s autobiography: obscure boy of a fringe-genteel family makes good. Underlying the book is the idea that opportunity strikes and it’s up to the individual to seize and make the most of it, or should I say a series of such opportunities strike, and the individual must be both quick and lucky to take what’s coming and then he succeeds. Like Trollope’s (and many other life-writing by a man) we hear almost nothing of his wife (Jean) and lo and behold he is suddenly marrying her; we are for long stretches (especially the early years of the marriage), told little of their inward intimate private life together except exemplary statements (like she was ever cheerful, it was she who supported them at first by her abilities as a landlady), and he never says much at all about his children, except to name them, and indicate they are around now and again, tell their marriage dates and children when it seems the chronology fits. He tells of his early visits and then life in Cornwall and how and why the place meant so much to him, and how important geography is to the imagination of the historical novelist (who is a romancer after all).
Women’s autobiographies (of which I am reading one just now, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Slipstream) tell of the intimate details of who their husbands are before they marry them, how they come to marry, their children’s lives, and the structure is not one of opportunity knocked and see me on my Pegasus soaring, but a cyclical structure, repetitious, with much beyond the writing life meaning a great deal and brought out explicitly as central to characters and stories in the work. By the end of the book when Graham has told of his continual traveling (there’s a list of places and times went comparable to Trollope’s list of sums made), and dropped so many famous names (like Gregory Peck and his wife), his jaguars, if this structure were not the bare bones of a much richer outlook poured into it, the correct term for the book ought to be Memoirs of a Socially networking financially successful writer. The public man not the private one. What he’s private about (but does not lie) is his sexual life and misdeeds and deep misgivings (which two he does not tell — but then as Trollope says which of us has not done mean acts and which of us can bear to tell them).
However, the book is much better than that, and one sign of this is how after the initial phase of Graham growing up, it breaks chronology continually, and jumps forward in time suddenly to explain say his inner life as a writer and his aims in his fiction, feelings about, and thorough descriptions of many different books and how they were written, or filmed, and, occasional sudden eruptions of some of his deeper beliefs about the nature of experience, and how people perceive it – the kind I find in the Poldark novels often attributed to Ross Poldark at particularly disillusioned and bitter moments (Book 2, Chapter 3, pp 178-79).
“I rely on hearsay for everything that has happened in the world before I was born, and the world as I know it, till end on the day I die. When I become part of ‘the dull, the indiscriminate dust’ there is nothing to prove to me that anything will still go on, any more than that anything existed before I opened my eyes and blinked up at my doting parents. Nothing can prove to me that the world and all it appears to contain has an objective reality. I know it has a subjective reality but no more … I burn my finger and I feel the pain. I feel nothing of the horrible pains of a thousand martyrs who have been -. it is said – burned at the stake for their beliefs, or disbeliefs. Even among my nearest and dearest there is no transference — can be no transference — of experience. One can feel empathy for someone suffering, but one cannot feel the suffering. We are all alone — desperately alone.
It’s in these long displaced chapters that the reader sees the sources of the Poldark novels and the later realistic ones, which use the mystery plot-design to keep the reader going but are about believable ordinary people caught up in circumstances of high violence and trauma, guilt-ridden, puzzled, not knowing how to act but acting impetuously (the last two qualities are very much Ross’s), but becoming trapped in a pattern they don’t understand themselves. He also himself describes what he thinks is good novel art, discusses (as he does in Poldark’s Cornwall) the types of historical fiction as he sees them and the demands and skills historical novels require (above all self-control not to dump irrelevant information the author has dug up as part of his immersion in the era), as well as (for him) its rooted nature in a place, geography, and cultural moment. The Poldark series of books meant enormously to him, even before they became the sources for the fame- and money-making TV films. Cornwall where his family went when his older brother looked for a new home outside southern England, where he lived with his family for many years, is central to this preoccupation.
It’s also apparent he formed some real friendships with the actors and actresses who played the central roles. Here’s a comic photo of Jill Townsent waiting on the set to be called, smoking a cigarette
Since I did not take notes as I went along (which are in effect) what my weekly postings to listservs really are, I will tell only what I remember best from his direct discussions of the Poldarks as well as (not unconscious but not admitted to) descriptions of his private life, and especially himself and his wife which shed eye-opening light on the novels. In these latter revelations he is like Trollope too who discreetly lets us know (for example) he had liaisons as a young man and casual encounters with women as an older one traveling, and that he loved Kate Field. In a long chapter on his relationships with a group of wealthy artists and patrons, he discreetly suggests female loves (e.g., Book 2, Chapter 2); he gives little vignettes of conversations between himself and his wife later in life which ring with the voices and ambivalence of an intensely bonded-partnership between Ross and Demelza.
Graham does say at one point Demelza is an idealization of his wife. His tolerance in his novel over Demelza’s adultery with Hugh Armitage (in The Four Swans) can be seen in the broad calm way he does not become enraged and hysterical when his crippled wife is nearly raped in Eygpt by a (hideously) unscrupulous guide. He tells the story simply, making it obvious that in such a place and country they’d have no one to complain too.
There are a number of chapters detailing the writing of the Poldark books, his impulses about them as he went along: Book 1, Chapter 5, pp. 66-90, Book 1, Chapter 6, pp. 97-98 (“Demelza was finished lovingly …”). The Forgotten Story is another historical novel deal with ( Book 1, Chapter 6, p 103); he shows real interest and understanding of film-making in his discussions of (among others, Marnie (Part 2, Chapter 8, pp 138-47),
“Lee describes me in his book as an instinctive feminist. Maybe that is right” (p. 142)
Who else makes marital sex in coerced marriage an occasion for insisting it’s a form of nightly rape. I was (I admit) delighted to learn that at the conclusion of the second trilogy Morwenna is rid of the lout Whitworth and marries Drake at last. Graham knows that the actor playing the part of Whitworth (Christopher Biggs) has a heavy load of association to carry with ordinary naive readers so goes out of his way to characterize Biggs as a remarkably cordial man and his friendship with Jane Wymark (who played Morwenna, the raped woman-wife).
He also cites Robin Ellis’s opinion that Kevin McNally who played Drake delivered the strongest performances of all.
We learn more details about the inspiration for the Poldark landscape, characters and film-making both of the first series and second and later than we did in Poldark’s Cornwall (Book 2, Chapters 4-8, pp 182-234, 10, pp 279-83). This long section is frank about who wanted to do the series, the companies involved, how the first proposal seemed to be going somewhere and then was cut off, why it was refused when it was again taken up, how the different two series were conceived, and (especially interesting) how the 1995 film while interesting film-making, showed the film-makers and screenplay writer had “a total blind ignorance of what Poldark was really all about” (p. 224). I regret to say that Graham does not go on to say just what that is, but hope my several blogs have outlined sufficiently what some of this is.
It seems a final break came when Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees backed out of the second film because they saw their characters were going to be not only sidelined but made a travesty of. Graham did an interview where he did praise the series (in the hope) that this two-hour trial balloon would not be the only attempt, remembering how he disliked the first episodes of the first series, but it was never published, he thinks because there was a deliberate attempt to sabotage the film as the fan clubs which had grown up around the original series had become powerful. Fan cults are by no means fruitful of good results in writing or the life of the author they purport to celebrate. Graham attributes the failure of this last effort in his life-time to make another series of films on the Poldark novels to insistence of the British producers on following the US model of financial success (and less risk), where what’s favored is a one episode two-hour film; what his novels needed (as he had in the long years of writing) was slow leisured build-up to make their effect. (This, he says, is very different from the art he practiced for his modern books).
In the last chapters of the book he tells of his later modern novels (Green Flash, After the Act) as earlier he tells of Angell, Pearl and Little God (which includes his own criticism, pp 149-56), Marnie (pp 151-55).
All this is rich material for someone wanting to know him too, and he ends his book by saying (very like Trollope) he has not been a bad man (loved his wife and she loved him, did not terrorize, browbeat or woefully neglect his children, never frequented public lavatories &c&c)) and also does not go to literary lunches or advertise his private feelings, ideas and life and need not because
“I have by now written a great many novels, and must through them have surely revealed a fair amount of my own nature and public feelings. Let that suffice.
Tolstoi says somewhere; ‘There is no point in visiting a great writer, because he is incarnate in his works.’ Should this not to some extent be true of the less important writer? Even down to the least important of all” (Book 2, Chapter 11, p. 312).
I love the ending on his philosophy as a writer which I have made the epigraph to this blog. And I much respect and agree with his assessment of what makes a good book and kept his fine: when you do continue to write “with such integrity, it can’t be all bad, and it can’t be all lost”
I don’t know why the website devoted to Graham’s work has a photo of an old typewriter on it. Graham specifically says more than once that he never typed his novels. He wrote them all out in long-hand and his drafts are revisions in long-hand. He feels that he did not feel the life-blood of what he was writing except as it came through his body into his arms. I suppose it’s a case of this continual (and here I must think unconscious) misrepresentation of authors when they don’t conform to the usual. Graham didn’t conform quietly. He liked to think of himself as a quiet non-conformist man — though he was also strongly ordinary (as when he more than once goes on in a negative about homosexuality. He could not have had the continual professional successes he had had he not appeared to conform and that cannot be pulled off so easily in a life as much in public (though his many novels and the films) as his was.
Perhaps after this is a photo of the typewriter used to transfer Graham’s ms’s to readable copy after the long-hand fair copy draft was made. Graham does say early on his aunt urged him to type an early book before sending it off, but he neglects to tell us who his amanuensis (or typist) was in later life.