Godolphin House, Cornwall, used as Trenwith, the Poldark family home (1975-76 Poldark mini-series)
Dear friends and readers,
Tonight I had a familiar experience: the Admiral and I were on the way to a opera in DC, and as soon as we got into the car, and upon opening my latest Poldark novel, Black Moon (the fifth of the Poldark series), I fell straight into it. I forgot I was in that car until we arrived at where Jim was parking; then we walked to the Metro platform, and upon opening the book to wait for the train, happy absorption; the train comes, I look up and get in, sit down and the upon opening the book … No matter where I am it seems, I can lose myself in a Poldark novel.
This blog though is about Poldark’s Cornwall (1983), a sort of light autobiographical meditative essay as travelogue by Graham on the Cornish landscape today, its geology, ancient and 18th century history; and on his writing of the Poldark novels. He tells of its people, followed by a suggestive outline of his own stays there, from a boy vacationing on a trip with his family, to a younger man living there as a writer with his family for what seems to have been a considerable time, to an older one still returning there periodically for the deep pleasure of revisits. We learn of his later time as a consultant for the lead-up to the first BBC mini-series based on his books, his immersion in the second. He includes his thoughts on historical fiction, something of how he came to write the Poldark novels, put them down after writing 4 (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan 1945-53) and then took them up again twenty years later, just before and during the filming of the series’s second season (Black Moon, 1973 and then Four Swans and The Angry Tide, 1976-77). It’s a large book printed on art paper to accommodate many stunningly beautiful photographs by Simon McBride, many of which are not connected directly to the novels or TV series:
Trevelgue Head, iron age fort near Newquay
though many are:
St Winnow Church, Cornish perpendicular church, used for the wedding of Dwight Enys and Caroline Penvenen in the second series (1977-78, Poldark)
Poldark’s Cornwall has cheered my heart just before dawn for quite a few near-days. Yes it’s a kind of forced-made-book, made to call attention to the film series, but it has much to recommend it. Quietly Graham calls attention to the terrain and beauty and history embedded in the seascapes and houses and people of the peninsula. He quotes with a good eye from his own brilliant evocation of this place in his last three books used in the series (Black Moon, Four Swans, Angry Tide):
So they all went to look, at least as far as the stile leading down to the beach)· further it was unsafe to go. Where the beach would have been at any time except the highest of tides) was a battlefield of giant waves. The sea was washing away the lower sandhills and the roots of marram grass. As they stood there a wave came rushing up over the rough stony ground and. licked at the foot of the stile) leaving a trail of froth to overflow and smear their boots. Surf in the ordinary sense progresses from deep water to shallow) losing height as it comes. Today waves were hitting the rocks below Wheal Leisure with such weight that they generated a new surf running at right angles to the flow of the sea) with geysers of water spouting high from the collisions. A new and irrational surf broke against the gentler rocks below the Long Field. Mountains of spume collected wherever the sea drew breath) and then blew like bursting shells across the land. The sea was so high there was no horizon and the clouds so low that they sagged into the sea.
and includes much informative and insightful material on his books, method and the TV series.
First, he offers the reader a deep sense of the land- and seascape as central to his vision and writing of historical novels: that’s where he sets them, and he says that after putting down the novels for 20 years, he returned to them after he had spent three summers in Cornwall. Avril Horner and Sue Zlasnick in their book on Daphne DuMaurier define a subgothic kind they call “Cornish Gothic,” to which they say DuMaurier’s Cornish novels, all of which take place either in the later 17th to later 18th/very early 19th century, belong: Frenchman’s Creek and Jamaica Inn, both about smuggling; My Cousin Rachel an imitation of Lorna Doone, and King’s General (set during the English civil wars). As Mary Waugh in her Smuggling in Cornwall and Devon shows, the later 18th century was a “high” point in smuggling. The patterns in the Poldark novels are not gothic, but some of the women character’s subplots do follow the paradigms of female gothic: both of these reflect the real and different circumstances and inculcation and what happens to women for real in their lives.
To evoke this Cornish gothic sublime sense of the land- and seascape, history, culture of Cornwall, Graham quotes the following two stanzas from an anonymous lyric he attributes to Tennyson. It’s not by Tennyson but is 19th century:
Nine large piles of troubled water
From the bosom of his mother,
Each one leaping on his brother,
Scatters lusty foam.
In the sky a wondrous silence,
Cloud-surf, mute and weird;
In the distance, still uplifting,
Ghostly fountains vanish, drifting,
Like a Druid’s beard.
The North Coast above Boscastle, near Crackington Haven
In this opening section and throughout Graham offers many casual scattered details about history, life style, specifics of families, legends, as well as scattered suggestive details about his boyhood times in Cornwall and when he lived there later in life. I leave this to the interested reader to find out about by reading the book.
The perpendicular gothic windows of St Winnows
Historical fiction and the Poldark novels.
When he turns to his novels, Graham presents strongly the reality that a historical novel is the vision of the writer (p. 148). “If there is no personal view, there is no art.” He knows that historians downgrade the historical novel because it colors or shapes history. He does not himself go on to say historians do the same (Haydn White would).
But he does say: “if he [the historical novelist] is good enough he creates a world of his own which the reader comes to inhabit and finds it comparable with life rather than identical with it.”
He divides the kind into three types: those which use actual historical personages as chief characters (I Claudius); second where historical personages are substantial figures but main characters are fictional (Scott); third where the characters are “entirely, or almost entirely fictitious” (Stevenson, and of course his own; so too Margaret Mitchell I’d say). He says in the literature there is a tendency to rate the first and second types much higher than the third and this is “pretentious rubbish.” Fine novels, works of art, and truths about history occur in all three.
What I really like are the final paragraphs in this section (p. 149). Human beings have not changed “but their reactions to life patterns” have and do, and the writer must understand and try to transmit these to the reader. There must be geographical truth too as setting is often essential to the art of the historical novel.
Of enormous importance is to “select” what historical fact you use. I paraphrase him here (quoting some of his words too): You must do a lot of intense homework and reading. It’s” tedious to enumerate all the sources” of the Poldark books, long hours of research to illuminate this or that event, into “old newspapers, travel books at the time, parochial history, manuals, autobiographies,” contemporary fictions. He then goes over a whole slew of events in the first few novels which are rooted in history and business and economics and politics and geology (p. 149).
Cornish mine opening, with pink flowers
Nonetheless, there is “the opposite risk, that of becoming too preoccupied with history. One can so easily detect the midnight oil, the desire to instruct. But novels are about life.” So even if you are “reluctant,” once you have “discovered something at great trouble, not to make the most of it, resist that. Writing historical novels are a recurrent discipline where you use only what is relevant to the moment of the living fiction.” What is not relevant is irrelevant. (p. 150). Here is the key to difference of writing wooden stilted books and living breathing ones.
Origin of novels
Roscarrock, used as first still in second series where Ross and Demelza greet one another once again
Graham tells of how he named the characters and what originals they were built partly out of. Ross Poldark is based on man who was Graham’s best friend in his twenties: Ridley Polgreen, a young chemist, died tragically at 32. Not like Ross in the sense that he was Wesleyan, non-smoking, non-drinking and lively sense of humor, but like Ross in his “appreciation for all that was good and beautiful in life.” Ross’s physical appearance comes from a chance acquaintance in a railway car in WW2: tall, lean, bony, scarred, heavy-lidded eyes, pale blue, back from wars, not one to flinch, broken leg; a quiet man, tense, purposeful, a vein in his neck, and — most important for Ross the character “a vein of high strung disquiet.” (p. 191) “Polgreen seems not quite strong enough. So the name Poldark came into being.”
Jud and Prudie Paynter were also transmutations of real people, Jud a man Graham used to see on a nightly pilgrimage to a pub (same “voice, grimace, toothless gums”), a figure of comic pessimism, obstinate, drunk, doom-laden religion, and his sister became Prudie (pp. 196-97)
He had the idea that Ross’s wife and love would be a dark waif he picked up at Redruth Fair, but was a long time before discovering a name and identity. He came across the name on a signpost, which he later passed many times. According to William Pryce, author of Mineraologia Cornubiensis, “De” means “the” or “thy” and “Melza” means honey or sweetness. So Demelza means “thy sweetness” (pp. 191-92)
Others: “Nampara” means “the Valley of the Bread,” an ancient name, taken from a village known for its bakery. “Warleggan” is also the name of an old village on the Bodmin moors: “a lonely place, and one almost impossible to get to witout traversing the desolate moorland.” Cold, wet, swathed in fog, grey, much “moorland granite, harsh-wind scoured countryside” — just right for this character. The family did flourish in the 18th and 19th centuries in Cornwall. The “one-armed asthmatic rascal, boyhood wild companion of Ross, also a revenant (in Black Moon he first turns up) Tholly Tregirls is named after another village on the Bodmin moors. Clowance, the name of Ross and Demelza’s fourth child, the first daughter to live, was the name of a family home of the St Aubyns (pp. 195-96).
Bodmin moor, a woodland in spring
The twenty-year hiatus and first attempt to film the books
Tressilick House, used as Ralph Allen Daniell’s house in the second series
Graham tells of the great difficulty he had getting back into the novels after a twenty year break. Although he says his return to the novels was not predicated on a need for more material for the film series, the two events were intermingled at least.
An attempt had been made to film the first 4 novels in 1969 by Associated British Pictures. It was intended to last 4 hours and be a Cornish GWTW; he and Kenneth Harper, the producer, Vincent Tilsney, the projected writer and team went to Carlyon Bay Hotel at St Austell and spent 4-5 days in Cornwall. Tilsney wrote a brilliant script but it was too long — over 5 hours. It fell through. EMI took over ABP and incoming moguls axed old projects.
But London films bought the option on TV rights and interested BBC in a joint production. The real force behind the project became Robert Clark, ABP chairman at time of take-over, so someone there in 1969 too. He became chair of London Films, a re-invention of the old costume drama Alexander Korda film company who Pam Cook discussed in her book both on national identity and the costume drama. Korda films are as of 1983 still very popular. This group made I Claudius, Therese Raquin and Testament of Youth (pp. 162-63).
So in 1975 it all began.
Now in 1969, there were only 4 novels (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan) and for the first film series, the story matter went into the opening of Black Moon (1973). Inbetween Warleggan and the time of attempting Black Moon, Graham had written 8 modern and 1 historical novel, The Grove of Eagles, about 16th century Cornwall.
Lanydrock, Jacobean mansion (renovated in the 19th century), used for Sir Francis Basset’s house (second series)
He claims there was at the time (1973) no inducement to write Black Moon as the movie project had died and seemed dead that year. But creative stirrings were in him, partly he says a reaction to not returning to Cornwall for three summers going after having gone there with the TV creative and business people.
He says it was very difficult for him to get back into these novels, to move from “taut, compact modern” text to this “more leisurely broader-canvassed” kind of thing. He had to revert to another style re-pick up characters, situations, clothes.
As he talks it’s apparent the first four books’ most powerful resonance in his mind and heart are rooted in four imaginative presences: Ross, Demelza, Elizabeth and George (p. 144). But he did not reread for that would have killed him, he wouldn’t “dare” and feared his response. Only dipping in to refresh memory — “it was as if the characters had remained dormant in the subconscious waiting for the word.”
Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) and George (Ralph Bates): Elizabeth in the films presented successfully as far more nervous, unsure of herself than the reader might realize; George is more petulant, less fierce and hawk-like, but just as domineering
The “first hundred pages [were] like breaking sound barrier.” And it was a comparatively “non-profit making activity,” His modern novels did much better and appealed to Hitchcock and others. Of course now TV changed all that (pp. 153-163).
I can confirm that the opening section of Black Moon does seem more impersonal than anything in the Poldark series before or since (after that first hundred pages or so). Twenty years has gone by. And Graham is feeling it. There is a note which reminds me of Austen’s prefacing her Northanger Abbey – she is uncomfortable because 13 years have passed since she wrote the original version of NA. Well, Graham is aware and says 20 years have passed and he is feeling it; he has experienced much since. Further, he is aware that he stopped in an unusual or strange. He left off his Warleggan in a scene where Ross and Demelza are not quite reconciled, as he puts it here, “they were trying to recover from a near-mortal wound and they were trying to reassure themselves. The quieter levels of absolute trust which had existed before had not been regained (Black Moon, p. 27).
The opening embrace of Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees) (second series)
So he has a little trouble getting into it I thought. He worried that too much experience had gone by and he had lost the feel, having written and lived so much since, but he says he had a need to return. “Sometimes the totally unexpected occurs, and one day, for no discoverable reason, it became necessary for me to see what happened to these people after Christmas night, 1793. I became very preoccupied with finding out, and it appealed to me, rightly or wrongly, that to return to an old mood was as much of a challenge as creating a new one. The Black Moon is the result.”
Tellingly, Black Moon begins with the Warleggans and not just with George (Ross’s enemy) but switches quickly to George’s father, Nicolas: in Ross Poldark he also began with an older man, Joshua, Ross’s father, as he lays dying, and once again proceed to remember, recreate a world from the older generational perspectives even if what we have is the ironical incident of the birth of Valetine Warleggan (the child who resulted from Ross’s night in bed with Elizabeth).
Really he creates anew, I noticed that with Book 4 the whole world is filling out (as with Trollope’s Dr Thorne, the third Barsetshire book is the first one to have a consistently filled out map), so now we have our first genealogical tress. Not quite persuasive because years of the same generation often don’t match and especially before the 20th century. Gradually Black Moon comes alive, the poetry starts up again, as we enter Demelza’s thoughts in Chapter 2, when Ross comes home and we read Caroline’s letter to them about the Warleggan christening. I’ll write more about Black Moon when I’ve finished the book.
Bronze Age, neolithic tomb, 1700-1500 BC
These neolithic stones in a Cornwall bay are not far from the house Graham says he had in his mind for Trenwith. It’s a great hurt for Ross the way the Warleggans have taken Trenwith and a great cause for exultation in George.
NB: By the time of the writing of Poldark’s Cornwall (1983), Graham had added The Stranger from the Sea (1981), The Miller’s Dance (1982) and was probably at work on The Loving Cup (published 1984). Only The Stranger from the Sea was ever filmed, a 1995-96 attempt which received such hostile resentment that no film has been made since.
Port Isaac Harbour, filmed in the first season
Poldark’s Cornwall ends with Graham’s comments on the film series. He intensely disliked the first four episodes of the first series — so he differed from the commonalty, for from the outset this series was spectacularly popular. He suggests that as the film-makers went along they did better from his standpoint which was to convey his meaning and his sense of the era. One of the Poldark writers never read any of Graham’s books which did irritate and showed in his episode.
He was strongly involved and consulted for the second series. e first remarks on the procedure of having different directors and writers for individual episodes, basically to keep to the schedule. He also did have some sharp disagreements at first when he came aboard — just as Robin Ellis said he did (in his valuable Making Poldark), he did, but compromises won out — as too much money was at stake and careers too. He had not finished his Angry Tide the last book of the series to be adapted by the time the second series started — one can see how he did return to these novels (no matter what he says) something under the gun.
There was talk of a third year and central actors were ready to do it again, but the problem was Graham had not written the books as yet . He balked at this kind of forced and contrived book making. If one looks, one finds 4 and 3 years between these books and once 20; only the first two and the last three but one came out every two years (which is the schedule asked of commercial writers if they want to keep their name before the public). So he declined, “apart from the public, it would somehow have been letting down the fictional people about whom I have come to care so much.”
Quin Cottage, Port Quin, used for Blamey’s house
Houses off Port Quin
The book’s coda or postscript contains Graham’s admission he has made the characters and books more “in the sun” than “shadow” and perhaps they have been less respectable because of this. He did this out of his experience of life. He’s known sadness and disappointment, but on the whole sees a mixed skein. Saying this though his tone is melancholy, retreating, quiet, and the last lines quote Catullus famous sonnet to his dead brother, about which recently Anne Carson has produced a moving translation and book. Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale
Through foreign seas and over foreign lands,
Brother, to your sad graveside I have come
To lay the gifts of death with my own hands
And speak, too late, some last words to your dumb,
Unanswering dust. Poor brother, who was torn
Brutally from me by ill fortune, take
All I can give you now-these few forlorn
Offerings made for ancient custom’s sake
And wet with a brother’s tears. There’ll be no other
Meeting; and so hail and farewell, my brother.
Translation by James Michie
“But next summer perhaps the sun will be shining again.”
And thus the book ends.
Trevalls Porth, Bawden Rock
The above the place of many scenes between Ross and Demelza (the apocalyptic close of Series 1, wholly invented for TV) and Drake and Mowena (Kevin McNally and Jane Wymanfrom Black Moon, about which more soon):
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