Archive for June 24th, 2010

Poldark 1, Part 1, Episode 1 (1975-76): carriage glimpsed on horizon

First shot of Robin Ellis as not-so-young Ross come home

Poldark 2 (1977-79) Ross Poldark as revenant — Season 2: both open with him emerging from the landscape or sea, expected not to return any time soon or thought dead

Dear friends and readers,

Nearly two weeks ago now I wrote a blog-review expressing my delight in the first season of the later 1970s mini-series, Poldark, and said that I had begun to read the books on which it was based, partly to compare and enjoy the series more (one usually gets so much more out of one of these film adaptations when one has read the book) and because I discovered I really enjoyed them and could read them at night.

Last week I finished the first volume in the series, Ross Poldark, and I thought I’d share a few thoughts about this novel tonight. Ross Poldark is a good example of historical fiction where the information is carried very lightly too — deft, like for example, Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin I read a few years ago now or Rose Tremain’s Restoration. I find even Patrick O’Brian is sometimes “feeding TM information.” ) I’m looking to try to see how it’s done.

I like the book for its tone and characters and outlook. Central is the character of Ross Poldark, not idealized, and Robin Ellis captures some of the character’s hardness, stubborness, and real sense of despair and loss when he returns home from the wars to find no one wants him, and his home systematically despoiled, the young woman he loved, marrying someone else. The level of people in the community and individuals who are interesting and believable emerge quickly.

There is a dark level to this that appeals deeply to me — as well as the kinds of ethical statements that naturally arise in the character’s thinking for he is a sound ethical man in his way — smiling. The description is carried off very well and I can see why the films were done on location — without this Cornwall it’s nothing. This book reminds me of the fiction of Alexander Baron if anyone knows his novels — British, socialist, originally Jewish, became an important writer of screenplays for film adaptations on the BBC from the 1970s through 1980s. I’ll add this historical fiction mediates between the UK of the 1930s to later 40s and that of Cornwall’s history vis-a-vis England. Another reason to make this adaptation in the 1980s.

The cover illustration is a photo of a place in Cornwall, gorgeous and I see it’s the opening establishment shot of the series, a cliff apparently partly built to look like this vision. The actors chosen correspond well to the characters in the book the way they do in other series of this period.

Another shot of the cliffs (opening still for Season 2)

A mine close up

For an outline of the book see the comments.

For a second reading, what my students’ thought and contextualization as a historical romance, see a later blog.


A second phase bring Demelza Carne into the story — as a 13 year old adolescent girl. To tell of how Ross met and brought her into his household is to show how this historical fiction is not wooden but rather that the kind of information which can often make historical novels wooden or tendentious is brought in imaginatively.

A fair (from Season 2)

Ross needs to buy animals to work his farm and goes to a monthly large fair in Truro. Such fairs were held and we get a remarkably lively description of such a place. But there is no sense of feeding information or the kind of sentence which so often introduces this sort of thing. Instead we are wholly in his mind with his troubles and his reactions and see only those parts of the fair that are of interest to him, where he goes. Graham writes these details in a suggestive way which gives us suggestions of the larger place: there are three areas to the fair, a heavy-duty expensive one for animal purchase, feed, implements; another for smaller goods, pots and pans, household stuff, scattered everywhere stuff for fishing, mining, crafts and so on. He does his business and is tired and goes on to a third area where drink, food and entertainment is to be found. More sordid stuff goes on here, and among other things he sees cock-fighting (which we witness at his cousin Poldark’s wedding to his ex-beloved Elizabeth) and then two animals, a dog and cat tied to together with something to hurt them and tease them and all the people around enjoying this.

Well of course yuk. We are told Ross likes children and so when a young girl hurls herself against these animals to free the dog, becuase it’s her dog, and for her pains is the victim of stones and kicks and curses and mockery, he rescues her. What a mess she is — not unrealistic, half starved, filthy and has been beaten by her father and/or brothers recently. He gives her a good meal and is going to dismiss her but remembers he needs a maid of all and hard work. As yet he has but three servants to help him bring his house back to order. So he offers to take her. He likes her and she him — but they half-quarrel over her dog who she wants to bring. He almost gets rid of her at one point because he knows this will bring him trouble, but then she will come cheap and clearly wants and needs to escape an awful home. Bringing her home, he puts her in a big bed of the kind she never usually gets. It’s here the abilty of the novelist comes out. No sense of us being taught what a box bed was but rather we enter Demelza’s mind as she goes to sleep in this half-built house.

He tries to contact a lawyer over what to do about her, but is thwarted and her father and brother show up two mornings later. A fight ensues — yes swash bucklnig for our hero beats three men with the help of his servant, but it’s realistic too. Reminded me of scenes of Billy Booth duelling in Amelia. The same male stupidities are presented (Graham thought knows they are and does not enter into them quite the way Fielding does). Really the old man is willing to sell the girl for 50 guineas. They bargain in the end and Ross offers to give the old man her salary and he will himself provide food and clothes and whatever education she might want.

This is but one thread in this second section of the novel; having watched the films I know in the film Demelza stays, grows up, and 6 years later Ross and she do have sex one night together; he, good man that he is, sends her away for another place rather than repeatedly use her, but she improbably this, gets pregnant (the kind of thing novels even today do for so-called “good” and chaste heroines, they must get pregnant one go) and after claiming other lovers, that it’s others and he trying to find these and get one to marry her, it emerges it’s his. In the film she flees for an abortion or whatever, he chases and stops and wrestles her down (we are into the romance) and says he will marry her, and give her his name — this is a beautiful moment in the film. She at first does not want this compromise, but accedes for abortions are death and children out of wedlock would destroy her life as it destroys reputation (which is shown an absurdity when one considers the realities). The film is close to 1950s attitudes and far more melodramatic.

At any rate in both film and book Ross then marries his servant-housekeeper, a woman beneath him as he is a gentleman, and this is part of the story’s class lines appeal — for Demelza is real enough.

I left off last night in the book though when her father has left and he finds her hiding high up in a cupboard with her dog. This scene is dramatized in the series.

I read up to Book 2 of the novel where we jump two year to 1787. It should be said that the series (16 episodes) takes matter from the first four novels of Graham: that enables the series to include the 1790s for its chaos, riots, and rebellion against the masters as part of the larger French/Irish and counter-revolutionary scenes.

The motif which binds these segments in the film visually and archetypally is that of the revenant. Again and again Ross leaves to go to a war, to rescue someone, he is driven away, missing, believed dead, and then returns — from the time of the marriage welcomed joyfully by his (often pregnant) wife. There are a cornucopia of shots in this vein. In the books I discover he is a wanderer again and again, restless, dissatisfied. Not the same as a revenant at all.

This last part of Book one tells of Demelza growing up, slowly educating herself in Ross’s library, becoming part of the working household; how he does begin to buy her pretty girl things (like a cape and pelisse) but as yet sees her as a child. At the same time ugly rumors fly about how he’s keeping her. That he ignores this shows his character — a real arrogance some would call it; he just won’t listen to cant or let it control his existence. He will pay for this. Demelza will of course probably remain a pariah until he marries her and for a long time afterwards too I can see. Class and sex and gender prejudice.

Verity (Norma Streader) — online promotional shot

We see Verity, the sister of Francis, Ross’s beloved cousin and friend (she visits him regularly) deprived of the man she loves: Captain Blarny (Blamey in the film and Blamey as of Demelza). Again we have this disturbing part justification of terrible behavior to women. Blamey is feared by Verity’s father and brother because he was responsible for his wife’s death; he did beat or kick her once when she was pregnant and she went into a miscarriage and died, and for this he went to prison for two years. He has paid for the crime, sworn off drink (and keeps off it), and she loves him and we see he is decent and congenial. If it were that Graham is urging us not to keep punishing people, I’d sympathize but in each case where this is the moral it is always of a man raping, beating, somehow badly abusing a woman. And it’s always justified by her bad behavior which never seems to emerge in violence on her side. We are told Mrs Blamey did not keep a good home for the Captain, nagged him &c

But spinster life is unexpectedly justified. She’s going to be a spinster now and it’s not that bad after all. Respected, needed, not endless children, self-possessed and we are to feel after all Blamey is not exactly a hopeful case for her.

IN the film the father Charles of Verity nearly dies when he has a heart attack after (in both film and book) his eldest son, Francis, Elizabeth’s brother challenges Blamey and not being allowed to bow out, Blamey hits Francis in the neck and almost (but doesn’t) kill him.

The intense Francis (Clive Francis) — online promotional shot

IN the book and film Ross helped Jim Carter marry Jinny, but alas he has begun to poach to provide more for himself and his wife. This is a story which shows how poverty deforms bodies never mind the intangible life. Carter was a bright boy forced to work in the mines when young as his father died. His health is now very bad and weak; and Ross wants him to work in the farm. But he doesn’t make enough even to get food — Ross is giving them the cottage rent free. So he goes back to the mine and then poaches to make ends meet. (He will end in prison and then die of disease there.)

A good deal of plot: Elizabeth gives birth to her son by Francis, but again also feel and tone and themes. IN the book, she no longer wants to sleep with Francis and lets him know it, and he acquiesces, but turns to drink, resentment, more gambling (as she loses any hold she had on him through sex — not much — the male novel believes women can control men through having sex with them — right — not much I’d say). Francis is incensed with Ross also for he knows of Francis’s early love for Ross, and how (in the film but not the book, in the 18th century this would have been unthinkable and the book is not anachronistic in this way) Ross allowed Verity to meet Blamey in his house. This meeting is a motif in real Victorian novels. “good” women characters refuse to allow other women to meet lovers in their houses. One way women and men were controlled was there was no comfortable safe private space outside houses at the time to meet. The automobile and build-up of a public world in the later 19th century changed all that in the west — not in traditional family based societies I’ll bet.

Despite the signs of misogyny (by which I refer to Graham’s acceptance of Blamey’s murder of his wife), I like the sentiments that are expressed again and again by Ross Poldark and Demelza — who is alert, active, bright, loves to read and is active to make things orderly. In the book, Ross spends his evening in quiet drink with a book before the fire and her dog, Garrick, most of the time. I can see how the death of the dog must be meaningful — more than the series showed — at the end of the first series of novels (which comprise I’m gathering 1-4). In this part of the novel it’s the build-up of the world, of all its parts, and evolution of character and an attempt to suggest a community over a brief span of time (but suggesting the larger through say visiting and seeing pictures in Trenwith house) that holds this reader.


Ross’s farm house (as seen in opening of Season 2)

I’m into Book 3 and the last hundred pages of Ross Poldark, and have bought myself a copy of Demelza (another earlier edition, cheaper) which I await eagerly so I feel competent to compare this first book with the film now. Ellis mentions that the way Ross came to marry Demelza was changed, and he wanted more of the original; there were “heated discussions” of this (and other changes), and unlike his hero, Ross, Ellis compromised.

I can vouch that the story of Jim Carter’s poaching, capture, cruel trial and imprisonment, and thus coming death reflects the fiction. Here we see how the dissertation written on Graham’s fiction that it uses history progressively accurately. In the deft non-teaching fiction way he had, Graham brings home how desperate is Carter’s life: he and Jinnny now have 3 children, he can’t make enough and so returns to the mines, still can’t make enough to eat without hunger and keep warm and provide clothes so he resorts to poaching to add to the dinner table. Rich men who hunt (we see a hunt from this perspective) aren’t having that. We also see that Poldark is a poor politician. He gets up on the stand and preaches to the jury; he appeals to principles, to the terrible conditions of the prison, but is easily overruled because poaching is a crime, end of argument. He should have had a quiet word, should have said he needs this man as a servant, and should have kowtowed and manipulated on the stand. In the film all this and his regrets and insight into where he failed are presented as a dramatic speech the night he gets drunk and makes love to Demelza.

But the film otherwise differs profoundly in the way the sex, marriage and developing romance are presented from the book. In the book Demelza is growing up and rumors abound Ross and she are going to bed. A young woman her mother wanted Ross to marry is envious or spiteful and increases these during her daughter’s wedding to someone else. Demelza’s father hears of this and has himself found religion, married a narrow evangelical type, and comes to fetch her. Her heart stops at this. Her life now is pleasant to her, she is learning to read and write slowly, and she knows to go back is to be made a servant-slave, that whatever the surface changes in her father he is still an exploitative, mean, brutal man. She also knows that Ross is not deeply engaged by her and would “do the right thing,” send her back.

So she does plot to involve him with her. This is the male idea of the woman who entraps the man. Indeed the whole mythos is one high culture novelists make fun of: the idea an older man can train or tutor and bring up an intelligent young girl to be his wife. It is apparently an alluring notion (Trollope mocks it and shows so many fallacies in a subplot of Orley Farm). How? well, sex. She finds Ross’s mother’s dress and dresses herself as a woman for the first time. She fears that sex with Ross will end in him feeling contempt for her but is willing to chance it.

She is scared of sex too but far worse dreads her father and his new wife and that so-called home and its religion. In both book and film he has started buying her adult women’s clothes and she has begun to be aware of herself as a woman — 17 to 18 now.

Poldark 1, Part 3, Episode 6: Ross moved by Demelza’s love

iN both film and book the scene between the two of them is done at length and masterly. He is wretched, drunk, but at first angry to see her in his mother’s dress. He does not want to abuse her this way. IN the book the dog plays a role as the dog is there and they are playing and petting it. In the book he does send her away, but then thinks what a fool he is to be so moral. Why not go to bed as everyone thinks he is. He goes to her bed and she responds.

Unlike the film (which has a short version of this where Demelza did not plot anything), in the book he does not send her away the next day. He goes off to do work and is gone all day; when they first see one another they are embarrassed and uncomfortable — but he enjoyed that night with her and she didn’t mind. Elizabeth comes for a visit — too late. She fears her father will come for her. We go into both their minds, and well they do it again.

As would happen in nature. Two days later rather than carry on this way he determines to marry her. He knows this is the “kiss of death” for him gaining prestige and power socially; it’s okay to fuck your servant regularly (snide comments and sneers is what he’d get and she the streets if he threw her out, or a terrible reform home if she got pregnant and the neighborhood took umbrage), but he marches to his own drummer. She has become a real important servant: a good cook, companion, conversation is witty, he likes her, is fond of her and is willing to give her his name.

In film and book much is made of this. IN the film (see above) when he chases her across the meadow, pregnant with his child (as he now knows it), ready to abort it or flee somewhere anywhere, he wresttles her down and in proposing marriage, says he will give her child and she his name. That means a place in society.

In the book after the marriage, there are two moving chapters, one from her point of view and one from his on their developing euphoric (for its a kind of honeymoon) relationship. She immediately gains status in his eyes: now she sees her suggestion about the library is listened to. He half-dreams of the nights they are now spending together — and it’s alluringly suggestive — and the days they are having.

In both book and film Elizabeth comes to visit just after the first night of sex, and constitutes a sort of temptation against marrying Demelza.

The young Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) — online promotional shot

In the film again it is dramatic; Demelza has been sent away after one night of sex, lived with her father and step-mother, fled them, gone to live with Jinny Carter and lied about her pregnancy being someone elsew’s; Elizabeth wants to leave Francis and offers to go and live with him elsewhere, and he agrees; they have a long afternoon by the shore, but the next day he does finds out that he fathered Demelza’s pregnancy and takes her into his house in the film. Elizabeth shows up and we have Elizabeth’s shock and horror at this decision. One does not marry a lower class woman this way. Part 4 of the film ends not on a happy wedding but Elizabeth leaving the house, passing by Demelza who has heard it all and goes upstairs. Ross left in the room. It’s not false romance in the film but it is a high melodrama which the book is not.

In the book there is no such scene, no time for it, no such offer to leave Francis, but we know Elizabeth would be appalled. She has come to mend fences with Ross but no more; it’s too late because Ross and Demelza have now spent a night in bed together. Elizabeth’ presence is enough to make him pause, but not enough to stop him marrying Demelza. The book is much realer & quieter than the film. It is highly improbable that any Demelza would claim several lovers and not know who is the father of her baby. So the film is improbable, but it is dramatic and that chase across the meadow with him on a horse, the gentleman, and she the outcast fleeing deeply memorable.

I prefer the book very much as more truthful to nature, and the two chapters and real depiction of a romance developing after the marriage act.


The core of these Poldark novels is Graham has imagined himself this Captain Poldark, attractive, decent, highly intelligent, identifying with the people beneath him (all obedient to him) and while a thorn to his peers, not somebody they can easily scotch (because the wealthy then knew they needed to hang together, to support their order). And in these chapters I’m taking such a delight in he’s imagined himself marrying a girl well beneath him, so by custom as his wife, and by habit and class, she is obedient, more than compliant at night (in love with him for all he has given her, and not at all inhibited or proud), and fitting right in with his needs during the day.

The novel is now leaving the larger outer society as we do watch a realistic adjustment too. Ross wants Demelza to be accepted and to try to fit in within limits. Luckily, his good cousin, Verity, is like him: accepts the lower orders, and now that she is lonely, a spinster who has made herself a alien in her family by her affair with Blarney (in the first book his name), he invites her to his house. The myth operative here is a woman deprived of love and sex — and companionship and usefulness for herself — sickens. Verity is in ill health. She accepts Demelza, but Demelza is deeply ashamed — she knows how she has been talked about — and it’s Demelza who is off-standish, who doesn’t talk and doesn’t make Verity feel at home. But an effective scene of Verity wisely knowing how to disarm Demelza and a few weeks experience and Demelza begins to trust and then open up.

IN the book we see Verity take Demelza shopping. A trip which again proves Graham’s deftness for we completely forget we are learning about shopping in Truro in the later 18th century as Demelza is taught how to shop for better goods, what kinds of patterns to get, the appropriate places to buy class-appropriate stuff for her house.

And then in the book Ross insists (as a male he does use his authority) that Demelza go to his cousin’s for Xmas when she’s invited. Again we have these scenes of social and class adjustment.

I admit though what I like best are the romance get-away “Paul et Virginie” scenes, to allude to the equivalent of Daphnis-Chloe and Tristan-Isolde in later 18th century Frency fiction. Ross and Demelza going out late at night with a picnic, and watching the town on the nights the pilchards come use huge netting to capture hundreds and hundreds of fish, then returning by coves to their house to make love at night. Ross and Demelza having breakfast, around the house, and the inner subjective characters he gives both as they learn about one another. She is by the page I have gotten to pregnant but unwilling to tell him as yet for fear he will be irritated or not happy about it as it’s another burden. I daresay this is anachronistic but much in her reflects how Graham saw women of the 1940s/50s in their inner lives and domestic situations — idealized and from a masculinist stance, but also sympathetic.

I should say my experience of relationships coheres with the center of this one: after the relationship begins in earnest (meaning sexual) then the learning about one another first begins, and then either romance or adjustment or breakup. Well surely romance is the thing some of us yearn for. Someone to listen to you, to sympathize, to validate — and Ross and Demelza do that for one another in spades. Ellis says he and Rees were “beloved partners” in their enterprise during filming and keeping up the memory of the series by touring for love afterwards.

This novel ends on a touching ambivalent romance close. It dwindles down to concentrate on Ross and Demelza’s relationship evolving under the pressure of their visit to the Poldark family, interactions with the other family members, and return home. Ross is beginning to see that Demelza has forms of insight that he doesn’t. While she was probably wrong not to want to visit at all, he has discovered he still longs to go to bed with Elizabeth, his attraction to her has not diminished. There’s an effective scene where first Elizabeth plays the piano with high cultured music and then Demelza is pushed to sing a folksong. Demelza is preferred for the same reasons that in Austen’s Emma Harriet Smith prefers Emma’s mediocre playing of easy songs to Jane Fairfax’s accomplished performance; it’s more available. It turns into a sour comedy of manner with each of the characters responding, especially the girl who Ross was pressured to marry uttering needling put-down comments to Demelza who holds her own. The good Verity puts a stop to this.

We then accompany our hero and heroine home: they are glad to be back and alone. He tells her she misbehaved with her effective sarcasms, and she ignores this to try to get him to agree to arrange to bring Blarney to the house again for Verity. A conversation about love ensues whose terms are disturbing: literally Demelza maintains if you love someone, you do so understanding their faults, but since the faults are physical abuse, this is part of this disquieting vein in the novel where men are repeatedly excused for beating/killing women.

Here it’s Ross who doesn’t agree as the case in point is Blarney who killed his wife and who therefore the Poldark family do not want Verity to marry no matter that now he has given up alcohol and the same situation will not occur. He will only “consider it,” “consider” going to Falmouth to bring back Blarney for Verity. A sort of stiffness and sense of himself as a male and in charge comes strongly out here. Robin Ellis does this aspect of the character very well 🙂

There beyond this though a sense of distance between the two. He has visited his homestead and remembered the history of his upper class family, very far from hers, and she has been made to feel that he married her loving still another woman (Elizabeth), or at least wanting her and the text reads “for a time something stepped between the man and the girl sitting at the fire.”

But the night wears on and “the old peculiar silence” that enveloped them now ceases “to be a barrier, and became a medium.” Their different pasts and personalities “could not just then break their companionship for long.” “They had been overawed by time. Then time again became their friend.

“Are you asleep?”‘ Ross said.
‘No,’ said Demelza.
Then she moved and put her finger on his arm.”

And we leave them going to sleep with one another and the curtain falls.


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