Dear friends and readers,
I regret strongly to have to say this eighth Poldark novel represents a sad falling off. While at moments it came alive for me in the way the other seven did — riveting in some indefinable way where I was caring about the characters and involved and forgetting where I was sitting and my surroundings, most often and for long stretches it did not.
The problem is twofold: the characters I cared most about are not in the forefront and the new ones don’t cut it — or not yet. When the fiction came most alive are in the sections where Ross is there and active or Demelza and especially one where they spend a night making love on and off and talking after his long absence. I long to see Morwenna and Drake on the stage again, and when I’m fobbed off with a story about Sam and Rosina Hoblyn (the crippled miner’s daughter whom Demelza tried to unite with Drake) in the mind of Clowance (Demelza and Robb’s daughter) and Demelza’s talk I feel a hollow at the center. We should not be talking about what counts but rather it should be dramatized. Enys has not yet been personated in the book.
I know I’ve written that Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan is central to the series, but I did not feel the truth of this until I read this book. From Poldark 1 through 7 Ross Poldark is said repeatedly to remain deeply engaged emotionally with her (in love, desiring her, attached, caring) and when she’s gone there is no tension between him and Demelza. Demelza has nothing to egg her on, to get back at, to feel estranged about — omitting of course his continual long absencese. Now and again we are told a vein of “bitterness” emerges from Ross but we are never told what it’s from — and most of the time it emerges in conversations with his son, Jeremy, as he listens to his plans, realizes he’s not been consulted. Nor are we told that Demelza wonders why he stays from her for so long, only that she is lonely, feels isolated, without sufficient company when he’s not there.
The character who is most like the earlier ones in some ways: Stephen Carrington, smuggler, privateer, amoral in his way, is not much on the scene for the scene is not one of struggling outsiders. A smuggling adventure between Carrington and Jeremy Poldark is done as a sort of action adventure story. I’m not a boy of 12.
One of the women I care least about, the gay-strong lady type (to me a semi-literary figure) Caroline is here — and a version of her, much harder, meaner, hypocritical and perhaps realer — Lady Harriet to whom the anti-hero, George Warleggan is attracted is also. This leads to the other difference of this fiction. The marquee or world-historical famous characters are a mark of its trying to present public events. The strength of the earlier books has been in their presentation of public world and all its manifestations through the impingement of this on small people, marginalized lives, obscure and private. For the first time I found things happening I didn’t quite understand — like when George Warleggan’s speculation and over-risky investment suddenly goes rotten because we are told the Prince changed his mind — or party. We are expected to know what party the Prince adhered to originally (was it Whig?) and how he veered about. I don’t. He is nudging into being a history book without all the notes.
Graham is failing to produce another novel which combines the characteristics of the best women’s historical romance novels and men’s action-adventure historical political novels of the era, for this combination is the key to his success
Some signs of this falling off are how well past the mid-way point of the book Graham is still repeating snatches of reminders from what happened in previous books or “tag” type lines to unite things — like suddenly I am again reminded that Demelza was/is a miner’s daughter. I have not counted how many times he has repeated this and other little facts to bind this fiction back to the previous. I did come across passages for the first time which felt like I was being fed information about the era.
I find myself comparing this to Trollope’s series novels (Barsetshire, Palliser). For each new novel he invented a new set of characters; Graham doesn’t want to do this: in a sense the Poldark books are one long novel about the same set of characters. But his hero and heroine are now too safe and conventional in position, and he wants us to respect them so is unwilling to present their children as having a hard time, being bad people. This may be a limitation of his own imagination about his own children: he’s not going there. (Trollope by the way did and frequently in his later career). I realized also for the first time how rarely Graham does go inside Ross’s mind — he does not want to risk himself. In his memoir Graham says he is a private man, but (as he knows) when someone writes fiction one must go deep into oneself and reveal what genius shows you.
The weakness makes me also remember how Ross’s continual risk-taking and then winning back what he had lost is most improbable. I’ve been reading reviews of Darnton’s latest book, Poetry and Police: Communication Networks in the Eighteenth Century Paris, and Peter Brooks (NYRB) brings home how for most people, and this would include a fringe powerful man like Ross, it was so easy to lose out altogether, what money, niche opportunity, even the property you might already have and never retrieve your position. The ancien regime was a horrible order, deeply inhumane and unjust.
And how limited his view of Demelza as an older woman is. In a rare active scene towards the end of the book, she is one again at a party at a great house (Bowood, the house of the suitor of Ross and Demelza’s grown daughter, Clowance). And for what seems an umpteenth time Demelza is again seen from same old angle as pretty women men chase and she eludes.
This won’t do. Are to we think this is all that happens to a woman, young, middle-aged and until she gets too old to attract a man (and in the early phase of the book Graham does take out time to register his distaste for an older woman’s skin and physical appearance at the political Duchess’s salon in Book 1) that counts: that some men go after her, and if she’s wise, she eludes them. Is that all he can imagine for her beyond caring for her garden, chickens, and children? to a man maybe. He has not thought for real about what a 40 year old woman might feel and think and find important beyond love-making all night with Ross (i.e., a simulacrum of him).
It’s true one has the same limited view of women in many a 19th century novel, but, for example, in the case of Trollope the novelist is continually inventing new individual characters to embody such male views and so we accept them, and then he really digs deeply into his paradigms, vignettes and puppets and actually comes up with new sexual insights. Nothing like this here.
I’m thinking what a collapse from high energy and excitement and interest it must have been for Graham when the mini-series was not continued. He was after all still writing The Angry Tide when the second series began. They didn’t get a third not because they were not popular but because (1) the BBC runs on internal politics and doesn’t care about popularity or even money that much (though the reason given each time for stopping was the high cost of filming in Cornwall) and 2) Graham couldn’t get up another book quick enough. He’s trying here but without hope of a TV realization by the time he’s come to the end of the book.
Well, let me do justice to what I can, for I still like the series and now and again this book too — there is the same strongly leftist outlook, serious history and political thinking, gift for description, especially of Cornwall, and the original wonderful characters. I realize some of the best ones have not appeared for a couple of books now or much: Dwight Enys is one and in this book Drake and Morwenna, Sam, Emma. Graham intuited where the power of the original conception lies in his last paragraph: for he ends on Ross reading a letter from Clowance’s rich suitor, Fitzmaurice.
So this time I will not be going into as many of the details of the book’s movement phase by phase. Instead I contextualie it against other seven books, offer up a few notes and sketches to suggest where book does come alive and is good, and where and why it falls. I end (in the comments) with talking about the relationship of the Poldark series as a whole to 20th and 21st century women’s historical (at their best about women’s real sexuality) romance and men’s active-adventure (at their best politically-engaged) novels
Having read eight book now I feel the strongest books in the series are actually The Black Moon, The Four Swansand The Angry Tide, and especially the last two. The nightly rapes of Morwenna, the murder of Whitworth, the political scenes, the coming to London and duel in London between Ross and Monk Adderley, the escape of Morwenna into Drake’s arms.
The early ones are strong (Novels 1-4, Ross Poldark, Demelza,Jeremy Poldark, and Warleggan), but it is true to say that the first gained on me slowly and I know I only stayed with it because I had loved the first season of the films so. The opening of Ross Poldark did not grab me particularly: we see our revenant returning from American (the revolution on whose American side he apparently fought — though this is not gone into) and are then put on the bedside of his father dying. A long filling in and creation of place and time through a character takes place. But the book began to hold me when Ross came back on stage. The story of Karen and murder by Daniels of her with Enys as sensitive idealistic doctor was effective, and then of course the coming of the urchin Demelza to Ross’s house and the development of their first relationship as master-guardian and pupil-girl child. Then the erotic liaison and Ross’s determination to marry her partly as a rebellion against his caste, as a finer replacement, someone who would respond to to him the way Elizabeth never would to anyone.
Jeremy Poldark is beautifully-structured, very tight around the trial (centerpiece) and aftermath so tied also to Ross leading the riot for food and destruction of ships coming into the harbour at the end of Demelza. We get the romance of Enys and Caroline which has real grit because of the class disparity. Warleggan ends on the rape of Elizabeth by Ross and the first real estrangement of Ross and Demelza, but (my view) I think the film adaptation bettered the book with its armageden of another riot, by the workers, burning down of Trenwith and Ross’s leaving Demelza to join the French civil wars on behalf of the French revolutionaries. The last scene at the end of the first series was deep romance, with the two embracing against the seascape of Cornwall. I believe they did play Wagnerian music as well as Cornish.
But I’d say there’s a sudden deepening, move into real darkness of the human spirit in Black Moon, when we begin with Aunt Agatha and her struggle against the vicious narrow George and knowledge Elizabeth’s child is by Ross. And here we meet Drake and Sam and have the story of Drake and Mowenna, her coerced marriage, and have Demelza fall in love with Hugh Armitage and their liaison. It is Armitage she falls in love with; she plans to have sex with Ross to stay with him and gradually the woman’s love grows afterwards.
The Enys story never has the depth of the early phase of his affair with Karen and the pre-marriage years. It could as we see how different they are — the temperamental and value disparities, but he is kept from us. He has barely appeared in Stranger; we are told about him, told he’s there. That there’s hardly a picture of him after the first few episodes of the season gives away the loss.
Book 1, Chapters 1-5
I began this 8th Poldark novel the other night. It has been filmed — in 1996. I’ve never seen the film, know only it’s been much maligned, and was framed (as Graham said) by the fan clubs as necessarily awful which it might not have been even if it was a 2 hour production (instead of the more appropriate mini-series) which had dropped the social imagination aspect of the work. In the way popularity or reputation works, it has probably not helped sales of the novel that the film series was so rejected.
Nonetheless, the book seems to be very like those that came before and I found myself absorbed once more. It opens in the Peninsula (Spain) and we are thrust into the peninsula war — so historical politics are the first framing. The Peninsula War is an extremely important war in terms of military strategy. R.E. Lee should have learned lessons from it. So should the commanders in the Crimea and The Great War. Here is a link to an easy introduction.
Another Scott-like opening and another revenant like motif: now “the Englishman” who moves into the landscape is on an observant mission to see how this war is doing. Who does he meet? But his nephew, and we are back with Ross Poldark and Geoffrey Charles, now ten years older — it’s 1810.
This gives Graham an opportunity to remind us of where we were, if we are new readers, to take us back in time, and at the same time set the terms of his political vision. I want to stress it’s all done very lightly so we really do not feel we are being fed information. For a “old hand” reader like myself there is actually a minimum of repetition while I get to know that the Ross’s & Demelza’s second daughter, Clowance is now 16, get to know Geoffrey Charles (important probably — we are told we can hear the voice of Francis but very different sentiments somehow). We hear that Drake and Morwenna are doing “bravish” — they are now working for Ross on his property boat-making.
The second chapter turns our attention to a character who has emerged as a central protagonist, if not likable: George Warleggan. After this past 10 years when he did not marry, did not think of it (not to be expected from such a cool networking guy) he is at last thinking of it. We had been told that in Chapter 1 by Geoffrey Charles who has had wind of this. It is of course now a rich woman. We are in George’s mind: he remembers how he did not marry Elizabeth for love, but as a beauty and prize he wanted, and how he slowly grew to appreciate, respect, like, depend on her. And we move into Trenwith which has been let go and the Warleggan group. Peeking ahead I saw a segment of this second chapter moves into Demelza’s world with Clowance, but I was too tired and had to give it up …
I admit this opening material is not intensely holding but as I’m into the fiction already, I feel gratified to be back. I like Ross, like Geoffrey Charles, like the political view (strongly liberal in the 1970s sense and on the side of reform in the early early 19th) and moving in. This kind of opening shows Graham’s continued adherence to the historical novel as a vehicle for social and political vision, here the Peninsula War.
It is this transition period, the couple of years leading into the Regency and the wars abroad that Graham’s Stranger in the Sea attempts to put before the reader. In that sense it’s a worthy book showing his commitment to the serious political uses of history novels. Who knows much about the Peninsula War? or why we should praise and empathize with Sir John Moore? I’m ever forgetting what I’m supposed to know about him. Jane Austen mentions him in passing in one of her letters — Cassandra missing snipping out that one. The opening two chapters of Stranger from the Sea takes place in Portugal, not your usual venue for historical romances.
Back in Cornwall, Demelza watching for son and his friends on the seacoast and sees them pulling two apparently dead bodies are pulled from Nampara cove, and one is discovered to be close to death, but not there yet, and retrieved by Enys (with intense warmth, fluids, and then brandy and port). This will bring us Stephen Carrington.
The difficulty Graham faced in this one is it’s necessary for time to move on and he has to invent a new group of characters and they must interest us as much as those we’ve been engaged by. This is in a way harder than Trollope’s method of inventing a whole new set of characters who are then attached by a narrow chord to the Pallisers and then allowed to drift off and disappear by the end of each book, for the characters must relate intimately to our present ones. Sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, with George Warleggan now rousing himself to interest in a new woman at last who outward paradigm reminds me of the gay lady Caroline Penvenen may be likened to;
only Lady Harriet Carter is a widow on hard times (a bad marriage with some serious vibes that her husband was not only a gambler, rake, but cruel sexually to her too) and her world (she’s high status) brought in to bring us into the regency political ring. The letters of George and Lady Harriet very good — convincing, he buying back a horse of hers lost at an auction that she partly hated because of its association with her husband, and she refusing it as a present.
George gives Graham much mileage. He is as attracted to this ambitious networking man as he is to Ross I realize. We have a trip to Manchester and a fine evocation (if I may use the word fine) of the misery of the early industrial scene and credit to the few who did grow enormously wealthy suddenly. A winner take all game like the US in 1210. And Lady Harriet connects us to the world of great houses in mid-England too.
As a comfort book too: I find that the world of Demelza which is kept up — the local scene, a woman’s world of children, household — is one that is presented with great allurement as is she once again. I find myself romancing with Graham in liking this life of hers — how I long to go to Cornwall in 1212 (Jim and my latest dream).
Bk 1, Chapters 6-9: turning into a type 2 historical fiction
Each volume of the Poldark books are different. This is certainly borne out by Stranger from the Sea. I’d say going back to Graham’s categorizations this is no longer type 3 (the historical novel where all are fictional), we are approaching Type 2 (the historical novel where secondary characters are real historical personages). I don’t know that Canning is a world-historical or marquee character, but the prince regent is and he turns up in a scene; both certainly existed and we have two scenes between him and Ross. We have had in the previous novels references to world historical characters and heard the characters discuss having some relationship but this is the first novel where they are bought on stage. This is part of Graham’s effort to bring the fiction into another era
Brief notes: Ch 6:iii-iii. Talk Xmas time between Dwight, Caroline and Demelza. Again we see clashes of values. Caroline wants her daughters to “rise” somehow, is worried for Sophia amd Meliora. Dwight demurs and Demelza talks of how she wants for her daughters versions of what she has had.
The stranger from the sea becomes a character, Stephen Carrington. He is another outsider it comes to Demelza’s mind, so a kind of parallel to Demelza and Ross both, another variant on this theme. A warm loving scene between Clowance and Carrington where they do not go all the way. I may be mad but I see a parallel between Austen’s S&S and this one: Marianne and Willoughby visit Allenham where there is no chaperon we are told; the only movie to try to dramatize this, Andrew Davies/Pivcevic/Alexander’s has this as a moment where they do come close to going to bed. What is suggestively possible in Austen’s text. Here the couple “return” to the Poldark family home that Clowance has already been “haunting” I’ll call it. The house and landscape and family presence are central to this fiction.
Ch 7-8: George visits the Enys family to pump Enys for information about George III. An insight in this fiction: Dwight is himself getting involved in the earliest phase of interest in the mentally ill and genuine attempts to help them — this was done in the regency, I’ve read about this in the 1810s and 20s somewhere. We hear about this in detail that is convincing because it’s just enough and out of Enys mind. In the conversation that ensues Caroline pumps George for information about Lady Harriet more than George gets from Dwight.
Ross and Canning’s at the end of the second the Prince joins in conversations bring in real-poltick of the era — rather like Walter Scott. I love how Ross sees the UK: Ross is for peace and neither Canning nor the Prince are, and he sort of brings out his views as side comments; “we are after all an unimportant island attempting too much, are we not? … Staining our resources to no effect, wasting our blood and treasure in trying to restrict the expansion of the great French nation” (p. 134).
Ross’s views show us what Graham’s views were of the US (and UK with it) military oligarchy spending huge sums around the world to restrict socialism at the cost of millions of lives everywhere. Graham didn’t need to read the new post-colonialism discourse to know this.
I reread Chapter 8 and was struck by how Scott-derived this encounter between Ross Poldark first with Sheridan briefly, and then with the Prince of Wales. Prinny is presented in the most disillusioned manner — making modern movies look simply dripping with reverence. I had said that Poldark is presented as friends with George Canning on and off and Canning is presented more neutrally; Sheridan has made himself an instrument; and as for “prinny” he does come across as colorful, larger than life. It differs from Scott’s treatment in that there is nothing ambivalent about Graham’s (through Ross’s) irritation and disgust, and the extrapolation out to our own time (post-colonialist destruction) is not flinched from. Ross’s point of view is part of this: our 18th century Che Guevara sees “a fat fop and his dandified manners and his lisle stockings and snuffboxes. If this was the future King of England … ” The prince doesn’t listen to what doesn’t fit with his preconception; he sees immediately that Ross is going to tell him about the devastation caused, the coming absurd defeat (nothing gained) and Ross’s own lack of reverence towards him. Ross thinks of walking out abruptly as he feels it’s useless, but controls himself as he has learned to; he tells himself he will have tried.
It’s a new or individual version of the old choice: be complicit and try to shape things some; refuse to be co-opted. Graham shows his hero trying to appear complicit (and he is as a landowner and MP) and seeing he cannot shape things to come.
Chapter 9, an assembly dance and dinner, and another marquee character appears: Sir Humphry Davies as friends with Dwight Enys. This novel has quite a different atmosphere from the previous ones, lighter somehow. I’m not sure I like it as much as the era changes into the Regency one. I think I’ve been too tired again and shall have to reread again: much politics as Canning appears and interacts with a young man interested in Clowance: Fitzmaurice. If the spirit of the book (its genius loci in the female vein) is Lady Harriet, I probably won’t like it as much as I have the others.
I think I’ve managed to “get into” this book now. This is the first one I’ve had to persist and work at, and had I not read all the previous, I might not have stuck to it. So I would definitely not recommend any one to begin here.
The problem for me is the atmosphere is somewhat changed, and thus the mood. Graham is (perhaps) imitating Regency novels as he sees them, not Regency Romances of the 20th cenutry, but something more like what’s said to be the norm of Bulwer-Lytton and silk fork books. These are not exactly the sort of books I rush to open. There is still Ross at the center, taking a jaundiced alienated view from what he is surrounded by so that helps (enormously) and as for Demelza, well, she just stays well away from say the Duchess’s ball. Ross is sickened by the Prince, alive to the waste of the war and horrors, and yet alive to not despising and using the men, supportive of Sir John Moore — you do need to know something of the history of the peninsula war and the phases of the Napoleonic ones.
I’ve been reading a little Balzac: a little goes a long way with me, and at a great distance I can see the connection of Graham’s assembly to Balzac’s opening in Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans/Courtiers.
Book 1, Chapter 9, Book 2, Chapters 1-7
I read a great chunk of this novel yesterday and have to say that while at moments it came alive for me in the way the other 7 did — riveting in some indefinable way where I was caring about the characters and involved and forgetting where I was sitting and my surroundings, it often did not.
Mid-point in chapter 8 there’s a good example of what I mean about this book not moving on: Demelza and Clowance walking near where Sam and Rosina now live (Pally’s shop, he has taken over Drake’s shop and thus is rising in the world): Demelza moves into a reverie remembering the first night she and Ross made love and how she initiated that in order to prevent him from returning her to her father. It’s a moving moment, this bit of memory. But it’s from another book, one 7 books ago. It’s not a new experience (p. 280).
Chapter 8 improves suddenly when Jeremy goes to visit the Trevanions where he has made an acquaintance with their daughter on the night he fled the Prevention men (anti-smugglers hired by the government) with her help. Now we have another public occasion, but this time no world-historical famous characters, rather new ones introduced, but one previous one: Valentine, George Warleggan’s son: he has turned out to be mercenary and cynical; he talks to Jeremy in a sneering boastful way of his conquests in women; and implicitly denigrates Clowance in ways he must do many women (pp. 291-3). Point made that biology is only the start: with no Elizabeth around to counter anything, this is a son of George, only worse.
This too brings exemplifies what I wrote yesterday: Graham is not willing to allow dark and complicated depths to the children of Demelza and Ross; their home is described as always filled with laughter and up to a point frank and free.
Book 2, Chapters 8-9, Bk 3, Chapters 1-3
I see I’m expected to take a genuine real interest in Jeremy Poldark and his story. He is having hard time being accepted by the Trevanions, and Graham writes a powerful enough scene of how when, after Jeremy sees the (half-insulting because so brief and transparently a snub) letters from Mrs Bettesworth refusing Demelza’s inviation to Clowance, he goes straight to the Trevanion house. That’s a Ross kind of gesture. He is simply in effect insulted to his face. They go so far as to refuse to offer him tea after his long journey there and one back. One of the male relatives shamelessly tells him he’s not good enough for Cuby. I didn’t find myself as incensed as I should have been as somehow I have not been made to care enough for Jeremy Poldark. There is then a scene between Cuby and Jeremy where she is clearly intensely distressed but it’s not clear that it’s because she likes and wants to be courted by Jeremy or is upset by his demands as she really identifies with her family group. It’s a good scene and is another parallel to the earlier stories of coerced marriages.
We are getting in at another angle than we did before.
Another thread in the book is the reality that the Poldarks could apparently have destroyed George Warleggan. He is so badly in debt and his bank without funds that were the bank Poldark is a partner in call in his (bad) loans they’d destroy him. A fine and interesting political-social scene where we see Ross meet with the other share-holders. This is the sort of thing that makes this novel so different from many historical novel-romances (nothing like it at all in DuMaurier) and makes it place it against Trollope — who has political scenes but usually avoids this truth about money and wheeler-dealing. What we see is that the vote goes partly on behalf of not destroying Warleggan. Not because (as we see acknowledged in the meeting and Ross’s and other thoughts) Warleggan has been a destructive terror to the community, enclosing, firing on mass, acting as a justice to destroy, sending slanderous letters around, and in the case of Ross, he knows he could be long dead because Warleggan egged Monk Adderley on, but because 3 out of the 5 consider their personal interests make it possible they could use Warleggan and might need him.
More to the relevant point today: this group of people fear that were Warleggan to fail, many in the community would suffer. This is the same thinking we see led Obama and his chieftains to save the banks in the US. Happily no great sums from the people in the area will go to save Warleggan. He can’t fleece them the way the banks do us today — everywhere (as about education for example).
It comes down to Ross’s vote. A powerful couple of pages where he cannot decide whether to say yes, destroy Warleggan or no. Finally he abstains. That means Warleggan survivies and we have a scene of him and his father-uncle saved so now plotting again.
One influence on Ross was Demelza. She was against destroying Warleggan for she said they would have to live with themselves if they did that. When he comes home, he is not proud of himself, but feels very ambivalent, after all this is leaving George with power to again do much harm, and interestingly, Demelza feels the same.
It’s at such moments the book comes back to its greater strengths. It makes us think. Ross’s abstaining from voting against George Warleggan lets a man who has shown total disregard for the fundamentals of humanity to get away with it. Demelza’s encouraging this shows how she is a woman functions as compromiser.
Book 3, Chapters 2-3: A Cornish summer solstice celebration
The Cornish summer solstice celebration Demelza organizes is a good example of how Graham is falling off. He has read a good deal about Cornwall and knows all the customs that could be followed on a beach near a house during such a high summer evening. So he has these characters he loves and he puts them through their traces making their characteristic comments and behaviors. Caroline (we are told) is pressured into becoming Lady of the Flowers ceremony and singing an old non-English (gaelic? of some sort) song. Ross is the chief, Demelza the maker. The scenes are lovely but it’s using characters as if they were puppets, not developing them further. The young people we are told stayed up into the dawn, and at the end Stephen Carrington (our stranger from the sea) is seen, along with a local crippled girl, in a place where superstition says augurs a coming death for both.
There’s nothing wrong, harmful, bad in such an idyllic interlude but if there were a strong fictional story with intense crises a working all around into which this was interwoven it would be like poetry. I’m not enough involved and I never liked Caroline. Graham does and did. And where are Morwenna and Drake? He is avoiding them
A mistake showing Graham’s lack of literary interests. He does not have any of his characters serious readers. Demelza says she would find going to the upper class home to which Clowance has been invited (we are told she has an upper class suitor, Fitz-Maurice, a near beggar, Ben Carter, and the rogue type Carrington — see the schematization is put in front of us!), and she imagines “taking a turn in the park and talking prettily about Mr Scott’s latest novel.” (p. 373). Ouch. This is supposed to be 1811. Scott had not written any of his novels as yet. Graham is imaging the historical novels of others as well as 18th century ones in which this kind of thing happens (say Austen) and does not want his heroine there.
The next chapter moves back to the story of Jeremy and we learn how hard he’s working to make a machine, to bring Wheal Leisure back to life — of course, naturally he has somehow managed to buy the property. This is fudged since according to Graham’s fiction this giving over of Wheal Leisure back to the Poldarks is the last thing George Warleggan would tolerate, it would reallybe over his dead body first).
I left off when Stephen Carrington is seen by Clowance coming up from the beach. His presence has been way too fragmentary. I find myself wondering what was happening in Graham’s life that he should so eschew the very type of male that he put at the center of his fiction before; Carrington could have replaced Ross as a burning center, but has not. He has not invented any woman to replace the now complacent Demelza. Lady Harriet looked interesting as a much harder meaner version of Caroline, but she too has been pushed aside.
Book 3, Chapters 4-6: Graham wakes up
Unexpectedly and to my surprise, the book suddenly improved enormously. As the dinner party given by the Enys which includes George Warleggan and son, Valentine, the two Poldark young adults, Jeremy and Clowance, other young adults connected to them, Ben Carter (in love with Clowance – who several young men we are asked to believe are in love with), and Lady Harriet – why she turns up I can’t say except that we were told early on Caroline knew her as the elite of the era were small and she might just know another society lady in London, a duke’s sister.
The conversation became biting and the turns and twists of interest as reflecting their future lives and on themes of genuine moment. The reader listening especially to Clowance and Valentine is supposed to recall they are half-brother and sister, and if we don’t, Graham is determined we shal by having them explicitly talk about how they are not really related (Valentine’s mother’s first husband was cousin to Clowance’s father). There is real banter. I do note though that Dwight Enys might as well not be there; he doesn’t register a presence at all, and we again get characters reminding us and themselves of what happened in previous books. There is after some rebarbative give and take an assignation set up between George and Harriet. We listen to Valentine’s thoughts: at one point he’s thinking he wouldn’t mind his strong father’s death.
We then get one of the economic sequences. Jeremy is building, has built a machine which will now help to make Wheal leisure more profitable and safer is the idea; Carrington accepts hard labor and (though he at first declines) is given the rate of pay of a laborer. Not improbably this throws him into contact with Clowance and we do get one of the “old” powerful scenes of sexual entanglement between them on the beach. Probably what I don’t care for that much is how much she is made into this virtuous type, but not quite. We feel that despite her knowledge that the night Carrington arrived (St John’s Eve was the Solstice celebration) he had sex with (I don’t use the “f” word lest we be categorized as “adult”) a crippled vulnerable girl who he supposed took to the festival out of pity for her – and active kindness; despite this knowledge and our alert sense Carrington is wild and not to be trusted, lawless (he got Jeremy almost jailed, perhaps imprisoned for a long time and thus dead), she might just “go” for this guy, i.e., marry him. The scene was intense with frisson of sex and betrayal and nuances of give-and-take.
By the way, would we had had that scene — would Violet have been brought before us. This vulnerable girl afraid to go to the festival. Her being brought there and then taken advantage of by this cad Carrington. Alas Graham shows no sympathy and seems to look at her as just some woman who is weak and attracted to Carringtons “great charm.” A failure of imagination towards women I identify with there.
Jerome de Groot says one mark of the male historical novel of the 20th century is 1) its conservatism (that is not true of Graham — but he is not mentioned anywhere in de Groot! — as Graham says he is a that curiosity, a forgotten big-seller); and 2) its penchant for active adventure. I don’t believe such sequences for real, especially when the hero emerges unscathed (and that goes for Ross’s escapes). In this book Jeremy and Carrington’s adventure did not hit out at larger political issues sufficiently, but then as a smuggler Carrington is simply a thief, not a free-trader so to speak.
Part of the weakness of the book is Graham’s inability to imagine a middle-aged woman’s inner life apart from males chasing after hero or advice to her daughter on her love life. His feminism, real understanding and sympathy with women’s sexuality is limited. He has not managed to combine the woman’s historical romance novel with the man’s in this one.
An alive scene between her and Clowance deciding whether to visit the great house where her suitor, Fitz-Maurice resides shows how she compromises; she really would rather not go but if her daughter likes the young man, she will. We get a real sense of reluctance and acknowledgement she might experience small humiliations but this is put aside and we are asked just to think about whether Clowance really thinks she might love this young man.
For the conclusion to the book, assessment and the context of women’s versus men’s historical novels in our era, see comments