I have a right to choose my own life … Verity, Bk 1, Ch 13, p. 138
Dear Friends and readers,
I’m just delighted to be able to report that generally my students appear to have not just liked, but attended to, and even loved Graham’s Ross Poldark. I was so worried the detail of the book, the strangeness of the era, the size would put them off. But no. The first week we began to discuss it, one young woman said “I couldn’t put it down.” Another, “he gets me to care so much about the characters. When Jinny Carter was at risk [of rape, beating], I was so worried.” A third: “It’s my favorite book thus far”! Two boys read ahead that week. They said that “the history part” did not get in their way. The things in the book reminded them of today. The language was not a problem either — or no more of a problem than the average college-assigned novel nowadays.
This was our second week and we had our first three talks assigned on the book. Well two of them were among the best all term. First for an account of the novel’s phases and an outline of the story see Ross Poldark, Revenant.
Both by young men.
The topic for the first was: “On two of the heroines: describe the behavior of Ross Poldark to Demelza Crane: how is his behavior a direct rebellion against the mores of his time and how does it show what a rough/raw (unfair) deal women get? Describe the behavior of Verity’s family to her? Are they justified?”
He really entered into the spirit of the talk and produced a strongly feminist critique of the way that Demelza was treated — until marriage.
And was judicious about the family’s rejection of Captain Blamey for their apparently 30 year old spinster daughter, Verity: he pointed out how terrible was Blamey’s conduct (alcoholism beat his wife, kicked her down stairs when pregnant and she died) and the student was very harsh towards — much harsher than the book. (I added they should see how much power a brother as well as father had over a woman of 30.)
Then he had done research on women’s positions in the era and compared it to today.
I was blown away. I didn’t expect it at all. The class discussion was about how Jinny Carter, the miner’s daughter was stalked and nearly raped — or violently killed — by an ex-suitor, disgruntled. A girl student brought up how anxious she had been for Jinny when her husband would go out poaching. They talked of how the two were near starving but for poaching small game and the “amazing” thing that she said she’d rather starve than Jim, her husband, poach.
The second was: “Discuss how in Ross Poldark the need for money, class antagonisms and resentments clash with family values in among the Poldarks and Warleggans and how that mirrors things that can happen within families and powerful people in an area too.”
The student did omit the Warleggans where it is harder to see the monopoly emerging but he was remarkably insightful on the characters’ personalities interacting in day to day life over class and money. He remarked that Verity was a female version of Ross.
He was very alive to amounts of money mentioned in the book. For example, he noticed that Charles Poldark bet 100 guineas on a single cock-fight while Demelza was getting two guineas a year as a kitchen maid. He was very alive to what an upper class person might do or not do for a lower class one — you’d think US society was class-ridden (joke alert). He went into the competition over piano playing at the close of the novel that I’ve thought is an imitation of Emma. His main point was that Ross is a “hybrid” and feels more comfortable with working and lower class people even if he has the manners to stay with the upper class and seems to think he loves Elizabeth. (This is another student who declared Ross would have been unhappy with Elizabeth; only in reading the later novels and carefully can you see her better traits.)
Alas at the end he uttered a justification for the class system which did not seem aware that our own society has one nor that there are huge gaps in income in the US today. When I remarked that something like 1% of the US population now controls over 80% of the wealth, students looked astonished and disbelieving. “We no longer have have-nots” said one. This ignorance supports the corporations today. A couple of intelligent more well-read students seemed to know the truth of the matter.
They seemed interested in some of my lecture on fantasy and costume drama. At least they did ask questions.
We then watched most of Episode 3, including the unjust trial scene,
Ross getting very drunk, very bitter at his having made matters worse for Jim (perhaps), and the ensuing first sexual intercourse between Ross and Demelza.
Ellis was brilliant in that one, shuddering unable to stop himself from bitterness and a desire for oblivion; Rees as the girl adoring the man who had rescued her from an abysmal life.
Still I have to admit the students didn’t care for the film either time as much as I hoped (that is, I hoped to attract others to read): through their eyes I could see how slow it seemed, and also how wasteful of film time (we are feed information in separate scenes that would not be done now). But they were alive to its comedy in Part 2 (which we saw the first week), especially Paul Curran as Jud and the initiating encounter at the fair between Ross and Demelza, their relationship changing and ripening into companionship over work (he in the fields, she bringing out lunch) and final love-making of Ross and Demelza — which nonetheless appeared to make a few uncomfortable because she was just 17 and he 30. Again a better read student said this was typical of the time, nothing unusual.
This experience has further developed my desire to write a panel proposal for the coming EC/ASECS on liberty in the 18th century on historical and post-colonial fiction, a paper proposal just on the Winston Graham’s Poldark series. My emphasis will be the first 7 books the series covered, and within that specific kinds of episodes. And I’ve been working out a few thoughts after reading Helen Hughes’s Historical Romance, Jerome de Groot’s Historical Novel and Suzanne Keen’s “The Historical Turn in British Fiction,” from A Concise Companion to Contemporary British Fiction, ed. James F. English.
Hughes begins: Historical fiction and costume drama are strongly popular in the US and Europe; historical novels have been so since the early 19th century saw the “birth” of the species (so to speak) with Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels (set in Scotland in the 18th century. I add another influence are gothic novels set in the past against a wide landscape of time and history, the first widely influential one by Anne Radcliffe, Mysteries of Udolpho which neither Catherine or Henry can put down (from Northanger Abbey).
Original covers of the Graham books showed — rightly — views of the Cornish coastline. As de Groot says, historical fiction has from its outset been part of a ongoing definition of one’s national, ethnic and cultural identity. These belong to a kind of subspecies of regional fiction — novels set in a specific place redolent of that place, Daphne DuMaurier’s novels also set in Cornwall. Ross Poldark we see the mines and dangerous rocky seacoast; Demelza, written under her “sign” so to speak, shows us spring, flowering pink bushes. I’m rereading Demelza for the third time too.
Hughes goes on to say that the word “romance” is much denigrated because it is attached to women and women as a group are demeaned in our culture except as they serve families and men (mothers, wives, daughters, teachers, nurses). (I add to say of someone he is effeminate is an insult. But it is true to say that not only is science fiction romance, so too is historical fiction: the linking element is fantasy and wish-fulfillment, a kind of distanced and thus comfortable feel finally even if the characters suffer a great deal.
Key element is combination of realism — so we believe in what we read and identify, engage, bond, and distancing of time — so story can be framed away from us, and feel mythic.
What historical romance and costume dramas do is highlight and dramatize versions of fear and hope we experience today — in Ross Poldark, war, class and gender inferiority, money. The time of revolution, the later 18th and early 19th century have been favorite periods for dramatizing dislocation and political themes — for criticizing the way the political arrangements of present society are through a mirroring technique.
We are invited to spend our time with the aristocratic world and with a hero who is charismatic and exemplifies qualities we are to admire, he is connected to a heroine who we can see also exemplifies traditional behavior of women which is flattering to and services men and families. There are also fairy tale romantic heroines, in this case I’ll add Elizabeth Chynoweth. I”ll add that Graham shows Elizabeth makes bad decisions which leave her in the power of the bullying crude amoral resentful George Warleggan.
And everyone does suffer a lot in these dramas.
The adventure part is very important. Hughes says most historical fiction does not use it to expose injustice clearly, so I’ll add Graham does and graphically and continually: in Ross Poldark and again in the fifth novel, Black Moon, we are brought into the prisons of the ancien regime. Do not say we do not have prisons: we have a huge population in captivity and if they are not treated so horrifically as they were before the fall of the Bastille, they are again a subject way of repressing a huge group of people — increasing numbers of woman. Privatized so we know little. In Jeremy Poldark (novel 3) a typical trial for poaching and for taking things from wrecks off shore expose how trials favor the rich and judges are from the upper class. Again today we have an analogy.
Hughes reiterates that the past is not just a pretext though, the unfamiliarity of the past lays bare before us what we see, but it also comforts. We try to note what has improved since then (sick people mostly get medical care, prisoners do not starve, they have light, live in cleanliness. We also feel we are studying something universal because we see the same characteristics then as now. Now this is not quite true as much anachronism goes into the creating historical fictions and costume dramas (we update though we don’t realize it), but we feel we are encountering permanent human characteristics. A core personality. Thus disguise enormously important: the characters disguise themselves during some of their adventures. Underneath they remain the same.
Historical fiction and dramas do to some extent marginalize the role of socialization in a given era and culture — sometimes though we are made strongly aware of a few characteristics — coerced marriage for a woman, how a powerful aristocratic male can do just about anything he wants.
It’s not escapist but a mix: a kind of inverted utopia.
Books are imagined by the writer and informed by his ideology; films are the product of the film-makers interaction with the text through the script and awareness of the conventions of films, and the actors and production design and costume and budget.
So, now to myself exemplify through the Poldark novels and film series what I’ve picked up by my reading; also to qualify, extend, enrichen:
Poldark series set in time of revolution and war: the French where fundamental values were changed and debated. We see relationships between parents and children, men and men, men and women and are supposed to become conscious of a critique of society through the past.
Ross is a kind of Cornish 18th century Che Guevara: on the side of the poor, does the just and honorable thing, decries and directly flouts law to bring about justice, will go in for violence if necessary. If not quite a Jacobin (not quite so radical) then a Girondist: he would have been a middle-of-the-road revolutionary in French assembly.
Two systems going on at the same time: the archetypal and mythic and particular and historical.
Characters enormously important. We must care about them. We are led to worry about the kinds of failures and miseries that touch a nerve in us, a nerve in our consciousness. Will Jinny be raped by this ex-suitor? Will Ross do the right thing and keep Demelza, and then when they make love (so she is no longer a virgin) marry her. (Same thing in Northanger Abbey: when it’s implied that Frederick Tilney had Isabella, he has damaged her permanently; even if she is not sympathetic, he has done this carelessly to her — Frederick is a cad.)
So, Ross: strong in courage, ingenious in strategy: he borrows money and sets up a secret company to struggle against the monopoly power of Warleggans — they stand for modern corporate power. He is good at commanding men. Has to learn to cope with women. They are ultimately conservative in this sense: it’s a society run by “natural leaders” and the lower classes are shown as comic characters, as not capable of leading, investing and so on. He rescues the heroine.
Still he often remains a figure apart, thinking for himself, sensitive under a hard exterior. And to make ends meet in Demelza he will resorts to smuggling — as did many throughout the UK and other places. Excise tax killing people who lived on a subsidence level. He is almost taken more than once, if taken, he’d be hanged. He leads a band of men to rescue Dr Enys from prison and kills people himself to do it and to escape.
Demelza: strong in affection, makes a home, loves to garden, to cook, sets up orderly peaceful place, looks to help others in their affectionate emotional life, wants to solidify ties, accepts social realities and works within them — so as she marries and grows older a stabilizing influence. Enjoys sex. She is there for the hero. She wins and tames him
Ross Poldark is a solitary saturnine kind of guy and Demelza the spirited heroine. We get a symbolic expression of female concerns: a need for self-development is answered by the myth of her educating herself in Ross’s library. As she grows older she gains more independence but less liberty to enjoy it once she weds — anyway we are show in Demelza that social life for women is often abrasive encounters with aggressive men — why she does so badly in that first assembly and why in a much later book (Angry Tide). After the one experience, she stays in Cornwall. I understood this decision of hers from within my own experience as a teenager and young woman.
Safety is marriage in these books, but we see that the norms are enforcers of rules that derive from male needs. That is shown.
Love is a matter of affinity, physical love a crowning expression of this valuing of one another’s individual qualities, rather than an end in itself. The heroine becomes powerful because he values his home-life as stability and meaning (p. 129) where the hero retires to (at the close of most of the books) she is compensated for her quiet life serving him and his children by how he is valued as charismatic and is powerful on her behalf.
Tellingly both are disinherited. They are not illegitimate as is so common, but he is not of his class and he comes home to find much of his property removed from him. He is a younger son of a younger son. Her mother is dead, her father beats her; when he remarries he marries a religious fanatic whose identity would squash Demelza’s. So both have to find and invent new identities. They do and these cohere finally with the winners of their worlds, the conventional upper class: he landowner, mine-owner, she his loving wife and mother of his children.
But the characters do feel solitary too and we get a strong sense of their living apart in a indwelling mind — a chapter in Verity’s mind shows this very well as she tries to deal with how she has now been deprived of the life she had wanted to live with a husband and now has to live a supposedly safer life with more social acceptance in her father’s house. Bk 2 Ch 14, pp 143-45: the chapter is really about a young woman compromising what she wants and resigning herself to what she is pressured into accepting by those who supposedly love and have her best interests at heart. Verity’s assertions include: “I have the right to choose my own life” (p. 138) “These were the remarks she had forged in the quietness of her own bedroom ” (p. 119).
Each lives apart when contented too: Verity with her estranged husband, Demelza in her garden, her books, her library, Ross a wanderer.
The books individually ususuall end on a positive note (not always, e.g., Black Moon does not). But they do not end in tragic loss as the elite and high culture books we read in my class this term: Small Island (Andrea Levy’s Booker and Whitbread Prize winning books that I am going to read with my students as their last book for this term), not ending ambiguously as Namesake (which I read with students in the first half of the term), poignantly as A Month in the Country (by J. L. Carr, ditto), and ironically as in Bel Canto (by Ann Patchett, ditto).
At the close of the Ross Poldark he comes home to her and they have made a good space for themselves and coming child to thrive. Ross is momentarily rewarded at the end of the books with quiet domestic peace. His public actions are rarely rewarded: he is praised and admired by the populace but not liked by the powerful and again and again we see him come near bankruptcy and be threatened with dire punishments.
First series though ends in loss and conflagration with them apart — and how I loved it for this, exhilarating and comforting too (as Jim and I do live apart from others):
Closing moment of Season 1: here Trenwith has been burnt down, George and Elizabeth Warleggan thrown out, Ross broke returns to his regiment, Demelza to stay in Cornwall with children, but they are exhilarated as together
The Poldark mini-series displays a continual political, economic and social dimension which connects to the individual being able to take advantage of their natural liberty as entities in the world.
Why popular beyond this?
In writing of historical fiction’s power I see I left out a central feature which Hughes makes much of and I’m intensely aware of — having this morning read-skim through about half of Graham’s Ross Poldark — it’s that recreated within the terms of the fiction is a consciousness that feels modern and can be identified with. The appeal of these books is the consciousness of its characters. This is very strong in the first encounter between Ross and Demelza, pp. 84-82
Readership is often lower middle class, clerks, teachers, people in office and library and public service jobs. They are anxious about dislocation, and the anxiety of the characters enables them to re-experience and validate their own seeking/searching
Jinny Carter almost being raped by Reuben Clemmow (pp 169-70).
Identifying with idealized images of Englishness works not only to flatter and increase the person’s self-esteem but also makes the class conflict less visible, harmonizes and makes “sound” an idea of nationhood. This is one of the contradictions in the Poldark series.
Hughes has a chapter on Englishness in popular historical fiction. It harmonizes and makes people accept the class system as they are at least part of this apparently beautiful (green and pleasant land), civilized in manners, educated natioin. The Poldark series also subscribes to the middle-century middle class gospel that work will get an adequate reward; it’s a gospel of hazard too, where risk does eventually lead to success.
Ross Poldark and Graham’s second in the series (Demelza) are enormously rich in suggestiveness and details that can be later elaborated of all sorts, from wrecks and poaching and business deals … to marriage and babies and female isolation.
Western society seems to me to have changed little in fundamentals since 1945 — though the discourse of this unusual series remains unusual in its genuine left-of-center critique of class cruelties, injustices and at least an instinctive feminism (countered by now and again a curious drive to justify male violence towards women).
Truth to tell, I love them because inside them is a presence, Graham’s which values solitude, apartness, is deeply sceptical and disillusioned and he is aware of how women need safety and all people tenderness and liberty. They validate my deep needs and I feel I am in contact with another spirit who understands.
Unfortunately but not unexpectedly since the 20th century when the form turned more and more into woman’s romances and novels and presents women’s issues, women’s romance historical novels are not respected the way the form was in the 19th century when men dominated. So my great love of them is common among women and my inability to try to find a way to discuss the realistic ones which are not elevated by pseudo-high culture criticism (as the 19th century novel was elevated by its historicism and regionalism) fits just what I experience in other areas of life. As a woman what I like and want to talk of and share is not acceptable in establishment places where men and male tastes and pride predominate.
On C18-l we had a long thread where people cited “modern rewrites” of 18th century novels (see comments). I am wondering if someone (anyone who reads this blog — if there are any who will tell me you do) could make suggestions in the reverse direction. We’ve had citations of rewrites of 18th century novel.
Nomenclature: Jerome de Groot in The Historical Novel suggests that “rewritten fiction” is a good term for what we are discussing here. He argues it’s a subspecies of historical fiction. In rewritten fiction the franchise and world is the previous book. They undermine and engage larger social attitudes by presenting a kind of alternative literary history. Examples: Coetzee’s Foe and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargossa Sea and Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone.