‘Mr KilIigrew had been over once afore but the rent was not paid, so we was ordered to take all the doors off, and Mr Killigrew puts an hour-glass on a pole and says if they’re not out by the time the sand is run we’re to go on and put ’em out.’ –
There were two white doves cooing in a cote.
‘Have our servants been left here since you came last!’
‘Aye. The house and furniture has been seized in non-payment and will all be sold. If we’d have left it Unguarded news would have got around, and other debtors would’ve stepped in and claimed a share.’
I walked slowly into the house. Graham, Groves of Eagles
Dear friends and readers,
Since last I wrote I’ve been delving into the historicity of Graham’s 12th Poldark novel, Bella, re-read The Forgotten Story, set in Cornwall in 1898, perhaps Graham’s first historical novel since Graham wrote FS in the same year he wrote Ross Poldark, and am reading his historical fiction The Groves of Eagle, set in Cornwall in the last years of Elizabeth I’s reign. (Graham’s third other historical novel, Cordelia, is set where he grew up, Manchester, only it’s an imitation Victorian novel, i.e., set in the mid-19th century.)
I’ve also been re-enthused to write again and in this way seriously develop thoughts about, material for a novel or literary-critical book out of Graham’s writing and movies. I’ve met a person who wants to study and write about Graham intelligently as a writer of historical fiction writer and the originator of the material for the Poldark films. Someone else came to my blog, read my posting on The Walking Stick, and told me how to procure the film adaptation of it. The DVD is now on its way to my house. And I reread The Forgotten Story, a novel set in 1898 in Cornwall, written in the same year as Ross Poldark (1945), and am more than half-way through The Grover of Eagles, again Cornwall, this time later 16th century, for the first time. I found I couldn’t put The Forgotten Story down, and while Groves of Eagles does not compel me as much I am enjoying it.
Finally, this evening a United parcel person brought to my door the 3rd edition of Robin Ellis’s Making Poldark. It contains new material; more stills and photos from the two series, more about Ellis’s life since the 1980s, a discussion of why a third series was never made, and an semi-imaginary map drawn from the Poldark places and Cornwall. I surmise we could inscribe the town and places of Forgotten Story and Groves of Eagle onto it too. Ellis is coming to DC to Kramerbooks for a “book-signing,” and I wouldn’t mind going, but alas this Saturday we’ve a conflict: we’re going to Maria Stuarda with Joyce DiDonato.
When I compared this non-pompous paperback to the two expensive lavish books that have come out about Downton Abbey I saw why this series is neglected, kept alive really by a curious intense cult that has developed around the films and the continuing sale of Graham’s books. The Abbey is the book of the 1%, Poldark for the rest of us, really for the 47% Romney lied about, sneered at.
She [Patricia] tried to scream, but every time he [Tom, her husband, from whom she has separated herself] squeezed the breath out of her; and presently it began to dawn on her that she was fighting a losing battIe. Now she went suddenly limp and helpless. But the trick was played late. He only seemed to take her limpness for deliberate acquiescence.
Scandalized, she began to struggle again, but more weakly, for her strength was partly gone.
So it came to pass that Patricia, who had begun the evening flirting with Ned Pawlyn, ended it in the company of her husband. Had Tom Harris been more of a brute the encounter might have gone further than it did. Patricia, for once in her life, was really frightened, for she did not misread his intention. Love can so change that it becomes instead a fusion of hatred and desire. That was what Tom Harris found.
But unless the change is absolute, it can injure but it cannot wilfully destroy. That and something in the fundamental relationship between civilized man and woman finally stood in his way.
Not, however, before she had paid in good measure for her deceit and resistance.
He turned quite suddenly and left her there on the old couch, bruised and breathless and silent. She had never been so shaken up since she was three. The Forgotten Story, a climax occurring around same place as Ross’s rape of Elizabeth in Warleggan
Not quite marital rape, is it? Graham punts.
Rereading: The Forgotten Story has two deeply-felt characters who I care a lot about, a marital rape and a familial paradigm of sexual longings and murderous antagonisms. Anthony Veal, the young boy narrator abandoned by his father, through whose eyes the story is seen is deeply appealing with his honest and trusting nature, and his heroine-older cousin, Patricia, fighting to create an independent adult life for herself in type a Demelza. The character in the now lost or wiped-out mini-series, Forgotten Story was played by Angharad Rees. Anyone reading this who knows anyway I could possibly get hold of anything about it, let me know. I’ve been told writing the BBC gets silence in response.
The story of the abandoned boy left to the not-so-tender mercies of near relatives is found in the Poldark series: Ross, estranged from his father, but much more strikingly, Valentine, over-fathered and fatherless. Real rape and repeated sadistic rape in marriage is also in the Poldarks, murder of one’s wife for which the man is forgiven by author and text too.
Patricia becomes an outcast woman for defending her husband in a trial scene where the prosecutor brings out how she probably has another lover. She is shamed, called “whore,” and now vulnerable to all men’s advances. This moves towards Demelza’s adultery with Armitage, though Demelza never leaves Ross’s side so is not endangered.
The novel’s is derived from Graham’s experience as a beach warden in WW2: the news story which opens the novel turns out to be a much obscured prettied up version of the nightmare happenings in the novel. For everyone’s sake the hero and heroine bury the truth of what happened, but without this we can have no understanding of the events nor hope to prevent analogous ones in future. The underlying subversion is much that passes for history is distortion and what actually occurred deliberately forgotten.
Reading for the first time: Groves of Eagles shows what a conscious artist Graham was. He’s changes his style to fit the later Elizabethan age: he does not write in pastiche, but rather modern English in more elaborate sentences, with a strong use of imagery. The historical background thick; this is the type of fiction where real historical important characters play a role, here Walter Ralegh who was a powerful Cornish man; in fact almost everyone in the novel has a historical counterpart, from Killigrews to Arundells. Even the central hero, Maughn Killigrew is based on someone, the bastard son of John Killigew, the tough squire in charge of Pendennis castle guarding a shore line of the Channel and the Atlantic. He is ruthless; himself he lives extravagantly, but he is merciless towards tenants.
Killigrew is also stern to his bastard son. Has him chained to a dog kennel at one point, with all the house hold forbidden to give him any food. For a full day and night. Keeps his distance from this son, apprentices him out to an impoverished life. Maughn by luck (and the author’s largess) manages to escape this. Graham enjoys making him amanuensis to Walter Ralegh, who I fear Graham admires too much — while knowing the man was a warrior pest type too. So again we have the estranged semi-fatherless hero.
Sex is again central and as is so common in Graham’s novels we have a married couple where the woman will not permit the husband to have sex with her (and he gently allows concurs), and the hero (like Drake Carne) finds Sue, a servant girl much beloved by him, in danger of rape by her master, and then married off to a much older man. Sue is without status, and in that a reincarnation of Demelza once again.
But now much older customs: the John Killigrew keeps his wife continually pregnant and is an open adulterer. It’s a very violent world filled with rough customs, humiliations and wild parties too; the lies and delusions of newspapers, Ralegh’s persistent fatal trips to find El Dorado, a final Spanish Armada are all part of the multi-year story. A woman treated as witch, Katherine Footmarker is a layman doctor (and like Enys, humble and good at it). She might be Maughn’s mother; if not, she knows who was (the boy’s mother is dead as was Valentine’s by the time he turned 6).
As with all Graham’s historical fictions, when I pick either of these up and start to read them, I fall into them and can’t put them down.
In the Poldark and these novels however gingerly and sometimes punting, Graham is exploring our rape culture, the pathologies of sexuality in our culture. Ross and Demelza are almost unusual for having a “healthy” sexual relationship from start to finish. From Ross’s rape of Elizabeth to the sadistic nightly marital rapes of Morwenna by the Rev Whitworth (Graham is unusual for exposing clergymen this way), we see how people abuse one another and come to allow themselves to be abused. The Groves of Eagles more than the later novels has customs which encourage enslaving people in more ways than chattel slavery. It does not go into the kinky sex patterns of the Poldark books (Carrington, a bigamist preying on Clowance’s strength) because the heterosexual patterns are devastating enough.
The research I did into what was known of great apes and how people acquired them (all faithfully portrayed) for Bella persuaded me that Graham was combining his real empathy with isolated alienated people, no matter how twisted the culture had made them (Valentine, product of a rape, a father who would not own him, a dead mother, a violently jealous non-father) and disabled people. Butto, the orangutan was like a disabled person, who again like women in Graham’s novels are so vulnerable to destruction. Graham appears to have read some of the books of the era as well as modern studies of apes.
Two very different kinds of things are desperately needed as sina qua non before anyone can begin to give these novels the kind of respect they deserve. To do this would help gain interest in a new film adaptation. But that’s by-the-bye.
The second is a handbook! Yes, a handbook. Ellis’s new Poldark book is pleasant, and it shows (the map above), he’s read the novels at least a few times. But it’s completely inadequate to what’s needed except as a symbolic reminder of the rich material before us. The first sign a writer has arrived, is respected on some level is the handbook. There is none for Graham. Among other things like literary history it puts things on a visible map. So who knows that a number of Hitchcock movies are adaptations (often misogynistic reversals included) of Graham stories. Another is he’s talked about in literary histories. Graham is ignored in high culture ones and does not make the cut for low culture ones either. Too “tame” (not sufficiently a macho-boy book), too realistic, and too leftist.
I find that I cannot remember many of the characters’ names beyond the really central males and females once I’ve put the novels away for a while. Many readers of Graham would probably like it, might even buy one that was packaged attractively. We need entries on mining, banking in Cornwall, smuggling, the courts, animals, poverty, landowning. Many areas need explanation.
I say second for this kind of thing comes out of the first. There is no space for discussing Graham in his complexity. Lots of great authors punt, are ambiguous, ambivalent, but Graham is in some intensely important areas of our society today. Actually one area he does not punt in is his presentation of disability and medicine.
For example, in the Poldark books Graham suggests that Ross spends the whole night with Elizabeth which would seem to suggest that if the sex was at first rape after a while she did join in, and then he wavers in the books. On the whole and especially towards the later books (when the child Valentine has grown up), he presents the act as rape, partly (I fear) to exonerate Elizabeth from having adulterous longings, but partly we are to take Elizabeth as complicit. It’s said in that he thinks had he showed up in the next week she would have openly gone away with him and he is shocked to see her rage the first time he sees her after her marriage to Warleggan.
A false myth used in books where the “chaste’ or central heroine has sex outside marriage or is rape is that she gets pregnant immediately. This is improbable but is a real stereotype intended to exonerate the woman. It works another way though: if she gets pregnant, the popular idea is that she enjoyed it because to get pregnant you have to have orgasm.
The nightly rapes of Morwenna are another matter. These are clearly profoundly abusive of her. She never walks right after; she has this shuffle. He has crippled her. This is not presented at all in the series; but she and Drake become wholly marginalized characters in the later books. That was a real disappointment to me. When he presents her finally yes he does not fake “healing” but he keeps them away from us. The TV show did not show Rowella properly at all: she is presented by as someone who enjoys sadism and masochism in the parson himself. They were probably very brave to show Demelza committing adultery.
Graham himself does this kind of punting in other areas. In Demelza Ross incites the riot; that’s clear. It’s clear in the talk before the trial, but by the time we are into the later novels this is denied. He colluded but did not incite or he was against it, never imagined a riot would ensure. In Demelza he needs the violence. He’s a real revolutionary a Jacobin who understand violence is what one sometimes has to resort to to overturn an established order. I didn’t go into that in my paper on Liberty but in the discussion afterwards among academics (who are themselves conservative) one women had presented a paper two historical novels which she liked because they showed the rebel hero compromising, not being violent ever, at all.
I really do long to know someone else who can with me begin to create a space in the “republic of letters” wherever, start a different kind of conversation on Graham as well as mini-series than I’ve encountered thus far. All I could think of for myself was 1) try another panel at an 18th century conference on historical fiction; or 2) write something for History Today.
Graham’s books have been cut off from real attention because of his original reception and the scorn still heaped on historical fiction (=women’s romance) and BBC “teatime serials” (a way of bad-mouthing the mini-series). He is also defined as regional, a regional novel and of course he followed his audience. Are you aware that Hitchcock paid him a big sum to leave off Graham’s name on the credits of a number of films that Hitchcock did? That’s in Moral, Tony Lee. Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2005. Filmmakers Series No. 95 which also contains a letter Graham wrote where he reveals his attitudes towards how his books were altered when they became films.
I have wanted to open another listserv on Yahoo — this one on Graham and his fiction, all of it. I would ask that everyone use their real names and make it clear we are not there to worship the first two mini-series — though my hunch is it’s the first that is most beloved. I know all the troubles and am not sure even how to open a list as I inherited all three I have. It can be time-consuming and I don’t have the time right now even to start. But as a future possibility I keep it in mind. I would be trying to see if we can find other people — they are there on that literary board and pop up now and again (rare) on the facebook page too. An odd sign of them is they read the mysteries too. If anyone reading this is someone equally interestd in discussing the books and willing to try for a list-serv of the type I’ve just outlined, please to contact me.