Dear friends and readers,
Would you believe this time I have had to cancel my second class? I was summoned by the City of Alexandria Court system, then called, and then left standing for jury duty. Two days gone.
So as I did last week, I am again putting my lecture notes on line and hoping to meet with my class on the following Monday and asking the class to read on through the second third of the novel. I preface this blog with one of my favorite shots of Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark, by this time Warleggan (second season, 1977-78). Perhaps it will help my class envision her. The expression on the actress’s face is in a less-guarded moment. When I was on the Graham message board, Elizabeth’s name was my pseudonym (though I never hid behind it), this image my gravatar. Her character is a complex central presence in all 12 books even after she vanishes from its stage (The Angry Tide, Book 7).
Last week I covered Graham’s life, career, and three perspectives one could use to understand how Winston Graham came to write the Poldark novels in the way he did: he was an outsider to the elite establishment of England when he was young, he identified with the underdog, the vulnerable, ordinary people, and he developed a deep attachment to Cornwall and interest in the past. I presented A Forgotten Story as a twin to Ross Poldark, a kind of dark mirror in which we see the same landscape, movement into the past, type characters (Patricia as a Verity-cum-Demelza), patterns of analogous events and trope (interest in rape, here boyhood), with both books still having an undertow of conventionality.
I thought before starting to discuss Ross Poldark together I’d ask if anyone else has read any of these books or others by Graham? Then say how I came to read and to love these books and ask how you found the first third of Ross Poldark.
The fantastic success of the first mini-series in the mid-1970s had made me to want to watch it by the 2000s. I had begun to publish on films, especially film adaptations of great books, and so bought a digitalized DVD and watched the first episodes – maybe 1-4. While I was charmed (especially with Robin Ellis), I felt that the series was somehow leaving out so much, particularly the background history, and had more depths to the characters (especially Francis Poldark). I felt something come through from the mini-series which I was missing.
So I bought the 1970s little volume with the picture of the coast and left-over mine shaft, all in green) as the cheapest I could get, not thinking I would really like them. I looked at a first edition and saw it was presented as see this past place through a window:
The Poldark novels still don’t have a high reputation – as most historical fiction and romance today still doesn’t even if it gets prizes like the Booker (Mantel’s Wolf Hall). When they are not the target of prestigious coteries, they may be derided as swashbuckling or boys’ adventure stories or bodice rippers and “romance” (use as a term of contempt). Far from this, I found Ross Poldark to have real depths of perception for the characters, an author who wanted to delve a usable past to show us where we come from and talk to us about our present through this guise or framing. Politically and economically and socially serious books — in the Victorian-Edwardian tradition.
I kept reading them almost addictively – as I once did Trollope’s Palliser novels while I was watching the 1970s Palliser series on PBS on a black-and-white TV. I had read Trollope before, he had a high reputation, as one of the Victorian great novelists. I read through to Book 10 (The Loving Cup) and then turned back to the 1970s mini-series.
As I re-watched and went on, I saw the differences, some flaws, but also how well the film-makers had done it, that some of the decisions they made though they weakened and made stereotypical the characters were great dramatically, particularly the sequence in the film where Demelza seeks an abortion; the whole sequence in the film unlikely but appealing to people in the 1970s, and the ending of the first season, the 15th hour where the people of the district rise in rebellion against ruthless enclosure, destruction of their property – the 1790s in England mirrored the revolution in America and France, only it was savagely put down by Pitt. And that through their use of Cornwall itself, where they filmed, what they filmed, the opening and closing credits, the music, plus the scripts for nuanced scenes and actors who fit the roles as people imagined them they had reached the level of a mythic product.
This is a little different from most people who love the Poldark books recently – since the 1970s my experience is most people watch the series first and then read the novels. They thus read the novels through the series and they don’t think of the real immediate context of World War Two, nor do they look at the historical context of 1780s and 90s. They are willing to admit to a romance of Cornwall, and treat the novels almost as a invitation to a tourist and to be sure they are redolent of Cornwall – but about the particulars, the mining, the fishing, the land, the politics, and later in Demelza the smuggling and riots over abysmal poverty and exploitations, and then again in Jeremy Poldark, the politics, courts, and all sorts of things that are historically accurate and I find wonderfully well done are not much discussed. Our four essays (one by me) include one on Cornwall (point to it on the syllabus), two on the history (mine and Nickianne Moody – no relation though she also writes on popular books about medicine and medical films and I do too), and one on a novel theme connected to today: rape in the Poldark novels.
So my idea as I said in my blurb is to cover the novels of course but also go into these contexts. We’ll watch a little of the mini-series which closely mirrors parts of Demelza, and one rousing piece mirroring Jeremy Poldark – the scavenger riot, how it came about, the smuggling and why– but as ways of visualizing the books and enjoying film adaptation and its pleasures. I do long to go to Cornwall, to visit it for a couple of weeks because the series is spot on with the ways the film-makers film it.
In Poldark’s Cornwall (I’ll bring next time to share the pictures), when he turns to his novels, Graham presents strongly the reality that a historical novel is the vision of the writer (p. 148). “If there is no personal view, there is no art.” He knows that historians downgrade the historical novel because it colors or shapes history. He does not himself go on to say historians do the same.
Briefly, the downgrading happened at the turn of the century – early twentieth. In the Victorian period historical novels were valued more than novels set in present time. They were thought harder; they were seen as richly political books about serious issues, and were written mostly by men. That’s part of what happened. Women began to write historical novels and being women they did change the genre to have a strong element of love, subjective life and these books began to be derided. Daphne DuMaurier, another Cornish addict, is not really respected today, but she has had such a strong success that at least she is not erased from histories of historical fiction. Then when men wrote them – like Patrick O’Brien, these came to be seen as boys adventure stories; politics were omitted and all you had it was said was scenes like that where Ross Poldark beats out the Carne father and brothers in the first third of Ross Poldark. Boys’ magazines featured these kinds of stories, and to make them palatable to families buying magazines sex was presented somewhat childishly, not with real adult depth and understanding.
It is also true that the sceptical disillusioned philosophies of the early 20th century deeply distrusted the idea that we can know the past or put together a narrative which at all reflects this. Ironically Graham’s fiction shares this disillusion, but he does not work it into his story’s action and writes historical fiction in an old-fashioned coherent narrative, depth psychological-biographical memories way. The past is another country; they did things differently there, and books that are respected take this relativithy and unknowingness and subjecivity strongly into account and use it.
To turn to the specific types of historical fiction, Graham described and his defense.
Graham says: “if he [the historical novelist] is good enough he creates a world of his own which the reader comes to inhabit and finds it comparable with life rather than identical with it.” He also works as hard as he can to make his fiction accurate enough without making it a wooden historical school survey in disguise. He says that in his autobiography – I quoted it in my first lecture.
Graham divides the kind into three types: those which use actual historical personages as chief characters (I Claudius); second where historical personages are substantial figures but main characters are fictional (Scott); third where the characters are “entirely, or almost entirely fictitious” (Stevenson, and of course his own; so too Margaret Mitchell I’d say). He says in the literature there is a tendency to rate the first and second types much higher than the third and this is “pretentious rubbish.” Fine novels, works of art, and truths about history occur in all three.
There is nowadays a fourth type: the historical novel which features a marquee character. The use of famous fictional characters out of copyright. Sometimes an author becomes a famous fictional character. So Sherlock Holmes might show up in a fiction set in the 1890s; Jane Austen becomes a fictional character in mystery stories.
What I really like are the final paragraphs in this section (p. 149). Human beings have not changed “but their reactions to life patterns” have and do, and the writer must understand and try to transmit these to the reader. There must be geographical truth too as setting is often essential to the art of the historical novel.
Of enormous importance is to “select” what historical fact you use. I paraphrase him here (quoting some of his words too): You must do a lot of intense homework and reading. It’s” tedious to enumerate all the sources” of the Poldark books, long hours of research to illuminate this or that event, into “old newspapers, travel books at the time, parochial history, manuals, autobiographies,” contemporary fictions. He then goes over a whole slew of events in the first few novels which are rooted in history and business and economics and politics and geology (p. 149). We’ll come back to this bit by bit as the novels call for it.
He says there is “the opposite risk, that of becoming too preoccupied with history. One can so easily detect the midnight oil, the desire to instruct. But novels are about life.” So even if you are “reluctant,” once you have “discovered something at great trouble, not to make the most of it, resist that. Writing historical novels are a recurrent discipline where you use only what is relevant to the moment of the living fiction.” What is not relevant is irrelevant. (p. 150). Here is the key to difference of writing wooden stilted books and living breathing ones.
Do people here like historical novels? Anyone? Do you like films set in historical times? Can you say why?
For today you were to read the first third; a brief outline-summary which assumes the reader has read the first third of Ross Poldark:
Elizabeth Chynoweth is important here, in this opening part and over the arc of all twelve books she is significant though she literally drops out at the end of book 7 (The Angry Tide); the taking in of Demelza, the first phase of Verity’s relationship with Captain Blarney (later renamed Blamey) so maybe Graham had ambivalent feelings about Blamey as wife beater, destroyer, and ex-alcoholic; Ross’s first attempts to secure a place and way of life once again on his land, the relationship with the Martins and Carters and his workers in general and with the gentry of which he is one. Personally he is much more comfortable with his tenants and mine workers, but he does have some deep friendships with gentry and members of his family. For my first online blog about this book I called Ross, the Revenant, and later, the abiding Renegade. Politically speaking he’s in French terms, a Girondist, a moderate reformer who wants a truly constitutional monarchy and representation in parliament in England and France.
That’s more liberal than the usual Whig: it is very much Fox’s position. Charles James Fox, famous head of the Whigs, never became prime minister but had power almost like it. Fox and Pitt are referred to: arch rivals with Pitt the Tory reactionary and Fox your liberal Whig. I’ve a review of a biography of Fox: David Powell‘s a man of the people: Fox as a man of genuine open-mindedness, real toleration and liberalism – Fox too (like Ross) was very unstereotypical in some parts of his lifestyle; Fox even married a woman who had been a prostitute, Ross is not as daring in next week’s chapters but he is doing something similar when he takes Demelza in
Prologue: Joshua and Charles Poldark and Joshua’s death.
Why is it effective to begin this way? Pp 1-10. Read the first paragraph or so.
I like the book for its tone and characters and outlook. What kinds of things in the chapter help immerse us in the earlier time? Details of the setting which are not overdone. How about the relationship of Charles and Joshua? What is it? Who is Charles? Note how Graham slips in the history of the family, Ross’s boyhood so naturally. Of course the old man would remember back. You can work out the ages of all the major characters precisely. Ross was 10 when his mother died; he was the younger son, and he is 23 when he comes home.
Details come at opening of Chapter 4, p 66; we can begin to work out a family tree.
The level of people in the community and individuals who are interesting and believable emerge quickly. Note that Verity is the only one that has visited. Note Charles is embarrassed to talk about what has been happening.
What is troubling Joshua at this point? What does Charles hope for? What does Joshua count on?
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. The younger man dies before the older; sense is he has lived richly and used himself up. But he has hurt others – world uttelry interdependent. When one man dies, it changes everyone, they may seem to be enacting the same roles but they are not. That’s one them of A Forgotten Story when Joe Veal dies – certainly wnen the boy, Anthony, loses his mother. (For those who have read the whole book, Ross, a revenant everyone thought dead.)
Opening chapters the carriage ride, pp 11-17 – again why is this a good device in a fiction? Note attention paid to weather, to the feel of the air, to all the objects around us. Why does Graham bring in a narrow mean character like Rev. Halse? There are people who don’t have a strong sense of self-esteem against this man.
What is his attitude towards Ross. He was insubordinate. How does Halse treat the American war? As a game.
What are some of the details we are told immediately about Ross? Taciturn, withdrawn, does not give himself away. He is lame.
Ross does not go home directly, but stops off first at a notary, a lawyer, very important man in the time, Nathaniel Pearce, pp 14-17 — he kept documents, if Ross wants to assert his reality, his place in the community, he’s got to have documents that give him legitimacy as well as property. Now this relationship is pleasant, not hostile, but Pearce like many people doesn’t work hard and does not take seriously what does not directly concern him. Pearce’s loyalty as we will eventually learn is not strong to his clients, but himself first. Nothing was left but the land and house and one non-working mine – the wondrous thing about Cornwall is people found they were walking on rising (neolithic stones and cliffs and waterways) and payable ground. Mining goes back to pre-history; we find trade routs from Cornwall to the Mediterranean. We’ll come back to this. I’ll have another short lecture like the one on historical fiction for each of our topics as well as books to recommend and online sites if anyone interested.
He comes to Trenwith and discovers he happens upon the engagement party of Elizabeth and Francis Poldark, the heir to the best property ? Pp 18-20. A powerful realization of these people – we believe in them all – or I do. Graham is big on aphorisms which capture ideas that are pungent; “Ill usage makes the sweetest of us vicious,” p 16. We might remember that ourselves today in reading about what others do in the news.
He discovers he had been presumed dead, the young woman he loved, was engaged to, is now engaged to the family heir, Francis. The Choakes, doctor and foolish wife. The Chynoweths, Mrs is eager to link her daughter to the safe heir of the family. After all this guy has gone off. What is Francis and Ross’s relationship to start off with – it was good and meaningful – the incident of Francis falling into the water anticipates and foreshadows much that is to come. What happens? Pp 40-46.
What do we learn about Elizabeth? I suggest that she is weak, swayed by a desire for security, not liking violence, not liking risk – she was portrayed very negatively in comparison to the character in the book as developed. She is a stickler for convention herself – how dare you speak about my mother this way? p. 12 at the wedding. Elizabeth is the type who will lie because it’s her mother; the book stands up for people who prefer to tell the truth or act according to it. She would not have taken a beaten waif in; she’d care more about her own troubles; she’d not have seen Jim Carter as a person with rights like herself.
And then home again home again, p 26: at last. Ross feels deeply the satisfaction pp 27-29 and yet so sick. What has happened? His house and land have been let go horribly. Very important characters in the early novels: Jud and Prudie Paynter. Who are they?
It may seem as if Jud treated with utter contempt and his derisory view of the world not accepted; but as book progresses Jud shows deeper loyalties than caring for a house when the chips are down, and his view of the world is partly strongly validated. The world; Taint fair, taint just, taint right.
Chapter three, the world of Elizabeth and local aristocracy contrasted to working people – Jud and Prudie one type, a woman seen, his heart leaps: it’s Verity. P 34. What kind of person is Verity? Her relationship with Ross. My college students called her a female Ross. Does that seem right in some way?
I love the scene of them walking along on the hill, pp. 35-37. “They reached the edge of the cliff … “ It would help more than anything if she were to come and be with him, befriend him – 37. What counts in life is before us beautifully.
He uses the phrase “rising ground,” each of the Martins are shown in their social and economic roles . P 39 .What is Mrs Martin worried over? Reuben Clemmov is in effect beginning to stalk Jinny, spaller – she works on the surface lighter work separately out ore from junk, washing it, shaping it to some extent
Then Francis apologetic, wants to make Ross understand — but Ross can’t, p 44 – too fierce. But also knows deep pain, p 53 – it’s the death in his heart he feels. Engagements were understood to include a certain level of sex and we are left to guess what that level was. The word “virginal” is used of Elizabeth’s looks, but it’s not clear because they both know they went farther in emotion and physical life than that. Ross is partly responsible for this foreshadowing of Francis’s fate
Pp. 45-54- the wedding, the types there. What do they do? A cock fight. We see how carelessly cruel people can be – Warleggan’s cock gets a claw in its head and he does not allow it to die but to suffer agonies p 52. Aunt Agatha unexpectedly shows appreciation of this.
Our first look at the Warleggans, p 53 – what a name.
Chapter 5, pp 55-68 – the importance of this assembly is that here Ross hits rock bottom for the first time, a nadir in which he looks out at the world deeply bitterly and asks himself in effect if this is where he wants to be. He comes up with no, and he’ll give life alone as a farmer at first a go, and goes out to market and there meets Demelza – phase two — she is like a stray kitten rescued.
The mini-series did try to show this but they didn’t show the woman Margaret properly – they romanticized her and Ross. She is what she is, surviving as best she can and hangs on to Ross as she knows he is in need of something
Verity has become central to his existence for now and she asks a favor, she needs someone to take her, he drifts into old ways, what else is there? We see his deep camaraderie with men of lower class origins, with physical world, pp 57-58. What’s good about this is again it gives Graham a chance to make this world vivid, fleshly, full of water, sand, fish, people – the lower orders.
Then courteous fun – or dancing – the surface. The troubles people have is just ours: Verity can’t think what to talk of, she hasn’t got small talk – so her pigs and poultry are no more available than Blarney’s sailing or talk of mines –, p 61. The details are from historical research but they have been used as if the people were here and now.
Again Ross means to be nice to a girl who appeals to him because not so full of herself, seems sweet, but what he is not thinking of is how he will be grabbed – marriage is a woman’s career. He cannot see that in fact Ruth is tenacious and has an aggressive nasty streak – that’s why she stands out in part, pp 63-65
The same goes for Margaret’s coming up to Ross. He was not going to go with her until Elizabeth arrives, and it’s with Francis and Warleggans from their fancy house. Ross can’t cope with seeing this. He deserts poor Verity but luckily she was planning to stay with a local woman friend. P 67
Second phase: the coming of Demelza: extraordinary: how he saves her out of decent feeling, and how she almost loses out because she won’t desert her dog. In fact she was involved in the physical mayhem because she was protecting Garrick.
Garrick was the name of a beloved dog owned by the Grahams who had part of its tail missing. Very hard to film before computer enhancement. I’m just bowled over by the truthful depction of humanity from pp 70-84 – the best, the worst, what we often see.
How they organize themselves into different levels of sale. What people do to entertain themselves – it includes cruel freak shows.
The core the meeting with the child and his behavior to her – she has never had such disinterested kindness before. Now we get a second consciousness. Up to now we have had Ross and Graham our narrator, now we begin to see the world out of Demelza’s eyes. A child but a child who is smart and has known the worst, pp 82-84
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.
Elizabeth is characterized as inadequate in deep way: no you must put the child back, you don’t want trouble. Right .A wonderful aphorism later by Ross is if you allow the world’s prudence to control you you won’t live right – Elizabeth again and again will make these sort sof choices. Are they so bad?
When he fights the Carnes, he is fighting this world, the foul beating man but also getting out his anger – kraken wrath at Elizabeth having said she does not love him. Well she doesn’t. Much later – in Warleggan he tells Demelza she is incapable of much love of anyone – she will love her son by Francis. She does not have the depths to help Francis become the man he could have been – his father despised and controlled him, and she sits at a distance, accepting him on the surface qualities, appreciating his kindness and understanding but not loving it and reciprocating.
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 too – and she does. But her nature and time and Ross’s eventual business success – -begins in Warleggan win out.
Chapters 8-10 bring us Demelza growing up, a depictions of Jim Carter whose good and true nature wins Ross over too much, and his attempt to help them. This comes out of a slow build up of a depiction of mining which I’ll give a lecture on next week or the one after.
He visits Treneglos to see if he can work the mine that is on property lines they share, p 102. His one hope is to find copper or tin in a mine:
Demelza growing up, p 104-5 –- we see this not from her point of view because Graham wants us to see things she cannot as yet. She is gifted intellectually and musically; she is optimistc, she throws herself into the lives of others and makes all better for all.
What is the story of Jim Carter’s life – father died young and because of this he could not go to school, and now he is getting a bad disease. Pp 106-7: future was fearful – he knew death could come, but now without help he cannot afford to marry. He would be a protection against Clemmow
Ends on the beginning of Verity’s tragic years: We will 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). 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 we shall see it is often a case 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
For anyone interested here is my first blog essay on the whole book: Ross Poldark, Revenant