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Archive for June 10th, 2018


Small still from 1977 Poldark, Episode 8: Hugh Armitage and Demelza Poldark becoming lovers in the marginalized rural landscape by the sea of Cornwall

Friends,

I noticed tonight many hits on my blogs and essays on the Poldark novels, especially those which provided the equivalent episodes of the older 1970s Poldark to the one aired tonight on BBC: from the conclusion of The Four Swans (1977 Episode 8) and the opening of The Angry Tide (1977 Episode 9). So I’ve provided a couple of stills from this material for the opening of this blog


Elizabeth telling Warleggan she will leave him if he does not stop his insane possessive spying on her, and imposing a crazed anxiety and coldness which is ruining her life (1977 Poldark Episode 8)

I regret to say I have no summary or stills from the start of the fourth season. As someone who lives outside the UK, I cannot as yet access the show nor the BBC iplayer: a friend is working on that to see if we can use VPN; another friend is recording the show for me in Ireland and will send the DVDs as he can — it will not be immediately.

But I thought I would return to Winston Graham tonight. I have over these several weeks since April (when I at long last gave over trying to write an academic style paper on Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf as “modernist” biographers) read carefully one short story and some six of Graham’s early novels, all belonging to the the popular novel formulaic kind of suspense, mystery, thriller, detective, murder type I wrote about last week, this six first written before the breakthrough (as I’ll call it) of Ross Poldark (1945). In two cases I have only a later revision, and in one both the early novel and later revision:

The House with Stained Glass Windows (Graham’s first published novel), 1934: a barely readable juvenilia: it’s as if someone took the silly Clue game and made a novel out of it, but it has recognizable elements of typical Graham amalgams, especially a sort of mentally disabled neurotic man (very over done in this first attempt)

“The Medici Earring,” 1935, a short story, reprinted 1965 and 1971: All three versions differ; I discover tonight that I have the 1935 version (which appeared in an issue of the Windsor Magazine for that year). I read the last, the 1971 version (which appears in The Japanese Girl, a collection of short stories). I dislike the tone of the 1971 version, that of a mild sarcastic male, the sort of thing popular in smart-alecky detective stories. Especially offensive is the attitude voiced towards the girl in the story: she is delectable. While it could be this is ironic (on the part of the implied author too) since surely we are not to like this man as he stole the earring and has lied to everyone. However, in other of these suspense stories and many many of them by men especially women are treated as objects available for sex. Here the implied author is quite hidden — I assume we are not to like this awful man but I’m not sure the point is moral exposure.

The Dangerous Pawn, 1937: effective in its own right, at moments in the conversations it reminded me of Norman Douglas’s South Wind, better than the 12th Poldark, Bella, evocative descriptions of Scilly Islands, with probably revealing autobiographical elements. Four opening chapters take place in India (with flashbacks to the UK) and Singapore, and Graham critiques the Raj from the point of view of a white subaltern. The hero is in class (like Paul Scott’s Merrick in his Raj Quartet) and when he takes the hit or blame for the neglect of a major dam, he is ejected; he goes to Singapore to try to obtain a similar subaltern British position, but is instead lured to become a wealthy man’s private secretary and sub-manager of a corporation in London. Eventually the novel and its hero finds a true core in Cornwall and the islands just off it — a complicated plot. Many of the elements found in the Poldark novels are in this book in a different amalgam. A secondary hero anticipates the character of Valentine Warleggan fascinatingly because of the same name and personality resemblances, and he is not a character twisted into self-hatred like the Valentine of the Poldark books. Part of the reason it is superior is it is not structured as a murder mystery.

The Giant’s Chair, 1938, unfortunately completely re-hauled into a much poorer Woman in the Mirror, 1975: streamlined modernized, it loses all the charms of the first gothic-like 1930s style, heavily descriptive and mythic haunted Wales book, also heavy with indirect autobiography. I recognize disturbing caricatures of Graham’s own mother and his self as in an older strong woman and a disabled son. I found myself involved with the characters, even liking a couple of them. The older version has as back story a poignant romantic love vignette. The later book has some remarkable lines, it’s more coherent and pointed, but much of the atmosphere of the first, all the beauty of the love story is gone and at the end we are confronted with a sordid melodramatic murder. It is remarkable to me (and significant) that Graham later in life cannot tell what is good in his writing and what is bad. I assume he was embarrassed by the earlier book and/or seduced into imitating what is the going style (so he intuits) that sells.

Night Journey, my copy printed in 1975, a somewhat revised 1966 version of an earlier 1941 book of the same title: it put me in mind of Graham Greene and LeCarre school because the book is an attempt to reveal the amorality of global spying during WW2; I’ve not read the earlier where there might be more specific autobiographical parallels in the characters. In this one the protagonist is pressured into facilitating the killing of someone without any trial, just on supposition. (So it anticipates what is openly done in the US drone killings today). The love interest is completely meretricious (phony). At the opening there is brief entry of a character who seemed to me to anticipate how Ross Poldark might appear to others. Bleak, pessimistic, self-contained.


Ross pressured by Bassett into seeking out to arrest and try (and eventually hang) someone as a scapegoat because he participated in some food riots (1977 Poldark Episode 9)

Merciless Ladies, 1979, a somewhat revised version of an earlier 1944 book: with an interesting pretense that the narrator is considering a biography of the hero, who is kept at a distance, intelligent details about schools of art in the era, court-trial scenes, like Dangerous Pawn it seems hardly a mystery type until near the end when it falls off badly into a scene where the narrator kills one of the two vicious women (the “merciless ladies” of the unfortunate coy title, not atypical of the era), presented as justifiable. It is a rare book of this kind to sympathize with those who participated in the strike of 1926, to criticize fascism, to be anti-war. There is a thrust towards solitude as a way to recover and sustain integrity and strength. Among the more apparently virtuous characters there is a a distaste for the publicity, for public self-selling. I have not read the first version and more may perhaps be learned about the author’s motives or aims or dissatisfaction with the first by comparing the two.

The Forgotten Story, 1945, like Dangerous Pawn, effective in its own right, it combines a realization of Cornwall in 1898 in an anxiety-producing story, with a young boy narrator, and an ominous dense woman who poisons people who get in her way. It contains one of Graham’s numerous semi-rape or at least some kind of sexual assault scenes between a husband and wife where the husband is presented as justified; in this one he apologizes and the depiction of the heroine is done to show us how little opportunity for self-realization, power, independence, liberty a young woman of middling status had in this early era (and perhaps in the 1940s too), which allows the novel’s sexual subplot between the husband and wife to be read against the grain. I became very anxious for two of the characters, really cared what happened to them. Atmosphere and evocation of Cornwall, the sea, the world of ships very good. I wrote a full account of this novel some years ago. I didn’t realize then the extent to which this book conforms to mystery and Cornish subgenres combined.


Drake now a blacksmith and Geoffrey Charles talking (1977 Poldark Episode 7)

These are not all Graham’s early pre-Poldark novels. The 1931 Black Beard (a title which reveals its stance, one might wish ironically but I doubt it) is lost or destroyed; 1935 Into the Fog, The Riddle of John Rowe; 1936 Without Motive; 1939 Keys of Chance; 1942 My Turn Next. None of these are available in the Library of Congress, which is the major research library available to me without traveling. There are two early or pre-Poldark plays, the first not available to me without traveling: 1936 Seven Suspected, the 1938 Forsaking All Others is lost (or destroyed). But I have managed to obtain a copy of Strangers Meeting, 1939, which is said to be a novelization of Forsaking All Others; Strangers Meeting is set in Cornwall. I have now  read it and it is a good book of the type. (I’ll write of it separately).  A last sort of pre-Poldark is No Exit (1940) begun after Graham had started Ross Poldark.  There is a copy of No  Exit in the Library of Congress near me. Graham’s works for print and private papers are located in the complicated situation of different libraries: one is in Cornwall, another Reading; research may be done in the British Library in London. The scripts for the early Poldark series and probably the new ones are in the BBC archives library.

There are three streams of popular material which make up the matter of Graham’s writing: this suspense genre; regional Cornish stories and writing; and historical novels and romance. I make a separate category for stories set in Cornwall as it does seem to me that the Cornish setting leads to a certain kind of text: I’ve seen this happen in other authors who lived or just visited Cornwall; it is true of Anthony Trollope’s remarkably good 19th century story, “Malachi’s Cove,” adapted into an effective BBC movie.

He did write screenplays, and very much interested himself, played an active role where he could in the film adaptations of his books — of which I have counted 9 (if you count all the the 1970s serial dramas as one film adaptation and all serial dramas since 2015 as another). So in 1945 he wrote a script for a film, Take My Life, with Valerie Taylor (this exists in a 1947 DVD), which he rewrote as a novel: I have both a copy of the DVD and a copy of the novel, which I have read but a while back and must reread. Take My Life as a project occurs around the time of Ross Poldark and Demelza.

I’m writing this blog in the same spirit I wrote many of my blogs on film adaptations of Austen, on Woolf and Johnson and other topics over the years — to see where I am and work out a few thoughts in brief blog-essay, which I hope is coherent enough for the reader to gain some knowledge too. Graham does convey throughout characters who involved themselves in businesses and gov’t and he writes about this kind of experience, as well as different areas in the world knowledgeably. So he traveled. There is an assumption of understanding of social life — though he presents it as dysfunctional. The earlier books show himself and his mother; he presents the Demelza type from early on. The more intriguing or less moral female characters (who are not vicious) are yet to come (Elizabeth Chynoweth say or the amoral heroine of Angell, Pearl and Little God, 1970).

I now realize how much of the suspense material is taken over into the Poldarks and how the concerns in the suspense material exist across the Poldark matter. There are to me deeply disquieting misogynisic patterns across the whole oeuvre: a woman is repeatedly killed or assaulted or raped by a man and the act is justified; his famous Marnie belongs to this (1963), and lent itself to a Hitchcock voyeuristic mean-minded nightmare; Graham’s later favorite novel (he said), After the Act (1965) is about the intense regret of a man who has murdered his older wife.  The cheap nature of this book, its thinness and cover sicken me: 1978 The Tumbled House.  I feel ill looking at the packaging of the later Cameo (1988, a thorough reworking of the 1942 My Turn Next), mercifully it’s shortTitles turn me off:  Merciless Ladies (mentioned above); 1998 The Ugly Sister.  Those who write in this genre do not have me and my woman’s taste or feminism in mind. Across all the fiction I will say that Graham’s texts come most alive  and the best of his psychological writing comes out when he is writing of Cornwall and marginalized rural places nearby.

I don’t want this blog to go on for too long so shall stop listing with notes at this point; after 1945 when the Poldark novels start, during the twenty year hiatus between the fourth of the first quartet (Warleggan, 1953) and the first of second trilogy (The Black Moon, 1973), and during the writing of the later quartet and final coda to the Poldarks (Nos 8-12, Stranger from the Sea through Bella), he composed a number of short stories, numerous suspense novels, three more historical novels other than the Poldarks, travel or descriptive regional writing, one of which is partly a memoir and an autobiography, to say nothing of scattered journalism. I have read some of this material but not with notes and care so will make my way through these slowly as well as what of the non-Poldark films once again.


Old photo of St Ives as harbor and art colony

From my reading thus far I am becoming persuaded that the approach I must take is through the genres and Cornwall. I wanted to write a biography but that will take travel to libraries so must not count on it as a central nexus and I have learned Graham’s son is far from eager. So despite a real distaste for some of this material — like Anthony Trollope I just can’t get myself to care what happened at 2:15 on Monday at the stile nor do I read to discover what happens next — I’ll have to get to know the typical characteristics of it, and pick out what I can like of it. I have made a list of such novels to go through. Previous old favorites of mine of the mystery-murder type were Umberto Eco’s Il Nome della Rosa and (believe it or not) Antonia Fraser’s Quiet as a Nun. For spy stories I’ve read a number of LeCarre, also Graham Greene. I know from teaching, film watching and novels which mix realism with the mystery genre, as well as a few masters that it lends itself to serious social criticism, and since Hammett socially aware books. I have loved Daphne DuMaurier and films set in Cornwall so hope to enjoy exploring that vein. I have no list for more romance fiction or Cornish stories as yet. Historical fiction and romance happily I’ve read a good deal of and love. I have no working title any more (it was Winston Graham, Cornwall and the Poldark matter) as I have seen I shall have to change my perspective to include this suspense material yet write sympathetically.

Ellen

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