Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

An Arthur Rackham illustration of Undine


How all things come together (with or for me). I’ve embarked on teaching Booker Prize novels: a marketplace niche for good books? I include two historical fictions: J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country and Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient. And today my proposal for teaching a course I’m calling Romancing 18th century historical fiction (scroll down for syllabus) this summer at the same place has now been accepted: the books, Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. The reality for me is both courses and my interest in the Winston Graham Poldark world, Outlander, seem to swirl around the same compelling immersion: historical fiction.

Is this genre just so much pastiche? I hope not because I wrote a good review of Martha Bowden’s fine book on the subject, and it’s been published in a fine periodical I’m proud to appear in, The Intelligencer (NS, Vol 31:1 [March 2017]:42-45). In order to give my essay more circulation, to tell the contents of this book, I’ve placed the essay on academia.edu.


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Bronze Age Tomb in Cornwall

Launceston Gaol, early modern to 19th century prison …

A Syllabus

For a Study Group at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Seven sessions: Wednesdays, 11:50 to 1:15 pm, Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road
Dates: Sept 30th to November 11th
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we’ll read Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark and Demelza, the first two of a twelve novel series, and we’ll watch and compare episodes from the first and second Poldark TV mini-series (1974-7, 2015-present). The first two Poldarks are brilliantly realized regional romances, part of a set of four (the other two, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan) excellently researched historical novels dramatizing issues of concern to a war-torn world; the second trilogy (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, and The Angry Tide, written 1973-1977) dramatizes 1960 and 1970 feminist and political movements; and the second quartet and coda (The Stranger from the Sea, The Miller’s Dance, The Loving Cup, The Twisted Sword, and Bella, 1981-91, 2003), colonialism, war, parliamentary politics, and even animal rights. All though the prisms of the Cornish landscape, history, the industry of mining and business of smuggling, and medicine; and issues of law and (in)justice, poaching and gaming laws, courts and prisons, and class and marital customs, and European wars. The 1970 and the new 2015 series adapt and re-boot the books across 40 years. Graham wrote other historical fiction, one history and travel book (about Cornwall), and many mystery and psychological thrillers, for some of which he won prestigious awards; others were made into famous respected films which helped “make” the careers of the central actors (e.g., Sean Connery in Hitchcock’s Marni; Devid Hemmings in Till and Bluestone’s Walking Stick). We  will treat the novels as serious historical fiction and compare and discuss the films

Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark, leaving fair, Angharad Rees as Demelza climbing up

Clive Francis as a sympathetic troubled Francis Poldark

Required texts: Graham, Winston. Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787 and Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790. They are available in the US in two different editions: NY: Sourcebooks, 2009/10 (RP is 330 pages, D is 374) or NY: PanMacmillan, 2008 (RP is 472 pages, and D is 422).

Click on map to make larger: the imagined map of Poldark country is placed on top of the real Cornwall

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Sept 23: No class as I am unable to be there, but read ahead for the first class, RP, Bk 1, Chs 1-9.
Sept 30: In class: Winston Graham, life & career; what is historical fiction and/or film? Read for next time RP, Bk 1, Chs 10-18, Bk 2, Chs 1-4.
Oct 7: Ross Poldark. For next time read RP, Bk 2, Chs 5-8, Bk 3, Chs 1-8; read also NMoody, “Poldark Country and National Culture.”
Oct 14: Ross Poldark. For next time finish RP, Bk 3, Chs 9-10; and read Demelza, Bk 1, Chs 1-13
Oct 21: Ross Poldark and Demelza. Read for next time, Demela, Bk 1, Ch 14-15; Bk 2, Chs 1-12; read also RMoseley, “‘It’s a wild country … passionate and strange.”
Oct 28: Demelza. The class watches brief clips from the 1975 Poldark; read for next time, Demelza, Bk 2, Chs 3-11, Bk 4, Ch 1, and EMoody, “I have the right to choose my own life.” Online.
Nov 4: Demelza. For next time finish Demelza, Bk 4, Chs 2-11. Read Julie Taddeo’s “‘Why don’t you take her:’ Rape in the Poldark narrative.” It appeared in a book on the BBC costume drama, as about film adaptation. Sent by attachment.
Nov 11: Demelza. The class watches brief clips from 2015 Poldarks; we finish Demelza and I anticipate Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan.

Aidan Turner as Ross sitting among, part of the working mining men

Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, walking and playing with her dog, Garrick

Recommended books (articles sent by attachment):

Graham, Winston .Poldark’s Cornwall. Oxford: Bodley Head, 1983.
————— Poldark, Novels of Cornwall, 1783-1820. London: Panmacmillan, 1924-2003.
—————. Memoirs of a Private Man. London: Panmacmillan, 2003
Hay Douglas, Peter Linebaugh, E. P. Thompson, et alia. Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in 18th century England. NY: Pantheon, 1975.
Marsden, Philip. Rising Ground. London: Granta, 2014.
Moody, Nickianne. “Poldark Country and National Culture,” from Cornwall: The Cultural construction of a Place.
Moody, Ellen. “‘I have the right to choose my own life:’ Liberty in the Poldark Novels,” on-line my website.
Moseley, Rachel. “‘It’s a Wild Country. Wild … Passionate … Strange’: Poldark and the Place-Image of Cornwall,” from Visual Culture in Britain.
Poldark. Dr Christopher Barry, Paul Annett. Writers. Jack Pullman, Paul Wheeler. Perf. Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees, Jill Townsend, Ralph Bates, Paul Curran, Norma Steader, Richard Morahan. BBC/1975-76, 1977-78.
Poldark. Drs. Wm MacGregor, Edward Bazalgette, Writer Debbie Horsfield. Perf. Aidan Turner, Eleanor Tomlinson, Kyle Soller, Ruby Bentall, Jack Farthing. BBC/ITV, 2015-
Porter, Roy and Dorothy. Patient’s Progress: Doctors and Doctoring in 18th century England. Stanford: StanfordUPress, 1989

Further on-line materials:

Authorized updated website on Graham, his life, novels, films.
The Poldark novels, and other fiction, non-fiction and films.
Winston Graham: lists of books, essays and other websites.

Winston Graham and Garrick, still a puppy, at Perranporth Beach

Godolphin House, Cornwall (used as Trenwith, Poldark family home, 1975-76)

Wheal Owles Mine, Penwith, St Just, Cornwall (fallen into desuetude, for far shots of Ross’s Wheal Leisure, 2015)


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” …. to give way to them is to conform to rules set down by the evil-minded … It would be a mistake for you to give life to the story by taking notice of it …” Ross to Jinny, Bk 1, Chapter 14, p 118 in Sourcebook ed

Ross (Robin Ellis) takes Demelza (Angharad Rees) to her first assembly ball (one of several climactic moments in Demelza, From Season 1, Part 6)

Dear Friends and readers,

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been rereading Demelza in the recent beautiful edition published by Source books. They are apparently going to publish as many of the Poldark novels as sales allow. The covers are not appropriate: the first turns Ross Poldark into a saga of the US west, complete with cowboy and wooden house; the second, Demelza, is a bit better with a romance heroine overlooking a cliff and sea, but the landscape is generic green grass, not Cornwall at all.

For a new fresh outline of the plot, see comment.

Rereading Ross Poldark and now Demelza I’m very aware of one important technique in these books. Not a lot happens in any given volume. They move very slowly. I had thought events that occur in Demelza occur in Ross Poldark but no, much less occurs than I thought. Graham will spend say 5 chapters slowly delineating the early growing love and interbonding of Ross and Demelza after marriage, then take them to Trenwith for Christmas as the conclusion of his book. That’s all that happens. So this leaves enormous amounts of time and space for the delineation of character, for dialogue and for just the right amount of tactful references to history. Then when we do have an action sequence or political (recuring someone, an election) or economic (a meeting of men to debate whether to open a mine, where to bank) it’s deeply embedded in a gradual reality. The books do not feel forced or contrived.

I’m almost finished with this novel, the 2nd of the Poldark books. When I’ve done, I’ll probably go on to The Loving Cup, the 10th novel (the 9th is The Miller’s Dance).

This second reading of Demelza has show me why Graham entitled it Demelza. Although it’s not written strictly from her consciousnessness nor does her POV dominate the book — it is again as most of his book, a third person omniscient narrative using free indirect discourse — she is the central linchpin of the book; it’s her activities or deeds that shape the plot-design and what happens to her its climaxes. In the case of Ross Poldark my students though the education of Demelza Carne in that novel resembled that of Cartherine Morland, but there she did not enter the wide world, only a new upper class family in which she had been educated from age 13. Now she must deal with wider politics in several realms.

When I reread Ross Poldark I discovered it’s a slow moving, slowly building novel with no much happening in any particular sequence of chapters. There may be a sudden swift climactic action, but it comes at the end of a slow buildup, and after it we have aftermath and new slow gradualism The texts of the chapters unfold out of the characters. Here’s an outline.

1) Demelza opens with the birth of her child, Julia, and all that swirls around that (the midwife is much more capable than any doctor), and then two christenings, one in which the upper class characters & Ross’s family are invited, and the next day the lower class ones & Demelza’s: as dramatized this makes her the central diptych for she brings these people together, plus her father and stepmother and brothers show up on the wrong day.

Demelza at christening among the ladies

On the second day Keren, the strolling actress is introduced and Mark Daniels who came to this second christening is mesmerized, enthralled and persuades her to marry him.


The disaster of their union is played out in this book: she creates a liasion between herself and Dr Dwight Enys and Mark in crazed hurt, murders her. There is a contrast between Keren and Demelza and Demelza tries to reach Keren to accept the man she married; but Keren of course has married a far poorer, uneducated man.

Demelza talking to Keren

So the Martin-Keren debacle comes out of, is tied to the christening, and also Ross’s need for a surgeon for his new mine and his giving Dwight the gatehouse near the mine, just at the edge of his property and near Mark’s dwelling. And Keren’s story is the under darker side of such a choice as Demelza’s: the woman’s fate is that of her husband; in this book this seems inescapable.

2) The second phase or series of actions of the novel begins after the christening, with Demelza going to Falmouth, to make contact with Captain Blamey in order to foster and engineer a renewed love affair for the sad (Demelza thinks) Verity. At first Blamey is hostile, and when Blamey is brought together with Verity through Demelza’s machinations — a trip to Truro where Blamey and Demelza agree to meet in a shop (in fact they meet in the street because his nerve faltered). Then she is intensely reluctant and moves away; they are caught up in a strike, half-riot so Demelza loses sight of them but by the end Verity has been brought to acknowledge she still wants to marry Blamey, to have another identity and role in the world than sister, aunt.

Verity facing Blamey, admits to desire for her own life

By the end of the novel Verity has run away and desperate as Francis is for funds, when Warleggan comes to bribe him with a gift of 1200 pounds (forgiving one debt and cash for the other) Francis truly thinking that Ross had been go-between again, betrayed Ross by telling Warleggan the names of the men in Ross’s new company. Warleggan could then put the screws on them — loans are called in, property reclaimed — and destroy Ross’s company. It was Francis’s information that allowed this. Francis is frantic to keep believing this and then at the close Demelza coming over to tell it was she, precipates his rage — against himself too.

Ross facing ruin

So Demelza’s second and (to Ross and the Poldark family) disloyal act and loyalty to her gender and sister-friend by a train of events destroys Ross’s company. His intense business for a year is useless and he is thrown back on farming. He refuses still to sell his shares to Warleggan and takes out a new loan to pay through Pearce — refusing to bend to the monopoly. It is his choice to do this (which will lead to smuggling in the next book), but it was Demelza’s interference interacting with the family that inadvertently led to the failure.

Family and business, politics and gender are utterly intertwined in the world.

3) The high point of the novel visually and dramatically is the assembly ball they go to with again Demelza at center, this time as dancing lady. Ross does not want to go because just before he and Dwight had brought Jim Carter out of a prison he had been moved to and he had died.

Ross is incensed at his class and his world. Later, after the ball he again disobeys the law by helping Mark Daniel to escape the law when he murders his adulterous wife, Karen.

He exposes Sanson, a nephew of the Warleggans. At that ball Francis sees Blamey and again Blamey tries to conciliate and again Francis won’t. So there is nothing for it but Verity must run away or give up her life to Francis’s prejudices and needs.

At the ball too Demelza’s inability to cope with upper class abrasive males and sneering females leaves her vulnerable:

Meeting Hugh Bodrugan and his stepmother Connie

Sneered at by Lady Teague who asks where her father is, Demelza says “truth is he’s far more particular about the company he keeps nowadays …”

It’s too much for her as a non upper class woman with no high self-esteem and background of training to cope. The cost registered in her face:

A parallel in Francis’s (here insulted by Margaret, the prostitute who has now married); Francis learns Demelza is a soul-mate for him:

Ross apologizes later on for deserting her and she forgives. (A repeat of this will happen in London in Stranger from the Sea, whereby she does not again go into high class society.

4) Finally another decision of hers, to be a nurse to Francis, Elizabeth and Geoffrey Charles, partly because she feels she took from them Verity leads to her sickness, the death of Julia, Ross’s despair and then identifying with the working classes utterly and leading the high conflagration food riot at the end of the book.

Demelza come to nurse Francis

Their baby, Julia, ill

A sub or the secondary plot-design of the novel dramatizes Ross’s perpetual kicking against the laws and customs of his world directly while Demelza works against them indirectly — both are pro-friend, pro-decency, and if family members will let them by not insisting on amoral behavior on their part, pro-family. This is by the end seen to be attached to his male friendships and companions whom he is loyal to: lower class, Jim and Mark, then upper for bank loans, and then at the end Captain MacNeil who warns him he must not get caught disobeying the law nor push it too far. MacNeil chases down smugglers on the beach and at the same time, Mark Daniels so knows Ross has been instrumental in freeing Mark.

Ross amid the people, helping them

Captain MacNeil, acting for the state

MacNeil and Ross identify as ex-soldiers who both fought in North America, but their allegiance is in the one case to the state and law (MacNeil); in the other, to friends, love, family, principles (Ross).


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