Dear friends, readers, and class,
This is a continuation of the lecture I wrote as a blog, Ross Poldark, the first phase, which takes into account my first blog on the book, Ross Poldark, Revenant, and on the 1970s mini-series, An 18th century Cornish Che Guevara figure. I’ve added a few thoughts on the first three episodes of Debbie Horsfield (script-writer and “creator”), Ed Bazalgette (director) and Eliza Meller (producer) of the 2015 Poldark which have not quite covered this first of the 12 novels. The stills are mostly from the 1970s mini-series as all I have for the recent one are a few promotional stills, which typically distort what are the characteristic images in any film.
Last time we emphasized the salient characteristics of Ross, which included the above categories, a sense of his rootedness in costume drama of the 1940s (Stewart Grainger) as well as his historical conditions: he is not the heir to the Poldark estate, Francis Poldark, the son of the oldest son, Charles, is. He thus comes home to a small inheritance of a ruined mine, home, neglected property, the young woman he had loved and thought himself pledged to engaged to that heir. He had been assumed dead, out of the way. To this I’d add he is an ordinary man, somber, serious, whose troubles are those that anyone of the 1940s and again 1970s might identify with today: he wants to integrate himself into his community, make a respectable living, is a responsible man with a depth of intelligence. His desire to do some good is what particularly dates the norms to the 1940s after WW2 and again before the Thatcher era.
Ross Poldark is a book speaking to the later 1940s: Graham is looking for a usable past he could find restoration in; carving out value system for the mid-20th century.
Ross Poldark and Demelza may be seen as coming of age novels: our hero returns home from the wars, which he escaped his youthful rebellions to, and now he tries to make himself a life, to marry where he will be comfortable, a woman who provides a household (his choice to marry and Demelza too partly fits in with the first part of Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians where she depicts the male of the 18th century eager to marry a genuine home-maker, to begi his career as a respectable male). I wrote a separate blog on mining (& smuggling) in Cornwall with particular reference to Ross’s thwarted heroic efforts. In the first she grows up: she comes age 11-14 into the first minimally decent stable surroundings and people who treat her in a civilized manner since her mother’s death. In the second she too comes of age, partly by finding where she differs from Ross, who by the end of the first novel has become an unquestioned parent-husband-master, someone who opinion of her is all encompassing, who is her. She is to learn he has feet of clay. Jud and Prudie are in effect her surrogate parents.
We omitted talk of Jim Carter, with Jinny, important presences and characters in Ross Poldark and Demelza. On some deep level Ross identifies with him, feels for him (as Ross does not quite for Mark Daniels). Jim is of the wretched of the earth, has been given little chance to develop his gifts, and has not had the individual esteem to refuse to return to the mine when he, like his father, develops lung sickness; still he does not make enough money as a tributer and poaches to put food on the table his manliness demands. This is not to blame him, but we are to see that he is not a flawless character. Jinny is not really happy with him; he will not listen to her greater prudence. He knows how dangerous poaching is (no matter how unjust the laws); she becomes subject to rape and even death when he steals out. Ross’s anger at himself for not saving Jim but persistent impulse to not behave in the amoral hierarchical ways of he gentry leads to his decision to marry Demelza. He will do the right thing. The community think he is sexually using her carelessly as any aristocratic male would; he proves them wrong. Central to the book is his learning experience at the trial, Book 2, Chapter 4.
Also the rivalry with Francis. Quite apart from Elizabeth. My research into the period of the Renaissance through early 19th century shows such internecine quarreling and betrayals (Ross almost drowns Francis in their first encouner in the mine when Francis tries to open himself to Ross) occurred regularly between a male heir and especially a cousin, the son of the second son: I found it in Vittoria Colonna’s extended family, and in Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea’s brother, who murdered his male cousin Hazlewood in Northampton, and could not recover a life afterwards. Primogeniture is not a system to foster kindly feelings (as Austen said the system which demands none of a group of sisters “come out” until the oldest is engaged leads to animosity).
Powerful scenes in Book 2 are the trial (covered in the last lecture) and Ross and Demelza’s plunge into becoming lovers: she desperate to avoid returning to her imprisoning home, he drunk, wretched, overcome with a need for human contact. She does not entrap him; she fears earning his contempt and he almost does react that way when in his mother’s dress he compares her to his mother. Book 2, Chapters 5-7. The careful slow believable and probable build-up; Demelza’s intense awakening and joy afterwards; his acknowledgment that this was not just “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Elizabeth comes more for help with Francis who her own rejection of has driven from her and into drinking, gambling, promiscuity, debt, thinking to play on Ross’s love for her, but finds something has happened between the two and it is too late for her. To its credit the 2015 Poldark followed this trajectory including his decision to marry Demelza out of a liking and respect for her, that she had become part of his life, and the intensity of their congenial sexual encounters.
So the last phases of the book. Several inward looking threads:
1) Ross falls in love with Demelza, begins to appreciate her as an individual; he continues to love as this icon of aristocratic elusive beauty, Elizabeth. The love begins in the chapter of the harvest of pilchards, Book 3, Chapter 2; Graham may have written as well but he never wrote better. The greatness of it is it’s a recreation of the Daphnis and Chloe (Longus), Paul et Virginie (later 18th century), Tristan and Isolde archtypes interwoven completely with the detailed dramatization of a harvesting of pilchards by a community deeply in need of these fish to sell and to eat, in the context of a real Cornish cove. She packs a picnic supper. Much of the space is given over to describing the intensely important and ultimately successful catch through the use of the nets, yet our emotions are intensely with the each of our two presences.
‘Ross,’ she said, ‘dear Ross’ ‘I love you, he said, ‘and am your servant. Demelza look at me. If I’ve done wrong in the past, give me leave to make amwends.’ And so he found what he had half despised was not despicable, that what had been for him the satisfaction of an appetite, a pleasant but commonplace adventure in disappointment, owned wayward and elusive depths he had not known before and carried the knowledge of beauty in its heart.
2) The failure of Elizabeth and Francis’s marriage. She prefers her son, Geoffrey Charles, is not finally in love with him, and his failure to cope with the world she can be patient with, but not empathize or help. That they have had no further children is to be taken as a sign of unsatisfactory sex: an 18th belief is still wit hus that satisfying sex brings about orgasm and orgasm pregnancy. It’s a myth used in novels by characters to try to prove a woman claiming rape was compliant (in Richardson’s Clarissa, in Kleist’s Marquise of O) Elizabeth’s resurgent love for Ross comes out of her dissatisfaction. We see Warleggan waiting on the side; he has lent Francis money and bound him that way.
3) The story of Verity — lonely, depressed, without feeling alive for herself (one of the many great chapters of Poldark series, all 12, is Chapter 14, when she returns to her room and faces what is her probable destiny: used but useful in her extended family. So ailing, she comes to stay with Ross and Demelza. Demelza fearing scorn holds off, but Verity wins her over by opening up her own tragedy to Demelza. Their shopping trip is to me a delight: like Ross’s trip to the fair in the first book, it enables Graham to present the 18th century world to us, shopping in the provinces, how people made their clothes. And we have a long trope of female friendship, so rare in male novels (hardly seen in most movies).
4) Graham has said that he did not plan another book, Ross Poldark was stand-alone, but I wonder if by the end of the book Graham knew he would continue: these latter two are the sort of thread that demand fulfillment. Demelza begins pro-active, diplomatically to question Ross to find out about this loss of love and hope Verity had known. Why start such a plot if you don’t mean to continue it into another book. Ross is right to worry about Blamey we are to feel too. A genuine gap between them. They will have male versus female reactions to primal experiences in later books. There is also what is going to happen to Jim Carter? Prudie and Jud kicked out of their jobs? will they continue alienated?
On average there was a three-year gap between Graham’s new books (not the rewritings) but Ross Poldark was 1945 and the very next year, 1946 Demelza. Jeremy Poldark appeared 1950; Warleggan 1953.
5) The last episode: Ross and Demelza are invited to Trenwith and almost torn apart by the pressure of the house and its history, the paintings, the sense of an ancient family Ross belongs to which she is outside of, but Demelza has a realistic success. She is helped to assert herself by Verity’s presence, by drink (she’s not perfect) and by her own native abilities against the spiteful Ruth Teague. Her pregnancy is actually a burden. Her first attempt at social class adjustment and we see in these scenes Francis instinctively kind and Elizabeth not deliberately hurting anyone.
One way to write a historical novel set in a given period is imitate the novels written in that period. Graham is imiating Emma where Austen’s Jane Fairfax plays so exquistely high culture music but Harriet says she prefers Emma’s poorer execution because the “performance” was so great. Also the songs easier. Elizabeth’s harp playing and use of Handel does take those who can enter a higher realm into it: that includes Francis (it is sad how their marriage fails). But Demelza’s folk approach is accessible, sexier and is liked by more. Demelza is getting back but before a sour note enters, Ross taps her shoulder lightly.
As the novel ends Ross and Demelza achieve communion of spirits walking home in the landscape as Verity has walked by his side with him. Far from this ancient imposing house, with its picture, night and the “old peculiar silence” ceases to make a barrier and “becomes a medium.” Their different pasts and personalities “could not just then break their companionship for long. Time had overawed them. Now it became their friend”
For next week: Demelza is not a sequel but a continuation. All the novels are continuation, continuing the story. Each one has a peculiar structure and themes of its own but they do not introduce a new set of characters who are dismissed from the action beyond the one novel. In Demelza Graham widens his purview to include the 18th century wold through a Cornish lends: topics will include medicine, law and justice, smuggling, banking.
The new mini-series, a few sketchy thoughts on Episodes 1-3:
I find I’m too attached to the novels after all and have a hard time judging this new one rationally. My worst complaint comes from the new dramaturgy: the scenes are far too short; in the modern way these begin at the end of a scene, are epitomizing, and have a momentary shot which suggest what was to happen and then we switch. The film editing feels crude: we move too abruptly from shot to shot.
Watch any 190s or 1980s mini-series: last night I was watching Barchester Chronicles, a mini-series from two novels by Anthony Trollope; what a striking difference from these new Poldarks; BC resembles the old Poldarks and The Oneddin Line. The three (BC, old Poldarks, and Oneddin) are all literate. Characters are presented with coherent thoughts; they talk to one another and express understandable ideas; debate issues. The scripts were hard-worked on and made sense. The writer does not have the time to develop complicated utterances or she fears the audience will not understand more complicated thoughts when not attached to something immediately personal.
Apparently some Poldark fans (on the facebook page) notice that the chronology from episode to episode is confused. PBS dumbs down by substituting bloody thrillers and situation comedies dressed up as costume drama (Doc Martin, Call the Midwife); the BBC carries on costume dramas of good books, with the alternative solution of having characters grunt at one another, and substituting scenic camera work (technology). It’s not the fault of the actors nor even the scriptwriter – though she appears to know little of the 18th century when it comes to underlying manners and attitudes nor director: the long hand of Mrs Thatcher, budget cuts, and despising of education is at the core of all this.
An overt feminism makes all the male characters order the females around peremptorily. That’s not how it worked. Alas the screenplay writer has not begun to read or understand some aspects of the actual male practical life of the era either, nor the 1790s revolutionary period — which the 1970s writers did. She gets wrong how men were paid; they did not get salaries but worked as tributers, entrepreneurs. The new Francis is made more sentimental and less cynical subversive — which is like the book, Francis’s wit (what are you being saved from? for?) which came from the book is gone, but perhaps the feminism of the producer and writer could not bear to show a man so careless of his wife, so easily promiscuous. Elizabeth in the book and in the 1970s movies was ambitious, cool, wanted to be seen, to go to London and shine in court (she never got the chance); they are sentimentalizing her too. Some of the face-book fans are happy that the portrait is more positive without examining why or how.
The Verity and Blamey story is fairly told and even all the parts, but it needed to be spaced out much more. It’s like a near final draft that needs more interweaving and raison d’etre somehow. I can see that there is a real attempt at time to film scenes from the book that were not filmed before.
I find I miss badly some of the original incarnations: Clive Francis as Francis, Norma Streader as Verity, Frank Middlemas as Charles. We also in this first episode have more romance than money scenes; the gardens are overdone the landscape does not look like Cornwall; the music is inferior to the original episodes and the paratexts not so aptly chosen; they are not original, not thought out. Turner and Tomlinson are good — his is an attempt at a hard unsentimental conception. the Jack Farthing as George Warleggan has the tones of Ralph Bates; Nicholas, the father is gone, but Pip Torrens as the corrupt ruthless uncle, Cary, repeats the tones, notes and kinds of sayings about profit) the old Nicholas uttered. But a number of the actors are weak (especially Kyle Soller in the role of Francis as narrow, spiteful, not bright); Heidi Reed Elizabeth is presented as in love with Ross — nothing about her complicated desires for status, wealth, social life. They don’t know what to do about some of the characters that are not driven by love primarily so have Ross and Demelza sort of be around one another pointedly. They do not have the guts to show characters immoral and careless the way the first series did. Phil David (superb actor) as Jud is thrown away; his gnomic statements of pessimism personalized so lose their meaning. Lots of the working class characters simply in effect dropped. They don’t want comedy or at least not the kind the first series did — it’s melodramatic. To be fair, the original 1970s series often omitted Graham’s best lines, the darker melancholy sceptical ones. It did include the comedy.
On the other hand, it is also a different form of making movies; movies are made differently and I thought the third episode though also ‘dumbed down” used pictures again and movement beautifully to convey the love affair of Ross and Demelza. They are good actors.
Instead of actors in a stage being filmed; we have figures in a large screen who are part of the wholistic picture, and much is conveyed through gesture, picture, angle of shot. Still, they don’t use montage cleverly (too much money?) and Horsfield has Aidan Turner charging through the landscape on his horse as if she doesn’t know what to do with the actor — the imitation of Colin Firth half naked in the water by Turner with Demelza as voyeuristic in the grass was embarrassing and broke the suspension of disbelief utterly.
Eleanor Tomlinson’s portrayal reflects our modern mood (she begins in distrust) but it is to my mind closer to the conception Graham had than the previous Demelza — who reflected “sex kitten” moments in the 1960s films (Tom Jones) and was far more 1970s feminist as well as not realistic. It was anachronistic in the extreme for her to tell anyone she did not know who the father of her baby was, much less its real father, Ross. The beaten down, shy, but slowly emerging Demelza in 2015 reflects our own distrusts and sense of darker realities. There are a few scenes (too brief but there) from the book where they shop, he buys her a cloak, she prepares decent food for him, we see them eating and talking together (alas no dialogue).
There is much to like — very very much to be moved by. In the way of modern adaptations the film-makers take a back story and put it as prologue so we have “Ross in America” and then a scene from his parting with Elizabeth, after which here we are in the coach again. I had hoped for the death of Joshua (which opens the book) but not to be. Phil Davis is a great actor, he’s not comic like Paul Curran, but he’s in a way more credible as a presence than Jud. The actor for Jim Carter resembles the earlier actor.
I am warming to Aidan Turner and thought he has some really effective moments. One stays with me. Demelza is leaving, walking off with the dog, as Prudie has told her see what he said, you’ve more trouble than you are worth, and she looks up and there is Turner photographed on the horse against the sky, looking magnificent somehow. Memorable. There’s a different concept for Demelza for Eleanor Tomlinson; she is made more central to Ross’s decision to stay, not a thief, desperate in a more abject way. In the book he never thinks to go;
The politics are the not the progressivism of the 70s but mirror dark and grim British moods of today.
Thus far I am not sure it will become mythic: the first Poldark had something deeply original about it — the music, the different paratexts carefully chosen to capture important moments (closing of Grambler, Smuggling, killing the informer); time will tell whether that these 8 hours have captured a new original spirit equivalent or analogous to the older one. It’s at a disadvantage being second but Andrew Davies in 1995 knocked the 1979 P&P off the map. Maybe they are trying too hard. Since they are communicating pictorially, they need to have more nerve in filming bold sudden moments of magnificence (Ross on his horse coming up to Demelza and taking her back when she runs away). They try for subtle symbolism in the simplified dialogue: when at the close of third episode he tells Elizabeth he is not leaving Cornwall, he says he had lost something, and his way, and now he has found it; that something is symbolized by or is also Demelza on his horse behind him as his wife. His choice of her embodies his values and the way of life he wants to lead.