Ross Poldark

RossPoldark-cov“Returning home from a grim war in America, Ross Poldark is reunited with his beloved Cornwall and family. But the joyful homecoming he had anticipated turns sour; his father is dead, his estate in derelict,  and the girl he loves has become engaged to his cousin. However, his sympathy for the destitute miners and farmers of the district leads him to rescue a half-starved urchin girl from a fairground brawl and take her home — an act that will change the entire course of his life.”

“Ross Poldark is the first novel in Winston Graham’s sweeping saga of Cornish life in the eighteenth century. First published in 1945, the Poldark series has enthralled readers for over seventy years.”

I first discovered this story through the TV series (the 2015 BBC adaptation with Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson, not the previous 1975 adaptation with Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees) which aired on PBS as part of the Masterpiece show. It is an excellent and beautiful historical drama, very well written and with great actors. It really shows all the aspects of the Georgian era’s society in Cornwall (the westernmost county of England): mostly the sentimental struggle of the main characters, of course, but how they manage to survive at a time when the local mining industry is starting to fail, and how the living conditions of the common people (miners, farmers, fishermen) could be so starkly contrasted with those of the nobility. It also subtlety talks about the political, moral or religious issues of the era. It was all fascinating and I couldn’t resist wanting to see what the books looked like (or at least the first volume).

The book series was written by Winston Graham, who based the story on many aspects of his own life. He was born in Manchester in 1908 but lived in Perranporth, Cornwall, for thirty years (1925-1960). He first met his wife when she was thirteen year-old and the character of Demelza is partly based on her. The series includes twelve volumes which were written in two periods. The first four volumes (Vol. 1: Ross Poldark, Vol. 2: Demelza, Vol. 3: Jeremy Poldark, Vol. 4: Warleggan) were written between 1945 and 1953. In 1973, after a long hiatus, he resumed the series and wrote eight more volumes (Vol. 5: Black Moon, Vol. 6: The Four Swan, Vol. 7: The Angry Tide, Vol. 8: The Stranger From The Sea, Vol. 9: The Miller’s Dance, Vol. 10: The Loving Cup, Vol. 11: The Twisted Sword, Vol. 12: Bella Poldark), the last one being published in 2002, just a year before his death. The first seven volumes are set in the eighteenth century (1783-1799) and depict the life of Ross and Demelza, while the last five volumes, set in the nineteenth century (1810-1820), are centred around their children.

[ WARNING: The following MAY contain traces of spoilers! People allergic to the discussion of any plot’s elements before seeing/reading the story themselves are strongly advised to take the necessary precautions for their safety and should avoid reading further. ]

The first volume starts as Ross Poldark (a young British army officer, member of the low and rural English nobility) comes back from fighting on the losing side of the American War of Independence. He has been wounded in the leg and his face is scarred. Unfortunately, he quickly learn that, during his two years absence, his dissolute father has died, their mine has been closed, his two lazy domestic have let his house and domain (Nampara, located near Truro) go into disrepair, and — worse of all — his young fiancé, Elizabeth, believing he had been killed, is now engaged with his cousin Francis! However, he has a strong character and doesn’t despair: he simply roll-up his sleeves, repair the house, plow the land and makes plans to get financing in order to re-open the mine. He is certainly not perfect and has a quick temper but he is a good man, and, seeing the plight of the local villagers, will do his best to help them and always fight for justice. His exceptional social position (privileged but still a gentleman farmer) allows him the move around flawlessly between the social classes, in both the peasantry, the mine workers on one side and the nobility on the other. 

Ross struggles to forget Elizabeth, his first love, and avoids meeting her. He helps his cousin, Verity, in her amorous affair with the captain Andrew Blamey, but it puts him at odds with his family, and deepen the rift with Francis. After the birth of their child, Geoffrey Charles, Francis is gambling too much at the instigation of George Warleggan and Elizabeth is seeking Ross’ help. The family more or less reconciles on Christmas 1787. His choice of Pascoe’s Bank to finance his business (and eventually some personnal enmities) will put Ross on a collision course with George Warleggan, the son of a blacksmith who became a banker and industrialist.

However, the most life-changing event will occur when Ross saves a thirteen year-old girl from a fairground brawl (started over the abuse of her puppy dog, Garrick). He takes her into his household as a kitchen maid and she grows up admiring Ross. But, at seventeen year-old, fearing that Ross could send her back to her abusive father, she seduces him. They will soon after marry despite all the gossips. Ross will slowly learn to love her. She is a coarse young woman but beautiful and, with the help of Verity, will quickly learn the manners of the nobility. She will always see Elizabeth as a rival, but, despite their tumultuous relationship, Ross will somehow be happy. This is as much her story as his.

Winston Graham’s writing is beautiful and easy to read. The story is not only captivating because of its drama, but also because of its description the Georgian society. However, there are substantial differences between the book and the TV series. For examples: Demelza has black hair and not a beautiful red mane like on TV; she boldly seduces Ross in the book while they simply “fall in love” in the adaptation. The book tend to be more realistic in its description, showing more violence and grit, while the TV series is more reserved. But that’s to be expected. On the other side, the TV adaptation shows more easily the beauty of the Cornish countryside. 

I greatly enjoyed reading this first volume (even if I already knew the story), but I am not ready to engaged in the long commitment required by such a large series. However, I strongly recommend it. Also, take note that I read the edition from the superb MacMillan Collector’s Library but there is another edition, the Pan Macmillan media tie-in edition [ Amazon / Goodreads ], which is probably more widely available.

Ross Poldark – A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787, by Winston Graham. London: Pan MacMillan (MacMillan Collector’s Library), 2016. 460 pg. £9.99 / $10.00 US. ISBN 978-1-909621-51-0. For readers fourteen year-old and above. stars-3-5

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© Winston Graham 1945.

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