“ROSS POLDARK: A NOVEL OF CORNWALL, 1783-1787” (1945) Book Review

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“ROSS POLDARK: A NOVEL OF CORNWALL, 1783-1787” (1945) Book Review

During a period of fifty-seven, writer Winston Graham wrote a series of twelve historical novels that centered around a former British Army officer from Cornwall, who had fought for king and country during the American Revolutionary War. The first of the novels, “ROSS POLDARK: A NOVEL OF CORNWALL, 1783-1787” had been published in 1945. 

“ROSS POLDARK” begins in the fall of 1783. Ross Poldark returns home to Cornwall after spending three years in the Army. The former officer returns to discover that his father had been dead for several months. The estate he had inherited, which includes Nampara and a failing copper mine, had fallen in arrays. His home is being occupied by his father’s two slovenly servants – Jud and Prudie Paynter. Worst of all, he learns that his former love, Elizabeth Chynoweth, had given him up for dead and become engaged to his cousin, Francis Poldark. Ross sets out to restore his fortunes by acquiring financing for one of his family’s derelict tin mines. But dealing with the loss of Elizabeth prove to be a real problem. Emotional salvation seemed to come in the form of a young 13-14 urchin girl named Demelza Carne, whom Ross saves from a mob at the Reduth Fair. Ross hires her as his new kitchen maid. Over the course of three years, she develops into a beautiful 17 year-old, for whom he develops emotional feelings and eventually marries.

I have read a good number of reviews about this novel. With the exception of one or two, most of them seemed pretty positive. Personally, I believe that Winston Graham did a solid job in setting his multi-novel series in motion. I was impressed at how he introduced his major characters, the story’s historical setting and the story lines that reverberated throughout the series. One of those story lines proved to be the various love triangles that centered around Ross Poldark and Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark. I find it amazing that most these different love triangles centered around Ross and Elizabeth, instead of Ross and the woman he would eventually marry – Demelza, who happened to be the saga’s leading lady. The 1945 novel included at least two triangles and a potential third:

*Ross Poldark-Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark-Francis Poldark

*Demelza Carne Poldark-Ross Poldark-Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark

*Ross Poldark-Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark-George Warleggan

Anyone familiar with “ROSS POLDARK” would automatically know that no such triangle existed between Ross, Elizabeth and George. I would agree . . . to a certain extent. George Warleggan was more or less portrayed as a minor supporting character in this novel. His father, Nicholas Warleggan, had a more prominent role. Yet, Graham provided a hint of the Ross-Elizabeth-George triangle during the 1787 Trenwith Christmas party, in which George projected a deferential and infatuated attitude toward her. A sign of things to come, indeed.

In fact, the Christmas party proved to be one of those scenes in which I believe Graham did an excellent job in portraying life in Cornwall during the late 18th century. Other scenes that impressed me include Ross’ arrival at Truro upon his return from the war; Francis and Elizabeth’s wedding reception; Ross’ first meeting with Demelza at the Redruth Fair; and the trial of Jim Carter for poaching, one of Ross’ employees, at Truro’s court of assize. These scenes conveyed to me that Graham did some extended research of Britain’s history during the late Georgian era and life in Cornwall during that period. And although I found his use of this research impressive, I would not say that Graham was the best novelist in conveying historical research into stories. I have read novels that have a stronger historical background.

“ROSS POLDARK” is foremost a story about a war veteran who returns home to find his world drastically changed. I suppose one could compare Graham’s tale to the 1946 movie, “THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES”. But the Ross Poldark character seemed traumatized . . . so to speak, by the ruined state of his fortunes and his loss of fiancee Elizabeth Chynoweth, instead of any combat experiences during the war. It did not take Ross very long to set about restoring his fortunes. But the loss of Elizabeth proved to be another matter. He spent a long period of time drinking heavily over her marriage to his cousin Francis. And when he finally realized that he had fallen in love with Demelza near the novel’s end, he came to another realization that his marriage had not erased his feelings for Elizabeth. It is very rare to come upon a fictional story about war veteran trying to overcome a past trauma that focused on lost love, instead of past combat experiences. Very odd. And rather original, if I must add.

Another aspect of “ROSS POLDARK” that I found impressive was Graham’s strong portrayal of most of its characters. Ross Poldark came off as a very strong and well-rounded character. While many fans tend to view him as some borderline ideal fictional hero, I was too busy noticing his personal flaws to immediately accept this view. And I regard this as a good thing. At a younger age, I would have eagerly accepted Ross as something close to a perfect hero. But not at my current age. One, I find ideal characters rather boring. And two, while I found his virtues – especially his concern for the lower classes – rather admirable, I must admit that Ross’ flaws – his stubbornness, quick temper, massive ego, and occasional bouts of hypocrisy – made him more interesting to me than any personal virtue ever could. A good example would be his attitude toward women. Despite his respectful attitude toward most women below his class, Ross still managed to retain a strong patronizing and slightly sexist attitude. This was especially apparent in one scene in which his cousin-in-law, Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark, requested his help in dealing with Francis’ growing penchant for reckless gambling. Instead of taking Elizabeth seriously, Ross dismissed her request as one from an over-emotional woman exaggerating about a husband’s flaws:

“It occurred to Ross in that moment that half of Elizabeth’s worry might be the eternal feminine bogey of insecurity. Francis drank. Francis gambled and lost money. Francis had been seen about with another woman. Not an amiable story. But not an uncommon one. Inconceivable to Ross in that case, and for Elizabeth it had the proportions of a tragedy. But it was unwise to lose one’s sense of perspective. Other men drank and gambled. Debts were fashionable. Other men found eyes to admire the beauty that was not theirs by right of marriage and to overlook the familiar beauty that was. It did not follow that Francis was taking the shortest route to perdition.”

What I found ironic is that Ross’ sexist dismissal of Elizabeth’s concerns about Francis will eventually bite him in the ass.

Thanks to Graham’s sharp writing, the novel featured other strong characters. One of them include his kitchenmaid-turned-wife, Demelza Carne Poldark. At first I did not know what to make of Demelza. Perhaps the reason I had such difficulty in embracing her as a character is that she was so young. Demelza remained a adolescent throughout the novel, despite becoming a wife who ends the story pregnant. I noticed that anyone in Ross’ life – namely his family and Elizabeth – made her incredibly jealous. And Demelza expressed her jealousy in a rather infantile manner. This was apparent in her internal reaction to Elizabeth’s discovery that she and Ross had sex, following Jim Carter’s trial:

“She is one day too late; just one day. How beautiful she is. How I hate her.”

This jealousy was also evident in her determination to avoid the company of Ross’ cousin Verity Poldark following her marriage to Ross. I find it interesting that neither of the two television adaptations of the novel never explored this situation between the two cousins-in-law. Another example of Demelza’s infantile expression of her jealousy appeared near the end of the novel, when she contemplated on her social success at the Trenwith Christmas party. Even though Demelza had internally expressed pity toward Elizabeth’s marriage to Francis, she also reveled in the idea that Ross still wanted her and not Elizabeth – unaware that Ross’ feelings for Elizabeth have not abated. Demelza’s hostility even managed to shift toward Ruth Treneglos, who had originally expressed hope to become Ross’ wife a few years earlier. I can understand why Graham had portrayed Demelza’s jealousy in such a volatile manner. She was – after all – an adolescent in this story. Despite marrying Ross two-thirds into the story, Demelza remained a teenager from the beginning of the novel to the end.

Graham’s portrayal of Francis and Elizabeth Poldark seemed a bit more . . . limited. Especially Elizabeth. Considering that Ross’ reaction to their marriage played such a major role in the novel’s plot, I found it odd that Graham did not explore the couple’s characters a bit deeper. Ironically, Elizabeth suffered from Graham’s superficial portrayal a lot more than Francis. I am not claiming that her character had suffered from a weaker portrayal than Francis’. I have noticed that many fans of the saga have claimed that she is a cold and haughty character. But after my recent re-reading of “ROSS POLDARK”, I found this hard to accept. Elizabeth struck me as slightly conservative, quiet and private woman, with a pragmatic streak. The only time she became “haughty” was when she lost her temper after Ross had insulted her mother at hers and Francis’ wedding reception. More importantly, she proved to be a very warm and caring parent. But I was surprised to discover upon my last reading of this novel that Elizabeth also harbored an inferiority complex, as revealed in a scene following Geoffrey Charles’ christening:

“Verity had gotten over her disappointment very well, Elizabeth thought. A little quieter, a little more preoccupied with the life of the household. She had wonderful strength of mind and self-reliance. Elizabeth was grateful for her courage. She thought, quite wrongly that she had very little herself, and admired it in Verity.”

Quite wrongly. It seemed as if Graham had inserted those words to explain to the readers that Elizabeth underestimated her own inner strength. And considering the number of times Elizabeth resorted to fainting in dealing with many crisis, I got the feeling that instead of acknowledging or even being aware of her own inner strength, Elizabeth had decided the best way to survive in a world that did not favor women was to play the role that society demanded of her – that of a quietly submissive woman. Francis, on the other hand, had three things going for him – he was not portrayed as an introvert, he did not stand in the way of Ross and Demelza’s relationship, and he is a man. Even though Francis tend to resort to infantile behavior to hide his own securities, sometimes I got the impression that many of Graham’s readers are more tolerant of his character than of Elizabeth’s. Is this due to modern society’s intolerance toward reserved or introverted women? Or is this due to many of Graham’s readers view of Elizabeth as a threat to Ross and Demelza’s romance? I wonder.

“ROSS POLDARK” featured an array of interesting supporting characters. The most colorful to me seemed to be Jud and Prudie Paynter, Ross’ servants; a fellow landowner by the name of Sir Hugh Bodrugan; Ross’ former schoolmaster Reverend Doctor Halse; Demelza’s father, Tom Carne; Elizabeth’s mother Mrs. Chynoweth and Ross’ great-aunt, Agatha Poldark. Ross’ Uncle Charles struck me as a particularly interesting character. If there was one character who matched Elizabeth in terms of pragmatism, it was Charles Poldark. Yet, for such a pragmatic man, I am amazed that he was unable to produce a bigger fortune for his family. And his determination to ensure Francis’ marriage to Elizabeth literally smacked of sheer manipulation. When I first read this novel, I had wondered why Charles was determined to set this marriage in motion. After all, the Chynoweths were cash poor. Did Charles have designs on the Chynoweth land, which would eventually go to the man who marries Elizabeth? I wish Graham had been a little clear on the matter.

The novel featured another love story – one between Francis’ sister, Verity Poldark and a sea captain by the name of Andrew Blamey. I thought Graham did an excellent job in portraying the charming and subtle love story between the plain, yet sweet and soft-spoken Verity and the intense Captain Blamey. But the latter’s revelation of how his alcoholism and temper led to the manslaughter of his wife led both Verity’s father and brother to put a stop in the romance before it could continue. A part of me felt sorry for Verity. Another part of me felt that both Charles and Francis Poldark had done the smart thing. I could not blame them for not wanting a former alcoholic who had killed his wife in a drunken rage anywhere near Verity or within the family ranks. Which makes me wonder why Graham had created this character in the first place.

As I had earlier hinted, I found “ROSS POLDARK” was a solid novel. Solid . . . not perfect or anywhere near perfect. The novel proved to be a good starting point for Graham’s saga, but it was certainly not one of his best. It had its flaws. I have already hinted at one of the novel’s flaws – namely Graham’s portrayal of Francis and Elizabeth Poldark. I realize that Francis and Elizabeth are not the story’s main protagonists. Yet, they are among the saga’s main characters after Ross and Demelza. And the couple played major roles in the protagonists’ lives. Especially Elizabeth. Unfortunately, I discovered upon re-reading the novel that Graham had not explored their characters as much as I wish he had. Characters like Verity Poldark, the Paynters, Jim Carter, Reuben Clemmow and Jinny Carter née Martin seemed to have been written with more depth than either Francis or Elizabeth.

Speaking of Jinny Carter and Reuben Clemmow, this brings me to the sequence that featured Reuben’s attack upon her. I have no problems with Graham’s portrayal of the incident. I thought the scene reeked with tension and violence. What irritated me to no end was that Graham had ended the sequence on a cliffhanger with Clemmow stabbing Jinny before accidentally falling out of a window, while trying to opening it. Following those violent moments, the novel jumped two years later in which the next chapter featured Ross in a meeting with potential shareholders for Wheal Leisure. Readers had to wait until another chapter before learning that Jinny had survived the stabbing and Reuben had fallen to his death. Perhaps other readers had no problems with Graham ending the Jinny-Clemmow sequence on this note. I did. I found it irritating. It seemed as if Graham had spent a great deal of energy in building up to Jinny and Clemmow’s confrontation, only to end it by “telling” how it ended, instead of “showing” it. And why on earth Graham felt the need to jump the story another two years before revealing the conclusion of this plot line?

As someone who has read countless number of novels over the years, I have encountered a good share of them in which the writer has a tendency to shift the point-of-view from one character to another in the middle of the scene. And unfortunately, Winston Graham seemed to be onen of those novelists that share this flaw. This was especially apparent in one scene between Francis and Elizabeth Poldark, following the christening of their son. The scene started with Elizabeth’s point-of-view, as she contemplated on the christening’s success, her love for young Geoffrey Charles and her anticipation for more rest, as she continued her recovery from childbirth. Just before Francis could enter her bedroom for a little marital sex, the scene shifted to his point-of-view and readers experience his anticipation and his disappointment at Elizabeth’s rejection of his attempt to seduce her. To this day, I still wonder why Graham had shifted the viewpoint from one character to another. Why could he not reveal Elizabeth’s point-of-view, when Francis tried to seduce her for some post-natal sex? Or explain to viewers – from her point-of-view – why she wanted more rest, instead of sex with Francis? Was it easier for him to convey Francis’ disappointment? This shift in viewpoint seemed to have left many fans of the saga to assume that Elizabeth simply wanted no more sex with her husband – or that she was sexually frigid.

One last sequence that bothered me in “ROSS POLDARK” focused on Ross and Demelza. Not long after meeting the thirteen (or fourteen) year-old Demelza at the Reduth Fair, Ross brought her home to Nampara. He had wanted Prudie to clean the lice-infested Demelza before the latter could step foot inside the house. But since Prudie was not there, he set about cleaning her himself. Ross ordered Demelza to remove all of her clothes so that he could clean her, using water from the water pump behind the house:

“He worked the handle with vigor. The first rinsing would not get rid of everything but would at least be a beginning. It would leave his position uncompromised. She had an emaciated little body, on which womanhood had onl just begun to fashion its designs.”

The idea of a 23-24 year-old man washing the naked body of a 13-14 year old girl left me feeling very uncomfortable. Squemish. I had noticed that the topic had been mentioned on the The Winston Graham & Poldark Literary Society message board, but those members who had responded did not seem bothered by the scene. I had mentioned it on Tumblr and someone had the same response as me. Perhaps an adult man washing the naked body of an early adolescent girl he had recently met and hired as a servant did not seem out of place in the late 18th century. But as a woman of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, it seemed out of place to me. And I can only wonder how many early-to-mid 20th century readers felt about this scene when the novel was first published in 1945. And honestly . . . why on earth did Graham include this scene in the novel in the first place? Why not allow Prudie to be at Nampara to wash the very young Demelza? Especially since the latter ended up as Ross’ wife some three years later? I mean . . . honestly . . . all I can say is “Ewww!”.

Speaking of Demelza, how old was she? The handling of Demelza’s age struck me as confusing. According to the novel, she was 13 years old when she and Ross first met at the Reduth Fair in the early spring of 1794. When she married Ross in June 1787, she was 17 years old. And during the Christmas party at Trenwith near the end of 1787, she told Francis and Elizabeth’s guests that she was 18 years old. Exactly when was Demelza born? In 1769 or 1770? Perhaps it is wise if I just give up on the matter.

Unlike many fans of the literary POLDARK series, I cannot say that “ROSS POLDARK: A NOVEL OF CORNWALL, 1783-1787” was among the best. In fact, I would not regard it as one of the best historical novels I have ever read. It possessed some flaws that prevent me from proclaiming it as such. But . . . I must admit that Graham had created a solid story that maintained my interest from the beginning to the end. And more importantly, I thought Graham did a pretty good job in using this novel to set up the twelve-book series.