“POLDARK” Series Two (2016) Episodes One to Four

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“POLDARK” SERIES TWO (2016) EPISODES ONE TO FOUR

Following my viewing of the 1975 series, “POLDARK” and its adaptation of Winston Graham’s 1950 novel, “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791”, I decided to view Debbie Horsfield’s recent adaptation of the same novel, spread out in four episodes during its second series. Needless to say, my experience with this adaptation of “Jeremy Poldark” proved to be a different kettle of fish.

Series Two’s first episode began a day or two after the final scene of Series One – namely Ross Poldark’s arrest by the local militia for instigating a riot between his tenants/employees and the citizens of another town, who were salvaging the goods from a shipwrecked ship. The ship happened to belong to a noveau riche family named Warleggan and one of its members, one George Warleggan, went out of his way to ensure that the law would charge Ross with the crime. To make matters worse, Ross and his wife, Demelza Carne Poldark, had to endure the death of their only daughter from Putrid’s Throat.

At the beginning of the second series’ Episode One, Ross faced one of his old nemesis, the Reverend Dr. Halse , in court in order for the latter to determine whether Ross would stand trial for his crime. Considering the two men’s previous clashes, it was not surprising that Halse ordered Ross to stand trial during the next assize in Bodmin. Not only that – audiences were treated with an energetic scene between star Aidan Turner and former Poldark leading man, Robin Ellis. After Ross returned to his estate, Nampara, he set about getting his business in order. Meanwhile, Demelza tried to encourage him to seek help or patronage in order to ensure his acquittal. Being an incredibly stubborn and self-righteous ass, Ross refused. Demelza was forced to go behind his back to seek help from the judge assigned to his case and a wealthy neighbor named Ray Penvenen. Needless to say, Demelza failed to gather support from both men. Her cousin-in-law and Ross’ former love, Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark attempted to acquire George Warleggan’s help by arranging a meeting between the men at her husband’s estate, Trenwith. She also failed, due to Ross’ unwillingness to speak to the latter. George’s major henchman, Tankhard, managed to recruit Ross’ former farmhand, Jud Paynter, to testify against Ross. Although Jud had intially agreed to testify, he changed his mind at the last minute, while on the stand. Due to a rousing pro-labor speech, Ross was acquitted by the end of Episode Two.

During those first two episodes that focused on Ross’ trial, other events occurred. His close friend, Dr. Dwight Enys met Ray Penvenen’s flighty niece, Caroline Penvenen during the azzis and election in Bodmin and sparks flew between the pair … despite the latter’s arrogant demand that he treat her pug. Francis, while in despair over estrangement from Ross, Verity and Elizabeth, attempted suicide in Bodmin and failed, due to a falty pistol. Elizabeth also appeared in Bodmin for the trial. Although she had appeared to support Ross, she and Francis ended up reconciling. Unfortunately, I was not pleased by this development. I wish Elizabeth had never forgiven Francis, since he had never bothered to offer any apology for the five to six years of emotional abuse and the loss of his fortune and their son Geoffrey Charles’ future. Unless I am mistaken, Elizabeth never really forgave Francis in the novels, despite his “new lease on life”, following his suicide attempt. Good. I never thought he deserved forgiveness.

I have read a few articles and reviews of the episodes that covered the adaptation of “Jeremy Poldark”. While everyone else seemed impressed by the hullaballoo over Ross’ trial, I felt more impressed by the third and fourth episodes. One, I was never that impressed by the trial storyline in the first place. Due to Ross’ social standing as a member of the landed gentry, I suspected he would be acquitted, when I first read the novel. Unless he had committed murder (against someone from his own class) or treason against the Crown, I never really believed he would be convicted. If Ross had been a member of the working-class or middle-class, chances are his closing speech would have guaranteed conviction of the charges made against him. By the way, was that a closing speech? Or was that merely a speech inserted into Ross’ own testimonial? I hope it was the latter, because he seemed to possess a barrister who barely said a word.

And if I must be brutally honest, there was an aspect of the first two episodes – especially Episode Two – that I found disappointing. I had been more impressed by the 1975 adaptation of Ross’ trial, due to its strong ability to recapture the atmosphere of an assize during the eighteenth century. I never sense that same level of atmosphere from this latest adaptation. Showrunner Debbie Horsfield seemed more intent upon creating tension over the possibility conviction. In a way, this seemed appropriate considering that the story should matter. But would it have hurt for Horsfield to add a little color or flavor in her portrayal of the Bodmin assize? For me it would have made up for my disinterest in Ross’ trial.

While many complained about the “dullness” of Episodes Three and Four, I found it interesting. Once Ross and Demelza dealt with his arrest and trial, they were forced to deal with the aftermath of their daughter Julia’s death. While Demelza openly faced her grief, Ross finally got the chance to focus his attention on dealing with his possible financial ruin. But in doing so, he ended up emotionally distancing himself from his wife. It was easy to see that the honeymoon was over for Ross and Demelza. Like many couples in real life, they found it difficult to deal with a child’s death, which they were forced to face after Ross’ acquittal. And like many couples, their relationship suffered, due to their grief. Although Demelza had discovered she was pregnant, Ross made it clear that he was not ready to deal with another child before she could reveal her news. I have to commend both Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson in conveying the growing estrangement between Ross and Demelza with great skill and subtlety. And I suspect that they benefited from Debbie Horsfield’s writing, who managed to capture this roadblock in the couple’s relationship without turning it into an over-the-top ham fest.

Both Episodes Three and Four also focused on Ross’ financial problems. Many critics seemed uninterested in this turn of events. Apparently, they were more interested in watching Ross and Demelza behave like “the perfect couple”. I was not bored. It was interesting to watch an upper-class landonwer deal with looming poverty without the benefit of securing the hand of an heiress. You know … like aspiring politician Unwin Trevaunance. And what many had failed to point out was that the Nampara Poldarks’ financial situation was a result of Demelza’s matchmaking efforts for Verity, Francis’ resentment and anger, and George’s malice. The die was cast in Series One’s eighth episode and the consequences reared its ugly head in Series Two. Ross and Demelza were bound to face these consequences sooner or later. Worse, Ross found himself dealing with a vindictive George Warleggan, who was finally able to purchase enough shares to assume control over Wheal Leisure, Ross’ mine.

I never understood why Demelza had kept her fishing trips (to provide food for Nampara’s larder) a secret from Ross. Personally, I thought she could have informed him that someone needed to fish to prevent them from starving, due to their money problems. If Ross had dismissed the idea, then I could have understood her need for secrecy. But knowing Ross, he probably would not have supported the fishing trips or bothered to find someone to provide fish for Nampara’s inhabitants. He could be rather stubborn and proud. And I must admit that I did not care for how Debbie Horsfield changed the circumstances behind Demelza’s last fishing trip. Instead of allowing her to reach shore on her own, while going into labor; Horsfield had an angry Ross come to her rescue and carry her ashore:

 

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It looked like a scenario from a second-rate romance novel. And I found it a touch sexist. Ugh.

Other matters threatened to endanger Ross and Demelza’s marriage even further. One, Demelza seemed to have become the center of attraction for men like fellow landowner Sir Hugh Bodrugan, who has set his eyes on Demelza ever since the Warleggan ball back in Series One; and the Scottish-born militia officer, Captain McNeil, who happened to be one of Ross’ former military comrades from the Revolutionary War. Mr. Poldark seemed unaware of Sir Hugh’s attention, but did not seem particularly thrilled by Captain McNeill sniffing around his wife. Yet … he did nothing. Two, Ross gave permission to allow a smuggling ring led by a Mr. Trencomb to use the cove on his beach to store their stolen goods. Fearful that Ross might face arrest again and this time, prison, Demelza expressed her disapproval.

However, she seemed relieved that Ross and Francis had finally made their peace following their estrangement over Verity Poldark’s (Francis’ sister) marriage to a former alcoholic sea captain in Episode Three, thanks to Elizabeth’s machinations. In fact, she was more than happy to attend Francis’ harvest ball at Trenwith. What she did not like was the conversation she had overheard between Ross and Elizabeth, later that evening. A part of me was fascinated by Ross’ bold attempt to seduce Elizabeth. Especially since it featured some excellent acting from both Aidan Turner and Heida Reed. Another part of me felt disgusted by his actions. Ross had not merely flirted with his cousin-in-law. He made a strong effort to seduce her … after her husband had retired to his bedroom, upstairs. Fortunately, Elizabeth put a stop to his action before it could get any worse.

Interesting consequences resulted from Ross’ attempt at seduction. It finally led Demelza to reveal her pregnancy to Ross … who did not seem particularly thrilled. And although Demelza seemed willing to dismiss her husband’s behavior, her cool attitude toward Elizabeth during their encounter in the woods seemed to hint that she seemed willing to place most of the blame on her cousin-in-law. In other words, Demelza seemed willing to use Elizabeth as a scapegoat for Ross’ indiscretion. Or … perhaps Ross’ attempt to seduce Elizabeth had simply increased Demelza’s insecurity. After reading several articles on this story arc, I was … not particularly surprised that most fans and critics had ignored this little scene between the two cousins-in-law, especially since Demelza is such a popular character and Elizabeth is not. Many years have passed since I last read “Jeremy Poldark”. But I do not recall such a scene in the novel. What made Horsfield add it? Was this the producer’s attempt to portray Demelza in a more ambiguous light than she did in previous episodes? Or was this an attempt to set up Elizabeth as partially responsible for an upcoming event in a later episode? I have no idea. I am confused.

Many fans seemed thrilled by the budding romance between Dr. Dwight Enys and heiress Caroline Penvenen. Personally, I found it rather interesting … and romantic in a way. Both Luke Norris and Gabriella Wilde seemed to have a strong screen chemistry. My problem with this relationship is that I am not a fan of Caroline. I never have been. I have the oddest feeling that although she may be in love with Dwight, she also regards him as something new or different that she wants to acquire … or collect. Her constant requests for his medical services and her assistance in acquiring oranges to help him deal with an outbreak of scurvy strikes me as seductive foreplay on her part and nothing else.

However, the reunion between the Nampara and Trenwith Poldarks resulted in two positive consequences. Following the loss of Wheal Leisure, Ross recalled Mark Daniels’ (one of the saga’s two wife killers) claim of discovering copper inside his family’s other mine, Wheal Grace and managed to convince Francis in investing in the mine. And the latter invested the six hundred pounds that he had received from George Warleggan for exposing the Carnmore Copper Company investors (the majority of whom were indebted to the Warleggan Bank), back in Series One.

Speaking of Francis’ six hundred pounds, I am confused about something. When George Warleggan learned about Francis’ investment in Wheal Grace, he vindictively revealed to Ross how Francis had acquired the money in the first place. Naturally, Ross lost his temper and the pair engaged in a brawl. But I could have sworn that Ross had figured out Francis’ betrayal of the company ever since he learned about Demelza’s meddling in Verity’s love life around the same time that Carnmore Copper Company had folded. The sequence from Episode Eight seemed to hint this. Unless I had misread it. Judging from Ross’ reaction to George’s revelation in Episode Four of this season, apparently I did. However, I need to re-watch that Series One sequence again.

George’s revelation of Francis’ betrayal did give Ross the opportunity to manipulate the latter into finally accepting Verity’s marriage to Andrew Blamey in a very clever scene that featured first-rate performances from both Kyle Soller and Aidan Turner. As for that brawl between Ross and George … the scene sizzled from Aidan Turner and Jack Farthing’s performances. And many fans and critics cheered over Ross emerging victorious over his nemesis. However, I noticed that George made that victory difficult for Ross to achieve. I guess George’s boxing lessons proved to be beneficial after all. Some have expressed confusion over why George went through so much trouble to bring down Ross. Perhaps these fans had forgotten Ross’ rude and insulting response to George’s genuine offer of condolences over young Julia’s death near the end of Series One. Not only had Ross dismissed George’s sympathetic overture, he also insulted the latter’s cousin Matthew Stinson, who had drowned when the Warleggans’ ship foundered. Apparently George never did.

It was nice to see Ruby Bentall as Verity Poldark Blamey again … even though her presence in the production was diminished in compare to Series One. Verity served as a reminder of Francis’ unwillingness to accept her marriage to the former alcoholic (and wife killer) Captain Andrew Blamey … which I can understand. Episode Three (or was it Four) featured a minor story arc that featured Verity’s problems with her stepdaughter, Esther Blamey. I must admit that it was not that difficult to understand Esther’s hostility. Her father had killed her mother in a fit of alcoholic rage (during an argument). Although he had served a few years in prison, he was released, managed to rebuild his profession as a sea captain and marry a woman from an upper-class family. If dear Esther was seething with inner rage over this series of events, I honestly could not blame her. However, her brother James, a midshipman in the Royal Navy, seemed more than willing to accept Verity. Oh well.

I have one last topic to discuss … Jud Paynter. As many know, Jud was bribed by George Warleggan’s minion, Tankard, to testify against Ross about the riot on the beach. Instead, Jud refrained from doing so once he had reached the stand. In retaliation, George hired a couple of thugs to give him a beating. Only they went too far and nearly beat Jud to death. I say nearly, because for some stupid reason, everyone from his wife Prudie to both Ross and Demelza believed that Jud had died. No one had bothered to check his body to see whether he was alive or not. I have liked this little story arc. Mind you, it revealed that Jud had taken money from George to testify against Ross. But the whole “poor Jud is dead” routine struck me as completely ridiculous and hard to believe. I alway enjoy Phil Davis’ portrayal of Jud and even Beatie Edney gave a rather funny performance in this story arc as the “grieving” Prudie Paynter. But I still dislike this story arc. Yet, I am grateful that Horsfield did not allow it to stretch out over a long period of time, as the producers of the 1975-77 series did. Thank goodness for some miracles.

I might as well be frank. I am not really a fan of Winston Graham’s 1950 novel, “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791”. For me, it seemed like a transitional novel. It concluded the story arc that began with Ross’ arrest for inciting a riot and it set up the Poldark/Warleggan family drama that eventually exploded in Graham’s next novel. I realized that Debbie Horsfield and the cast did all they could to make this adaptation of “Jeremy Poldark” work. There were some scenes that I found interesting – especially in Episodes Three and Four. But I must be honest … I did not find it particularly captivating. How could I when the source material had failed to captivate me, as well?

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set Between 1700 and 1749

Below is my current list of favorite movies set between 1700 and 1749: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET BETWEEN 1700 AND 1749

1. “Tom Jones” (1963) – Tony Richardson directed this Best Picture Oscar winner, an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”. The movie starred Albert Finney and Susannah York.

2. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006) – Gore Verbinski directed this second entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about the search for the chest that contains Davy Jones’ heart. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

3. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003) – Gore Verbinski directed this first entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about a dashing pirate who forms an alliance with an apprentice blacksmith in order to save the latter’s beloved from a crew of pirates – the very crew who had mutinied against the former. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

4. “Kidnapped” (1960) – Peter Finch and James MacArthur starred in Disney’s 1960 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel about family betrayal in 1740s Scotland. Robert Stevenson directed.

5. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (2007) – Gore Verbinski directed this third entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about the Pirate Lords’ alliance and their stand against the East Indian Trading Company and Davy Jones. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley and Geoffrey Rush.

6. “Against All Flags” (1952) – Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara starred in this swashbuckler about a British sea officer who infiltrates a group of pirates on behalf of the government bring them to justice. George Sherman directed.

7. “Rob Roy” (1995) – Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange starred in this adventure film about Scottish chieftain Rob Roy McGregor and his conflict with an unscrupulous nobleman in the early 18th century Scottish Highlands. Michael Caton-Jones directed.

8. “The Master of Ballantrae” (1984) – Michael York, Richard Thomas, Fiona Hughes and Timothy Dalton starred in this second adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel about two estranged Scottish noblemen, who are also brothers. Douglas Hickox directed.

9. “Swashbuckler” (1976) – Robert Shaw starred in this adaptation of Paul Wheeler’s story, “The Scarlet Buccaneer”, about a early 18th century pirate who forms an alliance with the daughter of a disgraced judge against an evil imperial politician. James Goldstone directed.

10. “The Master of Ballantrae” (1953) – Errol Flynn, Anthony Steel and Roger Livsey starred in an earlier adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel about two estranged Scottish noblemen, who are also brothers. William Keighley directed.

“COLD COMFORT FARM” (1995) Review

“COLD COMFORT FARM” (1995) Review

Years ago . . . and I do mean a lot of years, I came across a movie inside a video rental store called “COLD COMFORT FARM”. I had never heard of it before that day. But . . . being a period drama fan and discovering that the movie was a comedy set in the 1930s, I decided to give it a try. And I never looked back. 

I managed to rent “COLD COMFORT FARM” several times before the use of VHS recorders/players went out of style. Then I spent several years trying to find a copy of the movie on DVD. It was not until recently that I finally came across a copy of “COLD COMFORT FARM” again, despite the fact that the movie had been released on DVD for several years.

Based upon Stella Gibson’s 1932 novel and directed by John Schlesinger, “COLD COMFORT FARM” told the story of a young upper-class, yet impoverished woman named Flora Poste, who decided to become a writer following the deaths of her parents. Flora decided that due to her impoverished state, she needed to find relatives to stay with, while embarking upon her first novel. Her London relatives seemed to have no interest in offering Flora a place to live, so she wrote letters to some of her rural relatives. After receiving a few unsuitable responses, Flora became intrigued by a letter from a cousin named Judith Starkadder, Flora decided to stay for a while at the Starkadders’ rundown farm. The Starkadders and their servants proved to be an odd bunch that consisted of rustic, uncouth, slatternly and eccentric people that include:

*Aunt Ada Doom – the family’s elderly and paranoid matriarch and owner of the farm, who rarely set foot outside her bedroom, but controlled the family with an iron fist.

*Judith Doom Starkadder – Ada’s depressing daughter, who possessed a penchant for gloomy predictions and a possessive regard for her younger son Seth.

*Amos Starkadder – Judith’s husband, a religious fanatic and local minister with a penchant for hellfire and damnation sermon.

*Seth Starkadder – Amos and Judith’s sexy younger son, a womanizer and movie fanatic

*Reuben Starkadder – Amos and Judith

Deciding that the only to live, while researching for her first novel, Flora decides that the only way for her to live whilst researching her writing is to stay with relatives. Her city-based relatives show no interest, so she sends letters to her country relatives. There are a few responses, most of them unsuitable, but one is intriguing. Flora decides to stay for a while with the Starkadder family on their rundown farm. The Starkadders are an assortment of rustic, uncouth, and truly eccentric characters, each of whom has a hurdle (be it physical, emotional, or spiritual) to overcome before reaching his or her potential. Flora quickly realises that as a modern twentieth-century woman, she can resolve these situations once she has assessed and solved each character’s problems.

Following my recent viewing of “COLD COMFORT FARM”, I found myself wondering if there were any aspects of the film that I did not like or found baffling. Well, I had a few questions regarding Aunt Ada Doom and her daughter, Judith Doom Starkadder. Had the Doom family been members of the local gentry? I found it hard to connect the high-born and well-bred Flora Poste to the obviously non-sophisticated Aunt Ada Doom and Judith Starkadder. I have never read Gibson’s novel, but I do wish the movie had been a bit clearer on the blood connection between Flora and the Starkadder women. Another problem I had with the film was the romance between Elfine Starkadder and the blue-blooded Dick Hawk-Monitor. The latter must have been indulged by his parents as a boy. I find it hard to believe that the Hawk-Monitor family, especially Mrs. Hawk-Monitor, did not raise a bigger fuss over young Dick’s choice for his future wife. Instead, the cinematic Mrs. Hawk-Monitor merely expressed surprise, dismay and eventual resignation over the idea of Elfine as her future daughter-in-law.

Otherwise, “COLD COMFORT FARM” is an engaging and delightful film that never ceases to entertain me every time I watch it. The movie also featured some rather sharp humor that always leaves me in stitches. Before my recent viewing of “COLD COMFORT FARM”, I learned that its literary source, Stella Gibson’s 1932 novel, was basically a parody of the “loam and lovechild” literary genre aka “pessimistic ruralism” that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – including the novels of Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb. It is this aspect of the movie that made it very entertaining and hilarious to me. In fact, the Starkadder family and their servants used dialogue that is considered a parody of Sussex and West Country rural accents. Words like “mollocking” or “sukebind”(look them up yourselves, for I have not the foggiest idea what they mean) kept popping out of their mouths, causing me to raise and eyebrow or two. And then there is the character of Mr. Meyerburg (aka “Mr. Mybug”), a local writer who pursued Flora and seemed to be obsessed with sex. It is believed that his character was used to parody intellectuals like the Freudians and admirers of author D. H. Lawrence.

On one level, the movie’s narrative made it clear that Flora had remained at Cold Comfort Farm to drag the Starkadders into the early 20th century. But in doing so, Gibbons and screenwriter Malcolm Bradbury had more or less transformed Flora into a trickster figure. You know . . . another Mary Poppins, Loki, Jack Sparrow, Bagger Vance or Dolly Levi. Despite Flora’s subtle and cool personality, she seemed to have the strongest similarity with the latter. Like Dolly and unlike the others, Flora’s tale concluded with a “happily ever after” with the man she loved.

What can I say about the production quality for “COLD COMFORT FARM”? I thought it was pretty solid. Production designer Malcolm Thornton did a good job in re-creating early 1930s Sussex and London. I say good, because if I may be perfectly honest, his designs did not exactly blow my mind. I can say the same about Jim Holloway’s art designs and Chris Seager’s photography. Amy Roberts’ costume designs seemed to perfectly reflect the film’s setting and the characters’ personalities, class, and financial situation. However, I was not that impressed by the hairstyles for the women. Kate Beckinsale’s hair seemed to be a cross of a late 1920s bob and . . . well, something. Joanna Lumley’s shingled bob definitely looked as if it came straight from the mid-to-late 1920s. Aside from the hairstyles, which I admit is a lame complaint, I do not have any real problems with the production values for “COLD COMFORT FARM”.

On the other hand, I found the performances from the cast well done. There were solid performances from the likes of Maria Miles as a charming Elfine Starkadder, Christopher Bowen as Charles Fairford (Flora’s admirer), Jeremy Peters as Urk, the always wonderful Miriam Margolyes as the Starkadders’ housekeeper Mrs. Beetle, Angela Thorne as Mrs. Hawk-Monitor and a very young Rupert Penry-Jones as Dick Hawk-Monitor (although his pencil-thin moustache was not that flattering). Ivan Kaye gave a charming, yet solid performance as Reuben Starkadder, the only member of the family truly capable of managing the farm. And I found Sheila Burrell’s performance as the family’s controlling matriarch very amusing and spot-on.

But there were performances that I found truly entertaining. Stephen Fry was hilarious as a local writer named Mr. Myburg, a D.L. Lawrence fanatic who seems to fancy Flora. Ian McKellen gave a rather funny performance as Amos Starkadder, Aunt Ada’s son-in-law, who happened to be the farm’s manager. Amos is also a religious fanatic, who also happened to be a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. The scene featuring his rather fiery sermon is not to be missed. I found Freddie Jones’ portrayal of the Starkadders’ farmhand, Adam Lambsbreath, rather charming, hilarious and rather loopy. Joanna Lumley gave a very sly and entertaining performance as Flora’s close friend, London socialite Mrs. Mary Smiling, who seemed to have formed a hobby of collecting brassières. And there was Rufus Sewell, who gave a titilating performance as the family’s ladies’ man, Seth Starkadder. At times, I found his performance both charming and sexy. And at other times, I found his portrayal of Seth’s overt masculinity rather hilarious . . . especially in scenes in which he resorted to poses to attract Flora’s attention.

For me, one of the two funniest performances came from Eileen Atkins, who portrayed Aunt Ada’s daughter, Judith Starkadder. Atkins was superb as the dour Judith, who possessed a disposition for doom-and-gloom prophecies, calling Flora “Robert Poste’s child”, and harboring a . . . uh, slightly incestuous regard for her younger son Seth. Equally hilarious was Harry Ditson who portrayed a close friend of Flora’s and Hollywood producer, Earl P. Neck. I loved how Ditson conveyed his character’s charm, extroverted personality and wit. In fact, he had at least two of the best lines in the movies. But the one person who truly ruled this movie was Kate Beckinsale, who portrayed the story’s main protagonist, Flora Poste. She must have been at least 22 or 23 years old when she shot this film. Beckinsale did not give the funniest performance in the movie. In fact, she seemed to be serving as everyone else’s straight man. But she was the one who kept this movie together; held her own against the likes Atkins, McKellen, Lumley and Burrell; and still managed to portray Flora Poste as a compelling and charismatic personality.

I might have a few complaints about “COLD COMFORT FARM”. But if I must be honest, they were rather minor to me. As far as I am concerned, “COLD COMFORT FARM” was a charming, fascinating and very funny film . . . even after twenty years or so. It was a worthy adaptation of Stella Gibson’s novel, thanks to Malcolm Bradbury’s screenplay, a superb cast led by a charismatic Kate Beckinsale and excellent direction by screen legend John Schlesinger.

A Letter From Verity

 

A LETTER FROM VERITY

In Winston Graham’s 1953 novel, “WARLEGGAN: A NOVEL OF CORNWALL, 1792-1793”, Verity Poldark Blamey had attended the wedding of her widowed sister-in-law, Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark, to banker, George Warleggan. 

Since the novel’s protagonist Ross Poldark and his wife Demelza Carne Poldark did not attend the wedding, Verity wrote a letter to her cousin-in-law. Below is a passage from that letter:

“I hope Ross is prospering. I need hardly be told the effect Elizabeth’s marriage to George Warleggan will have had on him, and now that they are coming to live beside you it will be an added Offence. Pray be patient with Ross at this time. I have not seen Elizabeth since the day of the wedding, but have had one letter from her. We went, of course, to the wedding, Andrew and I; for Elizabeth’s sake we could not well refuse; she had Few enough of her own people about her. From the start I do not think I liked greatly the thought of this Union. I have no feud such as Ross has to support me, and I have nothing against the Warleggans because they are new rich. Most of our aristocratic families were founded by successful traders at one time or another. But George has never quite carried his money Rightly. None of them do, and when you see them in Aggregate, it is specially noticeable.

Four years earlier, Verity had married a middle-class sea captain named Andrew Blamey. Despite her marriage, despite her declaration that she had nothing against the Warleggan family because they were noveau riche, despite her revelation that many aristocratic families had originated as successful traders and the fact that she was writing to her cousin-in-law, who had been born into the working-class . . . I now realize that Verity was a snob . . . despite all of the above. How disappointing. And yet, I am not surprised. I see that in some ways, she is a lot like her cousin Ross Poldark.

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter I Commentary

 

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“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER I Commentary

Years ago, before the advent of DVDs, I had perused my local video rental store for something to watch. I came across a miniseries called “THE CHISHOLMS”. Due to it being a Western and possessing a running time of four hours and thirty minutes, I decided to give it a chance. I managed to purchase a VHS copy of the miniseries and enjoy for several years. But with the advent of the DVD and my VHS player going on the blink, I had to wait quite a while before I could finally get a DVD copy of it. 

Based upon Evan Hunter’s 1976 novel, “THE CHISHOLMS” told the story of a family from western Virginia, who make the momentous decision to travel west to California after losing part of their farm to a neighbor, due to some unusual circumstances. Unlike many other television and movie productions about the westward migration during the 1840s, “THE CHIISHOLMS” took its time in setting up the story. In this first episode, it spent at least an hour introducing the Chisholm family – namely:

*Hadley Chisholm – the family’s patriarch and owner of a farm in western Virginia
*Minerva Chisholm – the family’s matriarch
*William “Will” Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s oldest son, who is also a veteran of the Texas Revolution
*Gideon Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s second son
*Bonnie Sue Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s older daughter and Beau’s twin
*Beau Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s youngest son and Bonnie Sue’s twin
*Annabel Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s younger daughter and youngest offspring

The first episode or Chapter I began with Will’s wedding to a young local woman named Elizabeth during the spring of 1843. Also, the family is unaware of Bonnie Sue’s romance with a young man named Brian Cassidy. Unfortunately for her and Brian, the Chisholms and the Cassidys have been engaged in a feud ever since Hadley’s brother had rejected Brian’s aunt at the wedding altar several decades ago. When the latter died, the Chisholms and the Cassidys discovered that she had received a portion of the Chisholm land – the farm’s most fertile – from Hadley’s brother as compensation for being dumped. She never revealed this to her family or the Chisholms. But she did leave her land to her brother and Brian’s father, Luke Cassidy, who did not wait long to demand that the Chisholms hand over the land. Matters worsen for the Chisholms when Will’s bride die from an infection after giving birth to an unborn child.

With no fertile land to farm, Hadley Chisholm decides to pack his family and migrate to California. Most of the family agrees with his decision, except Minerva, who is reluctant to leave Virginia; and Bonnie Sue, who is reluctant to leave Brian. The journey west goes without a hitch, until the family reaches Louisville, Kentucky. There, they discover from a young Western guide named Lester Hackett that they had departed Virginia at least a month or two late for the journey to California. The family had reached Louisville in mid-May 1844, around the time when most emigrant wagon trains usually departed Independence, Missouri. Upon learning this, Hadley changes his mind about the journey to California and decides to return to Virginia. But Will informs him that there are other members of the family are willing to utilize Lester’s plan that would eliminate some time from their trip to Independence. After the Chisholms decide to continue west via a family vote, they utilize Lester’s plan by boarding a flat-bottom boat that takes them to Evansville in western Indiana, cutting off their journey by a few weeks.

Some people might find the first hour of “THE CHISHOLMS” rather hard to endure. Most movie and television productions usually spend at least fifteen minutes in introducing its characters and conveying the reasons behind their decision to migrate to the West. “THE CHISHOLMS” spent an hour. Personally, this did not bother me, for I found the circumstances behind the Chisholms’ decision to head for California rather interesting. Especially since the circumstances involved a potential feud with another family. Other reasons why I rather enjoyed the miniseries’ first hour was how the circumstances in which the family made its departure originated with Hadley Chisholm’s displeasure over the neighborhood’s new minister from Vermont and how the latter conducted Elizabeth Chisholm’s funeral. I would explain how Hadley’s conflict over the new minister led to the family sneaking away from their home in the middle of the night. But it would require a great deal of narration on my part. And honestly, I would suggest that you simply watch the miniseries.

Once the family hit the road for California, the miniseries went into full steam. Chapter I only followed the Chisholms from Virginia to southwestern Indiana, but a good deal happened in that half hour. The temptation to return home to Virginia hovered over the family all the way to Louisville. And when the family learned from Lester Hackett that they had left Virginia about a month or so too late, even Hadley was tempted to turn around. What I found interesting about this turn of events is that Chisholms’ decision on whether to return to Virginia or continue west to California depended upon a family vote . . . and the instant attraction between Bonnie Sue Chisholm and Lester. Personally, I would have ended Chapter I with that scene inside a Louisville stable. Hadley and Minerva’s willingness to decide the whole matter on a vote, along with the sexual attraction between Bonnie Sue and Lester, would end up producing strong consequences later in the miniseries and in the short-lived television series that followed. Instead, the Chisholms experienced a brief journey down the Ohio River on a broad horn (flat-bottom raft), while Minerva endured the unwanted attention of the broad horn’s captain (or patroon) named Jimmy Jackson. By the time the family reached the outskirts of Evansville, it had reached the point of no return.

Another aspect about “THE CHISHOLMS” that I enjoyed, was how the producers, director Mel Stuart and the screenwriters utilized the production’s historical background without hitting viewers over the head with facts. The family had departed Virginia in 1844, a year that featured a Presidential election. Not once did the topic of the election graced anyone’s lips. But the miniseries made it clear that Will Chisholm was a veteran of the Texas Revolution of 1836. The miniseries also brought up the topic of slavery. The narrative pointed out that Hadley’s wealthiest neighbor was a planter and slave owner. And during the last half hour of Chapter I, a coffle of slaves was among the other passengers aboard Jimmy Jackson’s broad horn, leading Minerva Chisholm to express anti-slavery sentiments. I also enjoyed how the miniseries gave television viewers a lengthy peek into life in the early-to-mid 19th century Appalachia. I have always admired Aaron Copeland’s score for the miniseries. But I must admit that his score contributed to this episode’s first hour, which featured the Chisholms’ life in western Virginia.

Most of the production’s historical background seemed to revolve around the family’s westward journey. Unlike many Hollywood productions, television viewers did not see the Chisholms’ wagon being pulled by horses (which is historically inaccurate). And the narrative went out of its way to point out that the family began its westbound journey about a month or two late. I also enjoyed the brief montage that featured the Chisholms’ early start on the journey and what it took for them to maintain supplies and keep their wagon in condition. Steven P. Sardanis’s production designs, the art direction that he provided with Fred Price, Charles Korian and Charles B. Price’s set decorations, and Tom Costick’s costumes (to a certain extent), did a great job in re-creating western Virginia and the Ohio River Valley circa 1844.

But in the, the cast proved to be the best thing about “THE CHISHOLMS”. I must commend casting director Vicki Rosenberg for gathering a first-rate collection of performers for the cast. The miniseries featured solid performances from Dean Hill, Jack Wallace, Maureen Steindler, Tom Taylor, James O’Reilly and Gavin Troster; even if they did not exactly rock my boat. Glynnis O’Connor gave a charming performance as Will’s young wife, Elizabeth Chisholm. Anthony Zerbe gave a spotless performance as the sleazy flat boat patroon, Jimmy Jackson. But the one supporting performance that caught my eye came from Charles Frank, who gave the first of a series of dazzling performance as the charmingly ambiguous Lester Hackett.

Rosenberg casting of the Chisholm family proved to be even more impressive to me. Susan Swift gave a very charming and balanced performance as the family’s youngest member, Annabel Chisholm, who seemed divided between the adventure of migrating to California and being mindful of her mother’s reluctance to move. James Van Patten gave a very energetic and intense performance as the family’s hot-tempered member, Beau Chisholm. Stacy Nelkin’s portrayal of the sensual, yet pragmatic Bonnie Sue Chisholm struck me as very skillful, which is why her performance was one of my favorites in the series. Brian Kerwin, whom I remember from the 1982 miniseries, “THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”, seemed a bit laid back as middle son, Gideon Chisholm. But he gave a charming performance in the end. Ben Murphy portrayed the oldest sibling, Will Chisholm. And I thought he did a great job in revealing how Will seemed to be an interesting combination of his parents. I was especially impressed by how he handled Will’s grief over Elizabeth’s death.
Years after I had first seen “THE CHISHOLMS”, I was surprised to learn that the two leads – Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris – had first worked together on the 1966 Broadway play, “THE LION IN THE WINTER”. I do not if having them reunite for the 1979 miniseries was Rosenberg or someone’s idea, but it was a damn good one, all the same. What can I say? Whatever magic Preston and Harris had created on Broadway back in the mid-1960s, they managed to re-create it front of the television camera some 12 to 13 years later. In some ways, the pair seemed like the yin and yang of the Chisholm family. They were so perfect together that I do not know how else to describe their performance.

Before I end this article, I must admit there were one or two aspects of “THE CHISHOLMS” that either did not impress me or . . . confused me. Although I believe that Tom Costick’s costumes added to the production mid-1840s setting . . . but only to a certain degree. It did seem that a great deal of Costick’s costumes looked as if they had come out of a Hollywood warehouse, instead of being created by him. Especially the women’s costumes. Even those costumes worn by well-to-do women in the Louisville sequence gave that impression. And I am a little confused about the circumstances surrounding Hadley’s loss of his most fertile cornfield. I understood how he lost the actual land to Luke Cassidy. What I did understand was how Cassidy managed to take possession of the corn that the Chisholm family had already sown. Surely the court would have allowed the Chisholms to profit from the corn sown from seeds purchased by them? If someone could clear this matter for me, please do so.

Despite my quibbles regarding the costumes and the matter surrounding the cornfield lost to the Chisholms, I enjoyed Chapter I of “THE CHISHOLMS” very much. In fact, watching it reminded me why it had become one of my favorite miniseries in the first place. Why on earth did I wait so long in watching it again? Oh well . . . on to Chapter II.

“Ross Poldark and Noblesse Oblige”

“ROSS POLDARK AND NOBLESSE OBLIGE”

“You are mistaken if you think greed and exploitation are the marks of a gentleman.” – Ross Poldark to George Warleggan, “P0LDARK” (2015) 

When I first heard Ross Poldark speak those words to his nemesis, George Warleggan in Episode Eight of the current “POLDARK”series, I found myself wondering if Ross might be full of shit. Or perhaps he was either illusional . . . or a class bigot. Regardless, I could not help but roll my eyes at his remark.

I realize that some might wonder how I could accuse Ross Poldark . . . Ross Poldark of class bigotry. This man has been a champion of the working-class in his little part of Cornwall. He has managed to befriend his workers. He has spoken out on behalf of them and other members of their class. And he has been willing to make any effort to come to their aid – especially those who work on his land, even if he sometimes come off as patronizing. He has certainly expressed anger when he believed any of them has needlessly suffered, due to the actions of the upper-class or other wealthy types. Ross had spent days in a state of drunken anger after one of his former employees, Jim Carter had died after spending over a year in prison for poaching. He had also married his kitchen-maid, Demelza Carne, despite the tongue-wagging of his elite neighbors and family members.

Also, one cannot deny that the Warleggans deserved Ross’ scorn. George Warleggan’s grandfather had been a blacksmith who eventually became a moderately wealthy man. His sons – George’s father and uncle Cary – acquired even more wealth, leading the family to become their parish’s wealthiest bankers. George was the first in his family to be and his family were a money hungry bunch that resort to grasping ways – legal or illegal – to not only acquire money, but also rise up the social ladder in order to become part of Cornwall’s upper-class. They are pretty much an ambitious and venal bunch who do not seemed to give a rat’s ass about the suffering of the lower classes. They also seemed willing to inflict suffering upon them for the sake of greater profits and social respectability. And yet . . . the interesting thing about the Warleggans is that they had managed to acquire great wealth on their own – meaning without the help of some aristocrat or member of the landed gentry.

So, why did I have a problem with Ross’ words? Were viewers really expected to believe that only noveau riche types like the Warleggans were capable of greed and exploitation? History tells us that the landed gentry and the aristocracy were just as guilty of greed and exploiting not only their workers, but their land, despite occasional moments of taking care of those beneath them when times were tough. And yet, I get the feeling that those moments of compassion stemmed from the idea of “noblesse oblige” – people of noble birth being duty bound to take responsibility for the well being of those under their patronage or employment. However, “noblesse oblige” had not prevented aristocrats and members of the landed gentry from engaging in years of exploiting their land, their tenants and their employees; living greedily from their profits, and doing a poor job of managing their money led to a decrease in their wealth. This was the case for Polarks, the Chynoweths and other upper class families – fictional or not – who found themselves cash poor by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. British landowners had been enclosing their lands – forcing tenant farmers to become agricultural laborers – since the late seventeeth century, at least a century before George Warleggan had enclosed the Trenwith estate, following his marriage to Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark. And they continued to do so well into the nineteenth century.

If Ross regarded himself, his uncle Charles Poldark, his cousin Francis Poldark and other members of the landed gentry like Sir Hugh Bodrugan, the Treneglos, Ray Penvenen and Unwin Trevaunance as “gentlemen”, then his comments to George were spoken in error. Most, if not all, of these gentlemen were capable of greed and exploitation. Ross might occasionally criticize the behavior of his fellow members of the upper-class, just as he had did following the death of his former employee, Jim Carter. But he has never expressed antagonism toward them with the same level that he has toward the Warleggans. It is quite obvious that he regarded these men as “gentlemen”. He seemed to have no problems with socializing or forming a business enterprise with them. And if this is the case, I cannot help but wonder about the true reason behind Ross’ antipathy toward the Warleggans.

Had Ross’ antipathy originated with his exposure of the Warleggans’ cousin, Matthew Sanson, as a card cheat? I rather doubt it. Ross and some of his other acquaintances had been making snide comments about the Warleggans’ rise in wealth since the series began. No matter how many times George tried to befriend Ross throughout most of Series One, the latter would dismiss his effort with a sardonic or nasty comment. Yet, Ross seemed to have no problems with socializing with the likes of the snotty Ruth Teague Treneglos and her ineffectual husband; the money grasping blue-blooded politician Unwin Trevaunance, who sought heiress Caroline Penvenen’s hand for her money; or the self-absorbed Sir Hugh Bodrugan, who seemed to have no concern for anyone or anything, aside from his own pleasures – including Demelza Poldark, whom he pursued like some aged satyr. Even Ross is not the epitome of “gentlemanly” sainthood. He seemed so hellbent upon finding a wealthy source of copper or even tin from his mine, Wheal Grace that he failed to consider that he lacked the funds to ensure a safe environment for his workers. This determination to strike a lode without any safety measures led to an accident and the deaths of a few men. And his aggressive, yet adulterous actions against his widowed cousin-in-law (I might as well be frank – his rape of Elzabeth) in the eighth episode of Series Two made it perfectly clear that “gentleman” or not, Ross can be repulsive.

And yet, despite all of this, Ross seemed to regard the Warleggans as an unworthy lot. I am not saying that George and his uncle are a nice bunch. They can be just as repulsive and greedy as their upper-class neighbors. And on several occasions, the Warleggans have made derisive comments about Demelza, who happened to be a miner’s daughter. All this tells me is that contrary to Ross’ comment to George, the latter’s family is no better or worse than the other upper-class characters in the “POLDARK” saga. They are quite capable of being snobs. But what about Ross? Is he a snob? He may be friendly toward his workers and willing to help them out, but his friendly and compassionate regard for them seemed to have a patronizing taint. In fact, his love toward his working-class wife Demelza seemed to have the same taint.

Although his good friend, Dr. Dwight Enys, managed to rise from his working-class background to become a doctor, he did so with the help of upper-class patronage. And Ross provided his own patronage toward Dwight in helping the latter establish a medical practice in their part of Cornwall. Ross even helped Dwight in the latter’s romance with the blue-blooded Caroline Penvenen. I cannot help but wonder if the Warleggans had the benefit of “noblesse oblige” – namely an upper-class mentor to guide them in their rise to great wealth, would Ross have been less hostile toward them?

Perhaps it is one thing for Ross Poldark to help the lower classes have a better life – by offering them jobs or homes, providing patronage for someone with potential like Dwight Enys, or marrying his kitchen maid. It is another thing – at least for him – to tolerate people from the lower classes like the Warleggans to rise up in wealth through their own efforts and not via the benefit of the “noblesse oblige”. And my gut instinct tells me that the Warleggans’ rise via their own grit, ambition and brains was something that Ross could not stomach.

“LOVE AND WAR” (1984) Book Review

loveandwar

LOVE AND WAR (1984) Book Review

I have stumbled across my share of “Best Civil War Novels” lists on the Internet. I have yet to come across a list that includes John Jakes’ 1984 novel, “LOVE AND WAR”. 

Back in the 1980s, Jakes created his second major literary series, a trilogy about two wealthy American families during a period of thirty years during the 19th century. The first novel, “NORTH AND SOUTH” (1982) focused on the experiences of the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina between the years 1842 and 1861. “HEAVEN AND HELL” (1987), the third novel, is set between 1865 and 1877. But the second novel, “LOVE AND WAR” focused on the two families’ experiences during the Civil War.

The trilogy began when George Hazard, the son of a wealthy iron industrialist; and Orry Main, the son of a South Carolina rice planter; first met on their way to West Point in the late spring of 1842. The pair quickly became life-long friends, as they survived four years at the military academy, the Mexican-American War, and nearly a decade-and-a-half of political strife over the issue of slavery. Due to George and Orry’s friendship, their two families became very close over the years. By the end of “NORTH AND SOUTH”, George’s younger brother Billy had married Orry’s younger sister, Brett. Orry and the love his life, Madeline Fabray LaMotte, finally reconciled after years of clandestine meetings, when Madeline left her venal husband Justin Lamotte, after seventeen years of marriage.

However, following the outbreak of the Civil War, the friendship and familial connection between the Hazards and the Mains became tested when the Civil War begins. “LOVE AND WAR” began two weeks after “NORTH AND SOUTH” ended – in late April 1861. By the beginning of “LOVE AND WAR”, the two families consist of:

The Hazards
*George Hazard – one of the protagonists, who is a former Army officer and like his father, an iron industrialist
*Constance Flynn Hazard – George’s Irish-born wife and an abolitionist
*Stanley Hazard – George’s older brother, who left the iron trade to become a politician
*Isobel Truscott Hazard – Stanley’s shrewish and social-climbing wife
*Virgilia Hazard – George’s only sister and die-hard abolitionist
*Billy Hazard – George’s younger brother and Army officer
*Brett Main Hazard – Orry’s youngest sister and Bily’s new bride

The Mains
*Orry Main – one of the protagonists, who is a former Army officer and like his father, a rice planter
*Madeline Fabray LaMotte Main – Orry’s wife and widow of Justin LaMotte
*Cooper Main – Orry’s older brother and owner of a shipping company
*Ashton Main Huntoon – Orry’s younger sister and die-hard secessionist
*Charles Main – Orry’s young cousin, who had resigned from the U.S. Army to join the Confederacy Army
*Judith Stafford Main – Cooper’s wife, who also happens to be an abolitionist
*James Huntoon – Ashton’s husband, who is also a secessionist and attorney
*Clarissa Brett Main – Orry’s ailing mother

The novel not only featured the viewpoints of the Hazards and Mains, but also their friends, lovers, slaves and one Elkhannah Bent, an Ohio-born Army officer who had become an enemy of George and Orry during their years at West Point. Bent even became an enemy of Charles Main, when the two had served together on the Texas frontier in the late 1850s. the outbreak and chaos of war, along with Bent’s determination to survive, failed to put a damper on his desire to strike back at George, Orry, Charles and the other members of the two families.

I noticed that most of “LOVE AND WAR” focused on the Civil War’s Eastern Theater. Aside from taking readers to the political offices, salons and the military hospitals of Washington D.C. and Union Army camps; the novel also explored the Union and Confederate home fronts in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania – the Hazards’ hometown; and the Mains’ plantation, Mont Royal, in the South Carolina low country. Jakesk also explored various historical and violent incidents on the homefront through his characters – especially the Southern bread riot that broke out in 1862 Richmond, and the 1863 New York City draft riots. Although both George and Orry become military officers again after thirteen-to-fourteen years as civilians, their wartime experiences as military bureaucrats prove to be sources of great frustration for both of them. Stanley Hazard’s role as a political aide with the War Department gave readers a look into the politics of wartime Washington D.C. Readers learn about politics in wartime Richmond via the eyes of Ashton Main Huntoon, who also happened to be a politician’s wife. Through Virgilia Hazard, readers not only discover what countless number of women – including a future famous author – experienced as a wartime nurse. Cooper Main joined the Confederate’s Navy Department at the beginning of the war and through him, readers learned about the Confederates’ efforts to construct new warships in Great Britain’s shipyards. Through characters like Charles Main and Billy Hazard, readers explored the horrors of Civil War combat and prison camps in Maryland, Pennsylvania and especially Northern Virginia. Only through the Elkhannah Bent character were readers able to experience the war’s Western theater via the Battle of Shiloh and Union occupied New Orleans.

If I must be honest, I am rather surprised that Jakes’ trilogy, especially “LOVE AND WAR”, became major bestsellers. From the recent comments and reviews I have read on the Internet, I came away with the feeling that many found “LOVE AND WAR” difficult to read. In fact, many readers have complained that the novel featured too many characters. I found this complaint rather odd, considering that novels with several major characters have been the norm during the 20th century. And when did the number of characters suddenly became a detriment to a good novel? Following my recent reading of “LOVE AND WAR”, I must admit that I find this opinion hard to accept. And then there is the matter of the novel’s content. I have discovered that a good number of critics seem unwilling to accept Jakes’ mixture of historical drama and melodrama. And so, I found myself scratching my head at another criticism. Melodrama and history in a novel? These two elements have been the norm in many historical dramas – including the still highly rated “GONE WITH THE WIND” and the “POLDARK” series. When did the mixture of history and melodrama become unacceptable?

When it comes to the mixture of history and melodrama, I believe John Jakes has proven to be one of the few novelists who did it best. In “LOVE AND WAR”, I thought he did an excellent job in conveying both the personal and historic experiences of his major characters – especially during a highly charged period in American history like the Civil War. Not only did the author explore his characters’ desires, loves, fears, personal tragedy and ambition; he did so while exploring the historical background of the novel’s setting. I just realized that aside from a handful of history books and documentaries, I managed to learn a great deal about the United States’ Antebellum period, the Civil War and the post-war era from the NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy, due to Jakes’ meticulous research and skillful writing. And about human nature.

Four of the most interesting aspects of “LOVE AND WAR” proved to be the wartime experiences of Billy Hazard, Brett Main Hazard, a former slave named Jane and Charles Main. Being an Army engineer, Billy Hazard did not participate in any battles, although he did witness a good deal of danger. Billy started out the novel as an Army officer loyal to the Union cause, but lacking any sympathy toward abolition or African-Americans – unlike Virgilia, Constance or George. Despite spending the first half of the war maintaining this attitude, it took capture by Confederate forces and a harrowing period as a prisoner of war inside Libby Prison for Billy to even understand what it means to be treated cruelly, let alone be under the complete control of another. And it took his experiences with black troops during the war’s last year to make him view them more than just subhuman, children or victims.

Ironically, his wife, Brett Main Hazard, went through a similar metamorphosis on the home front. Being the daughter and later, the sister of a South Carolina planter, Brett had difficulty adjusting to life in the North and the resentment of the Hazards’ neighbors. Throughout the novel, Brett’s encounter with several people during the war forced her to question her own priviledged Southern upbring through a series of stages. First, she helped her impoverished sister-in-law, the hardcore abolitionist Virgilia Hazard, regain some kind of physical attraction. George and Constance Hazard’s sponsorship of a local orphanage for Southern black children displaced by the war led Brett to develop compassion for them – something she had failed to do with her family’s slaves back at Mont Royal. The orphanage also led to a surprising friendship with the orphanage’s founder, a New England-born black man named Arthur Scipio Brown.

Another interesting character proved to be a young African-American woman named Jane, who found herself living at Mont Royal during the war. Jane was never owned by the Mains. She was introduced as a recently emancipated slave, who was accompanying her aunt, an elderly free black woman named Aunt Belle Nin, to the Union lines. Due to Aunt Belle’s illness, the pair sought brief refuge at Mont Royal, due to the elderly woman’s friendship with Madeline Main. Following Aunt Belle’s death, Madeline asked Jane to remain at Mont Royal and educate the plantation’s slaves in preparation for the end of the war. Madeline, who was biracial, foresaw the end of slavery and wanted the slaves to be prepared for the chaos of a post-war South. Through Jane’s eyes, readers saw how the institution of slavery affected her fellow African-Americans throughout generations. What made Jane’s role in the novel so interesting is that readers were given a closer and more personal look at the slaves as human beings than he ever did in the trilogy’s first novel, “NORTH AND SOUTH”.

Charles Main’s wartime experiences did not bring about a social and political metamorphisis as it did his cousin and best friend, Brett and Billy Hazard. Even as a child, he never really shared his family’s racism or dismiss the ugliness of slavery. On the other hand, readers were granted an exploration of life within the ranks of the Confederate Army through his eyes. Looking back, I realized that Charles’ experiences pretty much served as a metaphor for the novel’s title. Charles had began the story as a man who had already gained experience as a military officer during his four years at West Point and another four years as a U.S. Army officer on the Texas frontier. He spent his early months of the war not only trying (and sometimes failing) to instill a sense of professionalism to the Confederate soldiers who served under him. Charles’ sense of professionalism also included a belief that soldiers had no business getting involved in a serious romance. As far as Charles was concerned, serious romance prevented a soldier from being distracted and doing his job. This belief was immediately challenged after meeting a young and witty Virginia widow named Augusta Barclay, who owned a farm in Northern Virginia. Despite his efforts to maintain an emotional distance from Augusta, Charles’ feelings for her deepened. And as the war began to take an emotional toll upon him, Charles began to question the logic of continuing his romance with Augusta. If anything, Charles’ professional and personal experiences during the war proved to be a prime example of Jakes’ ability to skillfully weave both history and melodrama together.

I do have a few complaints about “LOVE AND WAR”. One, most of the novel’s setting seemed to be focused solely on the war’s Eastern Theater – with scenes and chapters set along the Eastern Seabord. Villain Elkhanah Bent’s participation in the Battle of Shiloh and his assignment in New Orleans gaves readers a view of the war’s Western theater. Also, at least three characters ended up in the New Mexico Territory by the end of the war. But a part of me wished that Jakes had allowed more scenes away from the East – as he had done in “NORTH AND SOUTH”.

But my complaint about setting is minor in compare to another issue – namely the novel’s villains. I will give Jakes kudos for managing to portray them with the same kind of complexity as he did his protagonists. I suspect that he may have somewhat succeed with Elkhannah Bent, Ashton Huntoon and Stanley Hazard. The author went further in revealing their desires, fears and ways of dealing with their personal demons and crisis. However, both Bent and Ashton still seemed less rounded than in compare to the protagonists. James Huntoon had been portrayed as a minor villain in the 1982 novel. But once his marriage fell apart, thanks to Ashton’s love affair with a smuggler and political conspirator named Lamar Powell and his career within the Confederate government stalled, Huntoon ceased to be a villain and Jakes portrayed him with a lot more sympathy.

Jakes’ portrayal of the Mont Royal slave named Cuffey began with some level of complexity, as the character expressed his anger over being considered the Mains’ property. But not much time had passed before Jakes had reduced Cuffey to a one-note thug and bully. I look back at Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of the character in the 1986 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” and found myself wishing that the literary version of the character had been portrayed in a similar manner. Jakes’ portrayal of Isabel Truscott Hazard remained as static as ever. Although Jakes seemed willing to portray Stanley with more complexity, he kept Isabel as the one-note vindictive shrew throughout the novel – with the exception of one scene in which she discovered Stanley’s affair with a tawdry actress. As for the Lamar Powell character, he struck me as a one-dimensional rogue with a cruel and controlling streak. Granted, Jakes did allow one sequence featuring Powell’s point-of-view. But that could not save the character for me.

I cannot say the same about George’s older brother, Stanley Hazard. Jakes seemed a lot more sympathetic toward Stanley in “LOVE AND WAR” than he was in the preceeding novel. Stanley did not become a better person. His views of his brother George remained as resentful as ever, despite his own success in politics. And his support of the Radical Republicans and their pro-abolitionist views was at best, a hoax on his part in order to further his career. And yet, Jakes seemed more than willing to portray Stanley with a bit more sympathy and more complexity.

On the other hand, I found it odd that Jakes was willing to be more flexible with Stanley’s character, but he could not do the same for the character’s only sister, Virgilia Hazard. Unlike other fans of Jakes’ saga, I have never regarded Virgilia as a villain and I never will. I do not regard her as perfect. And she is guilty of killing a wounded Confederate officer who had the bad luck to share the same name as her former lover, a fugitive slave named Grady who had been killed during John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. But I can never regard Virgilia as a villain. One, I share her political views . . . very strongly. Two, I find her family’s unwillingness to allow Virgilia to be herself rather frustrating. I suspect that their dismissal of her politics – due to their own conservatism and her gender – had a negative effect on her character. And three, I have noticed that Jakes’ negative portrayal of Virgilia seemed to have spread toward those historic figures that share her politics – namely the Radical Republicans.

I realize that the Radical Republicans were not perfect. But not all of them were not as bad as Jakes had portrayed them. Not once have I ever sensed the author’s willingness to portray them with any kind of sympathy or understanding. He seemed willing to criticize their behavior and policies, yet he avoids criticizing moderates such as President Lincoln like the plague. In once scene, Brett Hazrard had learned from her brother-in-law Stanley about the Republican Party’s plans to exploit the freed slaves’ gratitude over being emancipated after the war. I can only wonder if Jakes was accusing all of the Radical Republicans (including men like Thaddeus Stevens) for this willingness to exploit former slaves or fake abolitionists like Stanley and Isabel Hazard. Were all Radical Republicans – save for Virgilia – fake abolitionists? And was he trying to convey to readers that Virgilia was blind to the machinations of the Radical Republicans? Or was Virgilia simply a victim of Jakes’ overall negative attitude toward the Radical Republicans? Judging from what I have read, I can only conclude the latter.

In regard to historical accuracy, I can only account for one major example in the novel. It features an assassination plot hatched by Lamar Powell, along with the Huntoons and a few others against Confederacy president Jefferson Davis. Needless to say, this never happened. However, dislike and/or hatred of Davis did exist within the Confederacy. But aside from this story arc, Jakes painted a realistic portrait of the Civil War.

“LOVE AND WAR” is probably one of the finest Civil War novels I have ever read. The novel really gives readers a wide range view of war through the eyes of the Hazard and Main families and those with close connections to them. More importantly, Jakes managed to provide readers with a realistic portrait of the Civil War filled with a good deal of personal drama, humor, brutality, euphoria and tragedy. It is a shame that this novel is so underrated by book readers and critics today, because I thought it was simply superb, despite the few flaws it might possess. Who knows? Perhaps one day it will be universally appreciated again.