From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
Never having watched the original series on Masterpiece Theatre in the 1970s, I was unfamiliar with Ross Poldark and a little curious about the buzz surrounding the new BBC/PBS series starring Aidan Turner. I wondered whether there was more to Ross Poldark than his good looks. When Laurel Ann Nattress assured Austenprose readers that Ross was a hero every bit as worthy of their warm regard as Mr. Darcy, John Thornton or Mr. Rochester, I decided to read the first novel in Winston Graham’s saga and decide for myself.
Ross Poldark is subtitled “A Novel of Cornwall 1783-1787” and is strongly rooted in the geography, people, and events of the Cornish countryside. The wind and the sea figure as characters in their own right. In the book’s prologue, six months before Ross returns from fighting in America, his father Joshua is close to death.
He felt he would like one more look at the sea, which even now was licking at the rocks behind the house. He had no sentimental notions about the sea; he had no regard for its dangers or its beauties; to him it was a close acquaintance whose every virtue and failing, every smile and tantrum he had come to understand. (10)
Ross returns to find his inherited home at Nampara grossly neglected by gin-swilling servants Jud and Prudie Paynter and the tin mine on his father’s property shut down. Worse still his arrival coincides with the engagement of his cousin Francis to Elizabeth Chynoweth, the woman Ross has been in love with for years. With Elizabeth married to another man, Ross throws himself into repairing his house and tending to the concerns of his tenants. Impulsively he hires a rough young girl named Demelza Carne as kitchenmaid. Her feisty, independent spirit invigorates Poldark’s bleak existence as he struggles to rebuild his life.
The story provides plenty of action: brawls, a cockfight, a duel with pistols, and a shipwreck are among the highlights. But more surprising were the social and emotional aspects of the narrative. Early in the story, Graham portrays the grim life of the local working people:
It was the mine around which the varying fortunes of the main Poldark family centered. On its vagaries depended not merely the prosperity of Charles Poldark and his family but the subsistence level of some three hundred miners and their families scattered in huts and cottages about the parish. To them the mine was a benevolent Moloch to whom they fed their children at an early age and from whom they took their daily bread. (32)
Ross Poldark is a man of action, but also one of compassion, though he strives to hide his feelings from others. Unable to ignore suffering or injustice, he is often allied with the local laborers rather than the interests of his own people.
In two years Ross had seen little of his own family and class. What he had overheard in the library on the day of Geoffrey Charles’ christening had filled him with contempt for them… He was not as concerned as they about the return of Maria Fitzherbert from the Continent or the scandal of the queen of France’s necklace. There were families in the district without enough bread and potatoes to keep them alive, and he wanted the families to be given gifts in kind, so that the epidemics of December and January should not have such easy prey. (221)
He also takes a perverse pleasure in tweaking the noses of local gossips and busybodies. In these scenes, Graham’s dialog crackles.
“Ross, I know you are not uninterested in the sport. Perhaps you will instruct me in its finer points.”
Ross smiled back. “I feel convinced, ma’am, that there are no subtleties of combat on which I can offer you any useful advice.” (64)
Ross’s wit is matched, if not exceeded by Demelza’s. As loyal to Ross as she is to her beloved dog Garrick, she does not hesitate to cross swords with the wife of one of Ross’s wealthy neighbors.
“Oh yes,” agreed Demelza. “Ross is so kind he could charm the sourest of us into a show o’ manners.”
Ruth patted her arm. She had the opening she wanted. “I don’t think you are quite the best judge of that yet, my dear.”
Demelza looked at her and nodded. “No. Mebbe I should have said all but the sourest.” (368)
Some of the most memorable passages deal with insights into human nature that readers of Jane Austen will appreciate. Ross attends a funeral where the “beautiful” sermon preached describes a different man than the one who is to be buried that day. Ross’s cousin Verity chooses duty to her family over happiness with an “unsuitable” seafaring man, though she knows her choice will mean a bitter and regret-filled life. Married to Elizabeth, Francis Poldark suspects that his wife continues to have feelings for his cousin when the true rival for his wife’s affection is their infant son.
Ross Poldark is rich with memorable characters and vivid scenes of Cornwall life in the late 18th-century. I have touched on only a handful of my favorite passages from this exceptional work of historical fiction. I frequently highlighted and re-read the direct, expressive language; Winston Graham’s love of Cornwall infuses his writing. Just as we all have a favorite film or television adaptation of a Jane Austen work, many have praised the latest BBC production for being true to the Poldark novels. But if the hero is compelling on-screen, wait until you meet him on the pages of Ross Poldark.
5 out of 5 Stars
Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787, by Winston Graham
Sourcebooks Landmark (2015) reprint
Trade paperback and eBook (400) pages
Cover image courtesy of Sourcebooks Landmark © 2015; text Tracy Hickman © 2015, Austenprose.com
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