Monday, April 15, 2013


I first encountered the romantic (and Romantic) figure of Ross Poldark, veteran of the British side of the American Revolutionary War, on television, via the glorious BBC adaptation that PBS aired when I was a kid. I knew that someday I'd have to get my hands on these books to read them, because I could just tell that stuff was getting left out.

Oddly, though, this does not seem to be the case, much; the television show has proven to be very faithful to the books, or at least to this first one*. Which is to say that all the melodrama of the returned, wronged veteran plot is here, with just a dash more melancholy in the form of a prologue concerning Ross's father and uncle as the former lays dying and the latter lays plans to marry his son to the girl Ross has always fancied. Because everyone presumes Ross to be dead, of course.

Oh, Ross! The odds are stacked against him from the start. His father being a younger son, what patrimony there is for him is meager at best -- just enough to qualify as "landed gentry" with all the responsibilities of a country squire, not enough to afford to live at all well. The tin mine from which his father's fortune was drawn has sucked it all back down again, and a rotten pair of no-good servants have let the family pile get so run down that they're housing chickens in the living room... welcome home, war hero!

Oh, and yes, his childhood sweetheart is indeed marrying his cousin, son of the older son who got all the money and the original estate and the tin mine that's still worth a damn! Did I mention melodrama? Because melodrama.

But melodrama isn't all that's on offer here. There is also some wonderful nature porn, of which author Winston Graham was a gifted practitioner. In the high Romantic tradition, weather is often a stand in for/emphasizer of emotion, so, for example, a solitary figure standing quietly still and watching the sea can be understood as in turmoil if the waves are being especially powerful and crashy. But sometimes it's just there for the sake of being there. I'm already half in love with Cornwall, between growing up watching Poldark on television and having recently enjoyed the excellent Doc Martin series, exteriors of which were shot in Port Isaac, Cornwall (which, take a look at SF superstar Alastair Reynolds' relatively recent photo odyssey there, tracking down Doc's house and whatnot), and it's obvious that Graham was, too. With good reason.

But Graham does interiors, too, like that of a cottage in which dwell a family under Ross's care, and how the family spends its exhausted evenings. Graham gets the whole "world lit only by fire" and turns this shack into a mysterious abode of shadows and half-secrets: "On the floor Matthew Mark Martin's long bare legs glimmered like two silver trout; the rest of him was hidden in the massive pool of shadow cast by his mother."

Winston Graham is one cinematic writer, no?

But he is also, as it turns out, a writer with a real gift for honest, ordinary human emotion. Especially -- and this is quite rare -- happiness. For example, a scene, one that really just concerns Ross and Demelza rowing out to watch the yearly pilchard catch, is one of the loveliest I've read in a long time, not so much for the scenery (although that is nice) as for the rarity it captures: a moment of quiet, slightly awe-stricken joy, joy that is recognized and savored by our usually troubled hero. It's a total grace note, this scene, but I'm so glad it's there.

For Ross is a most turbulent, even exhausting character. A member of a family so ancient and steady they would probably have regarded the Cecils as gotten up parvenus, he shuns the local gentry in favor of the miners and farmers and poverty-stricken villagers who are his tenants, not out of any hipster-ish disdain for the manners and mores of the former so much as an inborn sense of decency (sharpened by the memory of his reprobate, skirt-chasing-and-catching father), which gets him into plenty of trouble when his proteges get caught poaching or when he rescues an urchin from a beating and makes the life-changing decision to adopt said urchin as a member of his household staff even after said urchin turns out to be a 13-year-old girl... and everyone in Cornwall starts thinking what you're probably thinking right now, unless you already know Ross and his story...

All in all, this first Poldark book is one of the loveliest things I've ever read; even the love story, which  sort of element usually makes me retch, is a thing of beauty. I suspect this is because Graham focused on the friendliness and companionship rather than on the passion. Ross Poldark spends most of the second half of the book hopeful and happy. And Graham found a way to make these states of mind anything but boring.

For pure pleasure in reading, Ross Poldark cannot be beaten.

*Though this is, of course, in plot and tone, really, this faithfulness. One way in which the TV show is lacking is in the way it portrays the relationship between Ross and Demelza. Robin Ellis did not really sell Ross's tenderness and genuine love for her, or the sheer happiness she brought to him. But could anyone, without a lot of cheesy voice-overs?

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful review of a great novel. I've just started re-reading the series.


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