The Four Swans -- we'll talk a bit about that title in a moment -- has a whole lot of ugly going on, especially for the women.
Oh, there is plenty of the usual struggling for social justice and reform, striving to keep a mining concern going, wrangling with friends, relatives and frenemies, and lush Cornish scenery porn -- it's a Poldark novel. And Ross Poldark is still very much the main character here, even as the story broadens still more to encompass more of the world of Cornwall in the late 18th century.
But there are so many more characters -- George Warleggan, Ross's rival since school days, now married to Ross' first love; Sam and Drake Carne, his worthy but lower-class brothers-in-law; Dr. Dwight Enys, his best friend and co-conspirator, whom he daringly rescued from a French prison in the climax of the previous Poldark novel, The Black Moon; assorted members of the local gentry some of them friends and admirers, others of the sort who still haven't forgiven Ross for marrying his kitchen maid; assorted other miners and laborers and churchmen and crooks, all of them with fully-realized personalities and circumstances and lives of their own outside of their roles in Ross'.
And also, and ostensibly most importantly for this novel that is sort of named for them, there are four women whose lives are very much intertwined with Ross' own: his wife Demelza, his first love Elizabeth (once married to his cousin, now married to the hated Warleggan), Caroline (wealthy sweetheart and then wife of Dr. Enys), and Morwenna (Elizabeth's cousin, who last novel had a love affair with Demelza's brother Drake but was forced to marry an odious churchman who was deemed a more "suitable" match for her by, yep, George Warleggan). Alas, a bit, here. I'd had hopes that this novel would perhaps turn more on them as individuals and characters in their own right, but, well, the title again says it all, though the scene explaining it occurs near the story's end, as Ross takes a nature break and sees four swans floating by on the water and decides they represent these four women, but only insofar as said women relate to him.
That's not to say they don't get story arcs, these Cornish ladies. It's just that, with the kind-of exception of Caroline, who finally gets to marry her man (though she has to share him with his medical practice and the lingering after-effects of his imprisonment and harsh treatment in France), their story arcs are terribly, terribly dark and ugly and highlight in all the most unpleasant ways that it sucked a whole to be a woman back then. Cousins Elizabeth and Morwenna, especially, suffer through the novel, the one subject to suspicion and jealousy at the hands of her increasingly powerful and important husband and with the continuing fallout from an encounter with Ross two novels ago that still has me very angry at Ross; the other married against her will to a thoroughly unpleasant but well-connected and socially acceptable creep who just gets creepier as the novel progresses, while Morwenna still pines for her hard-working and deserving but low-class true love. Elizabeth's and Morwenna's scenes with their men are hard to read, icky, unpleasant and angry-making. I don't think they quite merit trigger warnings, but they probably come pretty close. I came very close to just tossing this book aside after a scene between Elizabeth and Ross that left me in about as dark a mood as I can recall ever experiencing from a work of fiction, and I'm still pretty angry about it.
Too, there are of course more than four women in Cornwall, and two of them have significant stories of their own in this book, but since it's Ross' point of view governing the title, this book isn't The Six Swans. But new characters Rowella (Morwenna's sister) and Emma, carry a more than a bit of this novel's narrative and are some of the most interesting characters (apart from Demelza, which, you've just got to love Demelza) Graham has yet given us. Rowella is Morwenna's little sister, and I'd go farther into spoiler territory than even I like to if I said much more about her; Emma is a lower-class woman whose good -- but not overwhelmingly beautiful -- looks, relative poverty and strong independent streak serve to earn her a reputation as a village Jezebel, and who comes to Sam Carne's notice in a story that kind of unpleasantly parallel's Rowella's but has a less icky overtone because Sam Carne is a better person than the jerk Rowella gets to deal with -- though it is pretty annoying to watch the dude hanker to save Emma's soul over her own protests. And oh, yeah, Sam & Emma are this novel's courtship story. Every Poldark novel has a courtship story. Eyeball roll.
But you know what? I wouldn't be feeling all of this if Winston Graham hadn't been such a tremendous writer. Though the narrative voice is definitely of the patriarchy, and keeps yanking the reader's attention away from the women's plights and stories and back to the More Important (man's) world of politics and trade, both sides are compellingly depicted. Six novels in, I'm more than invested in these characters, and even after what this book put me through, I still am, and not just as a hangover from the prior five books.
Developments late in The Four Swans promise to bring a yet grander scope to subsequent Poldark novels, too, which excites me. I reckon the rest of England is going to matter more, to say nothing of the rest of Europe; it's 1797 in the closing pages, and a little guy named Napoleon is becoming a big deal across the channel and beyond.
Bring it, Mr. Graham.