I have a confession to make: it’s been three weeks since I finished Ross Poldark (life got the way of my review, my apologies), and even though I’d jotted down some notes at the time, I can already barely remember this book. This is a problem – not just for me and my review, but also for the author, Winston Graham. The plot of his first Poldark novel has potential, but its execution is far from memorable.
For those of you who were not lured into watching the BBC adaptation by Aidan Turner’s shirtless mowing (which is so gloriously female-gazey that it has to be seen to be believed), let me quickly summarise the plot: Ross Poldark is a young man from Cornwall who has been away from home for a number of years to fight in the American Revolution. By the time he returns, his father has died and his fiancée has moved on and married his cousin. His house has fallen into disrepair, his servants spend their days in a drunken haze… Not what he thought he’d come home to. One day he comes across a poor girl named Demelza, who is abused by her father on a daily basis, and decides to take her in as his new servant girl. As the years pass, he and Demelza grow closer and even defy the rules of polite society by getting married. What a plot!
Here’s my problem though.
When Ross and Demelza first meet, he is in his twenties and she is thirteen years old. Demelza has been working as Ross’ servant, completely dependent on him, for almost five years years when gossip first starts about the exact nature of their relationship. When she is almost (almost) eighteen, Demelza and Ross have sex and he decides that the right thing to do is to marry her. And did I mention that Ross is drunk – as he so often is – at the time? After the wedding, he repeatedly calls Demelza “child” and casually talks about beating her when he doesn’t like her behaviour:
‘[…] I will promise you something. We spoke of chastisements the other night. Out of my love for you, and out of my own pure selfishness, I promise to beat you soundly the next time you do anything so foolish.’
‘But I won’t do it again. I said I would not.’
‘Well, my promise stands too. It may be an added safeguard.’
(Fun fact: the character of Demelza was inspired by the author’s own wife. The mind boggles.)
Other things happen in the novel as well – an angry stalker attacks Poldark’s tenants, his cousin Verity has her heart broken, Ross tries to find investors so he can reopen an old tin mine – but these storylines all fall short. In the end, Graham is not talented enough a writer to make them come to life. He tells us how the characters are feeling instead of showing us, and most of the more introspective passages feel forced. As historical novels go, I’d say that Ross Poldark is average at best; the writing leaves a lot to be desired and its perspectives on gender have not aged well.
In the room were all the signs of feminine occupancy, and there had been about these few minutes of conversation an underlying maleness which drew the two men together by the bond of their larger, wider, more tolerant understanding. Between them was the freemasonry of their sex, a unity of blood, and the memory of old friendships.
It occurred to Ross in this moment that half of Elizabeth’s worry might be the eternal feminine bogy 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 this 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 which 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.
If you really want your dose of eighteenth-century Cornish romance, skip the book and watch the adaptation instead. The series was a bit dull for my taste and any scene that doesn’t have Ross or Demelza in it falls flat instantly, but it is well shot and the two leads have great chemistry. The BBC has wisely decided to age up the character of Demelza and cast Eleanor Tomlinson (born in 1992) in the role, thus effectively eliminating the creep factor. There are no beatings, Ross is actually likable, and he and his young wife are on far more equal footing than they ever were in the novel.
My advice: pour yourself a glass of red wine and focus on the pretty shots of a brooding Ross riding his horse down the Cornish coast. Then throw out the book and forget it ever existed. I practically already have.