Sunday, July 12, 2015

Books: "Ross Poldark" and "Demelza" by Winston Graham

Back in the mid-1970s, a neighbour pressed a paperback book upon my mother. "You MUST read this," she said.

So Mom did -- and then I did. And then we read the next book in the series. And the next. And the next.

The book was "Ross Poldark" by Winston Graham -- the first book in what was to eventually become a 12-volume series about the Poldark family of Cornwall. The first book, published in 1945, begins in 1783;  the final volume (and the only one I have not yet read) was published in 2002, just before Graham's death in 2003, and ends in 1820. A few years after Mom & I began reading the Poldark novels, the CBC began showing a BBC TV adaptation of the first few books. This was in the late 1970s, when I was about 16-17 and in high school. (It was also shown on PBS in the U.S., and was later followed by a second series/season, based on later Poldark novels.)  The only problem was, it was shown after the CBC national news, which was then at 11 p.m. -- meaning it didn't end until almost 12:30. On a school night. Happily (this being pre-PVR or even VCR days), my mother let me stay up to watch with her. (She usually fell asleep part-way through.)  The series was a huge hit everywhere it was shown, with the charismatic Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees in the roles of Ross and Demelza, and a backdrop of stunning Cornish scenery.

And now, it's back!  The first two Poldark novels have again been adapted by the BBC for a new generation to discover and enjoy. The new TV series was a huge hit when it was shown in Britain earlier this year (thanks in no small part to handsome Aidan Turner (and his abs, lol) in the title role), and it's now being shown in North America on PBS's Masterpiece. As a big fan of the original, I was a bit wary of a new adaptation and whether it would do justice to the original. Happily, in its own way, it's every bit as captivating. (Robin Ellis, the original Ross, even has a cameo role in one episode as a stern courtroom judge.)

Before the new "Poldark" series hit PBS, I decided it would be timely to revisit the first two novels it's based on (even though I seldom re-read books these days). (The show has been renewed for a second season, which presumably will cover the next few novels.) I was happy to find that, even after almost (gulp) 40 years, my memory of the various plots and characters (even some of the lesser ones) was still pretty strong. I would really recommend reading the books in series order, because each one picks up more or less where the previous one left off and builds on the stories and characters established to date. Obviously, I had read the books before watching the TV series, and while I'm sure you'd enjoy the show without having read the books, I'm glad I read them first -- I think it helps to keep the characters straight & provides more background that helps you understand the story better.

"Ross Poldark" was written just after the Second World War, and supposedly based on a soldier Graham knew. Ross is a soldier returning home from war (i.e., the American Revolution). Ross may have fought for the British Army, but some of the rebellious Americans' attitudes seem to have rubbed off on him: although he's from a fine old family of gentry, he consistently sides with the underdog and chafes against authority. His wartime experiences have left both figurative and literal scars, including a prominent one running across his cheek.

But home is not as he left it:  his father has died; his estate (Nampara) is in ruins;  the mines which make up the backbone of the local economy are failing; the rich are getting richer (most notably the Warleggans, a nouveau riche family of blacksmiths turned bankers) and the poor getting poorer (hmmm, where I have heard this before?) and -- the biggest blow of all -- his true love, Elizabeth, thinking him dead, is engaged -- to his cousin and boyhood friend, Francis. This creates tension between the two neighbouring branches of the Poldark family -- which increases when he gets involved in his cousin Verity (Francis's sister)'s love life. Ross distracts himself by working to restore his estate, including restarting a long-dormant copper mine on his property that will provide employment for the impoverished villagers. He also rescues a teenaged miner's daughter, Demelza Carne, from a street brawl, hires her as a maid and brings her home to Nampara with him, which sets local tongues wagging. I don't think I'm giving too much away by saying that the pair eventually fall in love and get married, scandalizing the class-conscious locals. 

"Demelza" picks up where "Ross Poldark" left off, with the birth of Ross and Demelza's first child, Julia, and Demelza's efforts to gain acceptance within her husband's family and social circles.  She has a kind and impulsive heart, which gets her into trouble, and ultimately leads to tragedy.  I don't want to give too much away (and the TV series has only just started covering the material in this book, so I haven't seen the episode yet), but you'll want to have some Kleenex handy. 

I loved these books when I was a teenager (especially the first half-dozen or so) and I still love them now. Strong, well-developed characters and storylines, great writing, history, romance, multigenerational family drama (with touches of comedy), class consciousness -- it's all here.

Have you read the Poldark books or watched the TV series (the original, the new version or both)?

These were books #12 & #13 that I've read so far in 2015.


  1. I remember the Poldark BBC series. It was played at a much more civilised hour in New Zealand. Actually, I think in those days that TV closed down about midnight - they had a little cartoon of a kiwi putting the milk bottle out (for milk deliveries) and turning the lights out! So Poldark was much earlier. I've never read the books though. So now I have even more books to put on my list!

  2. Ross marries Demelza before he falls in love with her. Also, he remains in love with Elizabeth.

  3. "Ross Poldark" was a pretty solid novel. It was a good start to the 12-novel series. However, I had a few quibbles about it and did not strike me as particularly exceptional.