The central character, Ross Poldark, returns from the American wars to his home in Cornwall, only to find that his fiancée, Elizabeth Chynoweth, having believed him dead, is about to marry his cousin, Francis Poldark. Ross attempts to restore his own fortunes by reopening one of the family's tin mines. He marries Demelza Carne, a servant girl, and is gradually reconciled to the loss of Elizabeth's love.
By then, Elizabeth has become a widow and marries George Warleggan, Ross's arch-enemy.
There are twelve novels in total. The first seven novels are set in the 18th century, up until Christmas 1799. The remaining five are concerned with the early years of the 19th century and the lives of the children of the main characters from the previous novels.
Winston Graham wrote the first four Poldark books in the 1940s and 1950s. Following a long hiatus, he decided to return to the novels and The Black Moon was published in 1972. He explains his reasons in the preface of this book.
Ross's cousin has a tendency to be flippant, however his feelings run strong and he can be very obstinate. The two cousins were close as boys, but their relationship is severely tested by an impulsive act by Demelza, it has lasting repercussions on them all. He eventually becomes dissolute and debt-ridden, but is redeemed only to drown in a flooded mine shaft, having found a potential rich source of tin.
Francis' sister and cousin to Ross, described as plain, with fluffy hair and a mobile mouth, she is the dutiful unmarried daughter, looking after the affairs of the estate, as well as her father, Charles Poldark. She meets and falls in love with Andrew Blamey, a sea captain. Unfortunately he has a terrible secret that soon comes to light, and she seems to lose her chance of happiness.
Rev. Whitworth is one of the most repugnant and fascinating characters of the Poldark novels. He appears briefly in the first Poldark series of novels but comes to feature prominently in the second series when he marries Morwenna Chynoweth. Whitworth's central preoccupations are money and sex. He is loud and pushy and delivers thundering sermons that do more to crush his parishioners than to elevate them. His voice is a crushing force in social settings and his belly a crushing force in sexual settings. When deprived of his wife's bed during her pregnancy he turns to her sister, Rowella, a girl of 15 who turns out to possess powers of sexual captivation far beyond even the prostitutes of Truro. The close-set eyed, long-nosed Rowella appears thin and mousy, but uses her shapeless clothes to hide large breasts and a sinuous body that Whitworth imagines she flaunts at him. The final confrontation between Whitworth and Rowella, as well as the initial seduction scene, are among the most memorable in the Poldark books. His affair with Rowella ultimately proves to be his downfall.
In the television series (which departed significantly from the novels in some respects), Ross Poldark was played by Robin Ellis and Demelza by Angharad Rees. Elizabeth was played by Jill Townsend, Francis Poldark by Clive Francis and George Warleggan by Ralph Bates.
Although the focus is primarily on Ross and Demelza, there are many other characters with their own stories to tell. In Poldark 1 we meet Dr. Dwight Enys (Richard Morant, series 1 and Michael Cadman, series 2), a young man with progressive ideas who prefers to serve the poor communities than the rich. He has a brief affair with a married actress, Keren Daniel, which results in her murder by her husband. By the end of the first series, Dwight has become involved with heiress Caroline Penvenen (Judy Geeson). In Poldark 2 they eventually marry.
In Poldark 2 we get to see quite a bit of Geoffrey Charles Poldark (Stefan Gates), the son of Elizabeth and Francis Poldark. He resembles his father a lot and strikes up a friendship with Drake Carne (Kevin McNally), whom he and Morwenna meet in the woods on the Warleggan estate. He also plays an instrumental role in the development of Drake and Morwenna's romance (it is initially played out under his eyes, yet he never mentions a thing to his mother or stepfather George Warleggan).
Elizabeth's cousin, Morwenna Chynoweth (Jane Wymark), is brought in as a governess for the boy and later sent through hell when George Warleggan marries her off to Rev Osborne Whitworth (Christopher Biggins). They have a son, John Conan, but she is quite indifferent to him and merely regards the boy as *his* son. He has an affair with Rowella (Julie Dawn Cole), Morwenna's younger sister, when his wife refuses him in the area he considers most important (as he states: "it is a wife's duty to submit", "I am your husband, you have no right to deny me" and so on). She also threatens Osborne to kill his son if he forces his attentions on her one more time. Arthur Solway (Stephen Reynolds), Rowella's husband, discovers his wife's adultery with the parson and sets out to commit murder. He awaits the Reverend on his way home and attacks him with a cudgel, which frightens his horse. Osborne falls off his horse but his foot gets caught in the stirrup and he is dragged along for more than half a mile. He does not survive. Upon coming home, Arthur slaps a startled Rowella in the face.
The death of Osborne Whitworth leaves Morwenna free to marry Drake, whom she never ceased to love. Drake is Ross Poldark's brother-in-law and this was noted heavily against him (almost like a crime committed). He also has a working class background, therefore he was deemed an unsuitable marriage partner for Morwenna. He has made a living as a blacksmith by the time Morwenna becomes a widow.
She does not immediately accept his proposal (she is in fact very hesitant because she is traumatized), but he insists for marriage in name only and promises he won't press the subject of physical contact. Subsequently, they are married. Morwenna can now at last be at peace and Drake is content with just being with her in wedded companionship. In the books they move away to Looe quite soon after marrying, where Drake takes over Ross's boat-building works, and one year and a half after the move they are blessed with a daughter named Loveday.
Pining away for his true love Morwenna most of the time, Drake focuses on building up his forge (the first time he is his own master) and spending time with his brother Sam (David Delve). Sam himself is extremely devoted to the Connection, a gathering of Methodists. He gains the interest of Emma Tregirls (Trudie Styler), for whom he has an equal affection, but his beliefs are stronger and eventually come between them as he reads the good-bye letter that Emma has written.
Demelza, their sister, tries to set Drake up with Mary Ann Tamblyn (Sonia Meller) because she feels he is wasting his life. Drake reaches the point where he hopes that he might have a reasonable life with Mary Ann, but he is very straight with her about his feelings for Morwenna. Mary Ann admires him for his honesty and the wedding is actually set to take place when the Rev Whitworth is murdered. Mary Ann selflessly steps aside and releases Drake of the commitment.
In the books there is actually no Mary Ann Tamblyn: the girl Drake becomes engaged to is Rosina Hoblyn. It is not clear why this was altered. Later on, Rosina marries Sam, and Sam is given Pally's shop as a wedding gift after Drake and Morwenna have moved away.
Bent on revenge, her father Lucas (who believes that Drake walked out on Mary Ann) sets the forge on fire and we are left to assume that Mary Ann (who hears about this from Jud Paynter when visiting Demelza and is initially quite unbelieving) will have it out with her father.
However, a lot of the main focus remains on Ross and Demelza, and the series concludes with the death of Elizabeth Warleggan following the birth of her and George's daughter Ursula.