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The Poldark Novels

Poldark is a series of historical novels by Winston Graham, and a popular BBC television series of the 1970s based on the books. In June 2008, in celebration of Winston Graham's centenary on 30th June 2008, Pan MacMillan has republished all twelve novels making them available for a new generation of readers.

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.

The novels

  • Ross Poldark
  • Demelza
  • Jeremy Poldark
  • Warleggan
  • The Black Moon
  • The Four Swans
  • The Angry Tide
  • The Stranger From the Sea
  • The Millers Dance
  • The Loving Cup
  • The Twisted Sword
  • Bella Poldark

Main characters

Ross Poldark

Ross Poldark is the foremost character in the series. In his autobiography, Graham states that the character of Ross was, in part, based upon a fighter pilot he met on a train during the war. In the opening novel, Ross Poldark, he returns home from the American war. He learns that his sweetheart, Elizabeth, has promised to marry his cousin, Francis, and he is dealt the worst blow of his life. Dark, brooding and introspective, things look bleak for Ross on his return.

Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan

She was Ross Poldark's first love. Elizabeth is fair, delicate and beautiful. Loved by three men, she only has a deep passion for her son, Geoffrey Charles, whose birth disintegrates her already shaky marriage to Francis. After his death, she marries George Warleggan.

Francis Poldark

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.

George Warleggan

Ross's bitter rival. George is one of a new class of up and coming industrialists and bankers. He is seen as an upstart by the aristocracy, but he grows increasingly powerful. He is impeccably behaved and dressed, and has a ruthless streak. He is in love with Elizabeth and dreams of possessing her. This dream comes true when she marries him.

Verity Poldark Blamey

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.

Dwight Enys

A young doctor who comes to the area, he soon befriends Ross Poldark, and their friendship becomes very strong and enduring. He is a very conscientious doctor, and, like his friend Ross, a philanthropist, often not charging his poorest patients for his services. He becomes involved with a young miner's wife, with tragic results. He eventually marries a young heiress, Caroline Penvenen.

Caroline Penvenen Enys

18 years old when she first meets Dwight Enys, Caroline is an orphan, taken in and raised by her rich uncle Ray. Strong-willed and independent, she begins a romance with Dwight against her uncle's wishes, culminating in a disastrous plan to elope. They eventually marry several years later when Dwight is released from a prison camp in France

Demelza Carne Poldark

Taken home from Redruth Fair by Ross, 13-year-old miner's brat Demelza and her dog Garrick have an unpromising start in the book. However, she soon develops into a charming, amusing and lovely young woman, eventually winning the love and affection of Ross. Dark and earthy, she is the total opposite of the fragile Elizabeth, and the two women heartily dislike each other. Demelza has courage and is fiercely loyal to Ross. However, she has an impulsive streak that leads both her and Ross to trouble.

Reverend Osborne Whitworth

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.

Themes within the books

Love lost and found

Ross Poldark never really recovers from losing Elizabeth, although he finds himself liking her less over the years. She tells him early on that she should never have married Francis, implying that he, Ross, was the one for her. He has to carry that knowledge around for years. When Francis dies, the widowed Elizabeth promises to marry George, and she starts a chain of events that will ultimately destroy her. Demelza is never less than sure about her feelings for Ross, even when his actions test her loyalties to the limit. She develops feelings for another man later in the 7th novel, and this relationship almost destroys what she has with Ross. Verity and Andrew are brought together by Demelza after a long separation. Ross must pay dearly for that happy ending. The theme of enduring love is a recurrent one throughout the novels, and Demelza's brother Drake endures a tragic love affair with Elizabeth's cousin Morwenna (which, after incredible misery, culminates in marriage).
Dwight and Caroline separate over a misunderstanding and find each other when Dwight is near death after imprisonment in France. They separate again several times over the course of the books but always find each other again.

Bitter feud

The rivalry between George and Ross is a recurring theme throughout the entire series of novels. The two men can be seen as opposites; and it is not just a case of good versus evil. Ross is a landowner with an ancient name, even in penury he mixes easily with the upper echelons of society. Indeed on one occasion he is asked to give advice to the future King George IV on the progress of the war. He has a strong moral code, and a philanthropic tendency, helping his poorer neighbours and employees. He is well thought of by the local community. However Ross has a wild and lawless side to him, and he often finds himself undertaking criminal acts, breaking and entering being one of his favourites. He also tends to drink too much. George by comparison is almost teetotal; he wants to stay in control. More than money, George is driven by power. He has the ability to break people, and at one point he almost bankrupts Ross and Demelza, were it not for the assistance of a mysterious friend (whose identity is revealed later). He is very sensitive about his roots, being the grandson of an illiterate blacksmith. On more than one occasion Ross and George come to blows. Their feud extends to their children, particularly the unlucky Valentine (whose parentage is often questioned).

Rip-roaring adventure and suspense

Ross Poldark tends to provide much of the action that takes place in the novels. This reckless man breaks into prisons to rescue his friends, takes part in smuggling ventures, and is the owner of two mines. The adventures are truly nail-biting, and Winston Graham employs his mastery of the technique of suspense. This is demonstrated to perfection in the final scenes between George and Elizabeth over the questionable parentage of Valentine. This leads to the horrific death of Elizabeth and is executed with immense skill. There are many such set-pieces throughout the entire set of books.

The comic element

This is provided, to a very large extent, by Ross Poldark's irascible old servant, Jud Paynter. Lazy, shifty and frequently drunk, he and his awful "wife" Prudie are superb comic inventions. Jud speaks in an almost incomprehensible Cornish dialect, using phrases over and over (for instance "ted'n right, ted'n proper"). He is an old rogue that Ross should have disposed of years ago but cannot bring himself to do so (although he does eventually). The comic element runs through the books, often provided by the exchanges between the young Demelza and her teacher/ husband Ross. In the first five books Aunt Agatha is still alive, an elderly relative living out her days at Trenwith, the home of Francis Poldark. As she is almost completely deaf, she often commits faux pas by commenting rudely about people within their hearing. She does this a lot with George Warleggan, but one suspects this is deliberate!

Trivia

  • Graham mentions in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Private Man, that the character of Demelza, at least in part, was based on his wife, Jean, a Cornishwoman.
    * His novels were minutely researched and many of the events that found their way into the books were factual. The story of the physician (Dr. Enys) who was called out to attend a young girl's (Caroline Penvenen) dog and the incident with the fishbone were based on fact.

Television series

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.

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