As 7 million viewers await the finale of Poldark, Sarah Crompton goes back to the novels to find the story’s appeal is as much to do with social cohesion as sex
In the mid-1970s, I spent a summer sitting on the olive moorland that rolls along the Cornish coast, sketching picturesque ruins of tin mines. The fact that I could barely draw is an indication of how firmly Poldark fever had me – and countless others like me – in its grip. Truth be told, I don’t really recall now much of what entranced me: my childish memories are a blur of high leather boots, passionate stares and Angharad Rees’s tumbling tresses. But there was something magical in the BBC’s first adaptation of Winston Graham’s long series of novels, something more than the tang of the sea and the dash of a handsome hero.
Now, all these years later, the same Sunday night spell is being cast on up to 7 million households. Or at least on the women in them. If the comments on social media are any guide, then this is the night that men do anything they long to get away with (my boys stalk out muttering “We’ll leave you with your Cornish crap”), while their womenfolk (you begin to speak Poldark once you start watching it) remain glued to the television and to a romantic protagonist who seems to have trouble keeping his shirt on.
It’s a gratifying sign of how far we have come that it is Aidan Turner’s rippling pecs rather than Rees’s heaving bosom that is keeping a nation in thrall. But in all other respects the impact of Poldark in 2015 is exactly the same as its effect 40 years ago, and springs from a deep British affection for a nobleman with a heart of gold, an aristocrat who cares. Ross Poldark is – whether it is Robin Ellis or the dashing Turner who is putting on or taking off the flouncy shirt and the jaunty tricorn hat – the embodiment of an ideal Englishman.
His qualities are all laid out in Graham’s novels, to which Debbie Horsfield’s pacy adaptation is remarkably faithful. This is a man with a past, who has left his native Cornwall to fight in the American revolution under the shadow of gambling debts and an assault on an excise officer. He is not averse to a pretty whore or an evening gaming and drinking. His inner monologues are troubled and his dialogue argumentative. But as soon as he returns, we realise he is not only good-looking but also good. “The Poldarks had always been on good terms with their tenants. Distinction of class was not absent; it was understood so clearly that nobody needed to emphasise it; but … polite convention was not allowed to stand in the way of common sense.”
He stands for decency, for the rights of man. “He was not as concerned as [his neighbours] about the return of Maria Fitzherbert from the continent, or the scandal of the Queen of France’s necklace. There were families in the district without enough bread and potatoes to keep them alive, and he wanted them to be given gifts in kind, so that the epidemics of December and January should not have such easy prey.” Poldark stands up for poachers, helps fugitives, fights cheats. Explicitly neither Whig nor Tory, he believes in fairness and tries to impose it on a society that is driven and riven by inequality.
It is this natural impatience with the unkindness of the world – “wanton cruelty to children offended him” – that makes him save the 13-year-old Demelza from her brutal father, and, ultimately, once she is a safer 17, begin one of fiction’s most absorbing love affairs, where social and temperamental differences are gradually overcome by lust, love, devotion and self-knowledge. Now obviously Ross, particularly on TV, has other qualities than his instinctive egalitarianism. He is, as I may have mentioned, handsome – and good at racing around on horses. He drinks too much rum when he is miserable, and pulls Demelza by the hair when they argue bitterly about her actions – a scene notable by its absence from the TV adaptation, since it might have sacrificed sympathy.
Obviously, too, Poldark doesn’t aspire to be a socially accurate picture of conditions in 18th-century Cornwall, though Graham is careful to give his rollicking plot a well-researched historical setting. Much of the appeal of the TV series arguably derives from the fact that it has a twinkle in its eye as it sweeps you past technicolour waves, neatly dressed miners and artfully vivid sunsets. I joke with one Twitter acquaintance that I am watching it for its deep social realism, but we both know that is not entirely true.
However, I don’t think it is fanciful to suggest that the continuing power of Poldark is about more than the Byronic good looks of its hero. It offers an idealised vision of community that is deeply reassuring. Graham was an expert writer of thrillers – including Marnie, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock – as well as of this historical saga, and like many prolific and successful novelists, he recognised that although literary fiction may be complex, great popular novels have the underlying clarity of a fairytale.
In this reading, Ross is the prince who rejects the isolation of the palace for a better life lived among his grateful subjects; Demelza is the beggar maid who is transformed thanks to her own good heart into his beautiful and wise consort. The forces ranged against them – from dastardly relatives to grasping bankers – will ultimately be vanquished. The fields of England will be green and full of bright flowers, the weak will be cherished and protected by men who are wise but humble and have gleaming chests.
Living, as we do, in a country divided, it’s little wonder that such a picture provides such a popular escape. When it vanishes from our screens, the world will be a little gloomier, and harder to cope with. Poldark is a consolation as well as a romance. That’s why this summer you shouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of dreamy-eyed women sitting on Cornish cliff tops, waiting for a hero to arise who will not only sweep them off their feet but sort out society while he is doing so.
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