Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

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Reviewed by Annabel

In recent weeks, it seems that the entire female population of the UK (well, at least all those of a certain age!), have been glued to our TV screens every Sunday evening watching the BBC’s new remake of Poldark – based on the novels by Winston Graham. This piece is, I admit, a rather self-indulgent ‘review’ comparing and contrasting the books and TV series…

I was a teenager when the Beeb’s 1975 adaptation was first shown. It starred the moody Robin Ellis as Ross and Angharad Rees as Demelza (right). I did rather fall for Ross/Ellis and imagined being carried away on a horse to a romantic cottage on a cliff top and … ahem! The first four novels in the sequence formed the first series, and the next three novels become the second which aired in 1977. At the time, Poldark was a huge hit for the BBC worldwide.

Now, they’ve another massive hit on their hands. It’s not just the wonderful casting, although that helps! The column inches that have been written about Aidan Turner, the new Ross, alone would stretch for miles. Times columnist Robert Crampton admitted to a bit of a man-crush over him; and we all just swooned. Eleanor Tomlinson is absolutely gorgeous as Demelza – sweet yet sassy, beautiful and very girlish. (Apparently she attended her audition dressed as a boy, which is how we first meet her in the story.)

Both adaptations had strong supporting casts – notably Ralph Bates as George Warleggan (boo!) in the original, and Warren Clarke as Ross’s uncle in the new series – Clarke’s last role before his recent death, an actor who will be much missed. Phil Davis as Jud this time appears rather underused – but at the time of writing we’re only half-way through, so we’ll see.

The new series, penned by Debbie Horsfield has gone back to the books for its inspiration. Naturally there have been TV tie-in editions of the first two books (Ross Poldark and Demelza) published to coincide. I devoured the whole set back in the 1970s, and am planning to do similarly as the new paperbacks come out.

It was a real pleasure to dive into the first book again, subtitled (as are they all) ‘A novel of Cornwall’ followed by the years covered – in this case, 1783-1787. The prologue starts with the death of Ross’s father Joshua, asleep in his bed while his servants Jud and Prudie get drunk again on his gin.

Eventually Ross returns home after fighting in the American War to find that his girl, Elizabeth, is engaged to be married to his cousin Francis. He is persuaded to attend the wedding a few weeks later, and after the nuptials, there is to be some cock-fighting for the men. Ross is talking to Elizabeth.

‘Elizabeth,’ said Mrs Chynoweth, coming on them suddenly. ‘You must remember this is your day. You must join in, not isolate yourself in this manner.’
‘Thank you, Mama. But you know I’ve no taste for this. I am sure I shall not be missed until it is over.’
Mrs Chynoweth straightened her back, and their eyes met. But she sensed the decision in her daughter’s low voice and did not force an issue. She looked up at Ross and smiled without warmth.
‘Ross, I know you are not uninterested in the sport. Perhaps you will instruct me in its finer points.’
Ross smiled back. ‘I feel convinced, ma’am, that there are no subtleties of combat on which I can offer you any useful advice.’

This scene was played out in full in the new series – and what a delicious put-down it was too.

We first meet Demelza about 100 pages in, when Ross rescues her from being tormented by a gang of lads and out of pity offers her a job as his kitchen girl. She is just thirteen – too young to be employed without her father’s permission. Demelza is not keen to be returned to her drunken father though, who soon turns up and after a bit of a dust-up, agrees she can work for Ross. Demelza settles in, proving to be happy and hard-working.

Books Two and Three of the first volume cover the months of April-December 1787 and take up the second half of the novel. This is where Demelza and Ross fall for each other, she now being seventeen – although it takes Ross quite a while to recognise it. The novel ends with Ross marrying Demelza and the triumph of introducing her to his uncle’s household at Trenwith that Christmas. After dinner, the ladies perform for the company. Demelza of course has not had the life of leisure to learn to play, but pressured, she sings a little folk song, a love song – and wins all of their hearts. This was another scene from the book played to perfection in the latest TV adaptation. They retire to bed:

Presently out of the fount of Demelza’s content sprang an old resolve.
‘Did I behave myself tonight, Ross?’ she asked. ‘Did I behave as Mrs Poldark should behave?’
‘You behaved monstrously,’ he said, ‘and were a triumph.’
‘Don’t tease. You think I have been a good wife?’
‘Moderately good. Quite moderately good.’
‘Did I sing nice?’
‘You were inspired.’
Silence fell again.

You’ll realise that I haven’t mentioned mining or any of the other aspects of Cornish life contained within the covers.

Ross is very much an everyman type of hero. As a young army Captain, he was used to being with his men as well as giving orders, and proves to be an enlightened boss to his mine and farm workers. Unlike his cousin Francis, he is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in to help, down the mine, with the pilchard catch – whatever is needed.

The novel was first published in 1945, and Graham researched everything minutely, basing many plot elements on real-life stories of the time. The central romance may underpin the story, but this novel is not a bodice-ripper in any way. From business and banking to doctoring and mining, from poaching to Demelza’s love of nature – it’s all here, and I am looking forward to reading on with Poldark. As for which TV series I prefer? Well, I’m loving the one I’m with, but I do miss Robin Ellis’ little pig-tail.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and is the proud owner of a BSc awarded by The Royal School of Mines.

Read Five Fascinating Facts about… Winston Graham in our BookBuzz section – click here.

Winston Graham, Ross Poldark (Pan Books: London, 2015) 978-1447281528, 472 pp., paperback.

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