Book Review: Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

9 Sep



Hoo-Boy, I was in the mood for an intergenerational historical epic, and I got waaaaaaay more than I bargained for with Ross Poldark.   Honestly, it’s both terrible and terrific at the same time in a way I can’t quite define.

To give you some background, this series of books were started in the ’40’s by Winston Graham, the same man who would write the book for Marnie of all things.   So what this book was designed for was escapism right after WWII.  If you remember, London in particular was under near constant bombing through the war, and even right after the war there was a great deal of rebuilding to do.   Shortages still happened, and people needed stuff to distract them.

In a way, this book makes sense.  It’s set in a far away time, so there’s not a whiff of the current issues at hand, many of the characters are humorous, it’s very pro-England, while also being critical of social issues that were no longer issues.

Also the people live pretty terribly.  Maybe it was comforting to watch people dealing with desperate poverty, I don’t know, but other than the nobles, everyone is uniformly dirty, ignorant, and barely scraping to get by.   So in no way is this book nostalgic for the 1780s, never showing the world as glamorous at all.

So basically the historical pretext is that Ross Poldark is returning to Cornwall after serving some years in the American War of Independence.    It’s actually fascinating, as an American, to see things from the point of view of the other side.   England at the time, if this book is to be trusted, was in the middle of a sort of crisis of confidence, just like America had after Vietnam.

So Ross is disappointed to find that the woman he wanted to marry, Elizabeth, is going to marry his cousin.   So far, the common start to every historical romance ever made.   After this hoo-boy, the story just goes everywhere and nowhere.   The pacing is extremely odd–either staying completely still or racing ahead at a pace in such a herky-jerky way that it reminds me of a scratched DVD.

We’ve got four main plot threads.   First, we’ve got the opening-the-mine story which is by far the boringest.   It goes into excruciating detail on the funding, running, and growth of Poldark’s mine.  In fact the worst part of this book is even when something happens, instead of following up on it, we immediately have to go to Ross’s plans for a mine, or Ross raising money for the mine, or the status of the mine.  Don’t get me wrong, mining was very important to the area historically, but at the same time, it would be like reading Gone With the WInd and just after the burning of Atlanta, we have to go through the history and economics of cotton growing for 10 pages.    Heck, the mine isn’t even functional by the end of the book, and we still get to hear pages and pages about it.

The second story is more interesting–the Jim and Ginny Carter misery thread.   Jim is a miner who’s out of work because he’s got weak lungs.   Ginny is a pretty girl who’s being followed by a creeper.   Jim and Ginny get married, and then the creeper sneaks into their home and stabs Ginny and her newborn baby.  The creeper then jumps out of an upstairs window to his death.   Ginny and the baby survive, though Ginny is less happy than before.  Jim takes to poaching to feed his family.  He gets caught, and not only sentenced to two years of  hard labor, but also they find out that he is dying of tuberculosis.   From here, this story tapers off, with Jim in prison, Ginny now is the house maid, so that’s ok I guess.

Then we get into the Ross/Francis/Elizabeth love triangle.   The first half of the book is mainly about this, and it’s strictly romance novel stuff—Ross thought that he would marry Elizabeth, but Elizabeth is marrying his cousin Francis instead.   Ross had been gone so long that it was quite natural really.  So Ross and Francis get in a fight in a mine and strand themselves there over having a pissing match over Elizabeth.  Elizabeth tries to stay just good friends, but Ross pushes himself, so he gets banned.   They make up once Ross gets married, but at this point she pressures him to get Francis under control–as Francis is gambling and supposedly hanging out with other women.   At first this story is relatively uninteresting, but by the end, how Elizabeth turns out, a little cold, very unhappy, and finding only happiness in her child, shows that she’s a much different person than Ross initially imagined she was.  She’s also so dedicated to her child that she doesn’t sleep with her husband, intimating that this is tied up to the whole Francis roaming thing.   At first I was ready to damn Ross for not getting involved, but Elizabeth’s insistence does seem a bit pushy.  Also I’m reminded of the best advice my father ever gave me, which is don’t get involved in other people’s love lives–it only causes strain.

Finally, the best, and craziest bit, is Demelza.  Ross first meets Demelza when her dog (which is annoyingly cute) is being teased, Annie-style, in the city.  He takes her in, noticing that she’s abused by her drunken father.  Then he proceeds to strip her and hose her off in his backyard, and then we get pages of describing bug removal (ewwww).  Ok, so not only is this scene a bit creepy (why couldn’t he have had the lady servant do the washing), it’s kind of mean, Ross taking no mind to the girl’s nakedness and how she tries to cover herself up.   Despite this, Ross is entirely uninterested in Demelza–at first.   When she comes of age (thank god), Demelza realizes that her father intends to have her back home, so she seduces Ross while wearing his mother’s nightie.   (Yes, you heard that right).   Apparently he realized his desire at this point and they marry.

The main conflict from this point on is how Demelza will fit in with the elite since she’s come from the bottom.   She has a good deal worrying about dirty underpants.   Anyway, she goes to the Poldark’s ancestral home and is a raging success after singing a love ballad, a dirty shanty song, and getting in some drag-queen style conversation with the jealous ladies.  Also she’s pregnant and gets rousingly drunk.

Finally there’s one other small story, about Ross’s cousin Verity, who fell  in love with a sea captain, despite the fact that he threw his last wife down the stairs in a drunken rage and killed her.  Naturally, her father is against this.   Ross tries to plot around it–and it ends up in a big brawl and the Captain wanders off to lick his wounds.  Verity starts to fade.   Demelza who has grown fond of Verity starts plotting to get them together again with some of the craziest abuse-logic I have ever heard.

“I know Verity was not born to be an old maid, dryin’ up and shrivellin’  while she looks to someone else’s house an’ children. She’d rather take the risk of being wed to a man who couldn’t contain his liquor.”

Yep folks, it’s better to be married to a drunk killer than to be single.  It’s THAT BAD.   And while I can give Verity some credence, as she believes that the captain has reformed, what if he hasn’t.  According to Demelza that STILL would be better than being left alone.

And then there’s this gem:  “If you love someone, tesn’t a few bruises on the back that are going to count.  It’s whether that other one loves you in return.  If he do, then he can only hurt your body.  He can’t hurt your heart.”   This is wrong on so many levels I can’t even begin to fathom how to begin.   I know that Demelza came from an abusive home that she was so afraid of that she slept with her master instead of even chancing the return.  She also didn’t trust her father’s reformation, noting that he could go back to his old state at any time.   So how her experience informs her speech on this is beyond me.  Also, this sets her relationship with Ross (who is the “Daddy” in the relationship) in a thoroughly creepy light.  He doesn’t beat her–though he threatens to a couple of times, not very seriously–he is very much the man of the house who she has to ask permission for things and sneak behind his back if she deems it necessary.

Besides the pacing problems, the story has VERY stilted dialogue that doesn’t sound realistic at all,  the comedy bits are either cute or not very funny, and the view of the book on classes is rather opaque.  The book is clear that the poor should be treated better and is in favor of social movement.  However, it is not arguing that the division between the gentry and common folk should be any different than it is.  The poor should be husbanded better, that’s all.

Despite these issues, hell, because of these problems, this book is a surprisingly satisfying read (even if you’ll feel a little gross for it afterwards.)   I was shocked to get that post book zen state after finishing this because at the time I was mostly scratching my head and gawking at gender relations that are mercifully behind us.    If you want to read something good-bad I’d say give it a go, but I can’t go so far as to recommend it.

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