A Return to the Poldark Perusal: Revisiting Book 1, Ross Poldark
Dear kindred spirit,
I am so glad you could join me today. It is with fondness that I welcome you back to a surprise return of The Poldark Perusal series here on the blog! Winston Graham's Poldark saga has been one of the great literary treasures of my life, and I documented my read-through of the 12-book saga through my Poldark Perusals—which have since become the most widely-read articles on the blog, to my delight! I am so glad that the Perusals have been so greatly enjoyed, as it's always an immense joy to write about a series so close to my heart.
I finished the saga with the final perusal last autumn—but there's unfinished business, as it happens! I began documenting my journey through the saga from Book 5 onward...and consequently there are only Perusals for Books 5-12, with the first four missing. I've since received a few requests from dear readers that I revisit the missing four books and document them, and so I am very happy at last to be fulfilling that wish. I read the entire saga spread out over a period of three years, and since finishing it, I've missed the Poldarks of Nampara as keenly as though they really are dear old family and friends. And so, this spring I picked up the beloved Cornish saga to begin the journey all over again with Book 1: Ross Poldark.
Before we begin, I'd like to disclaim that this perusal will contain spoilers for Book 1, but if you have come here after watching the Masterpiece PBS series, the details will correspond with episodes 1-4 of the first season.
The Poldark Perusals:
Now, onto Book 1!
Book 1: Ross Poldark
Ross Poldark returns to his native Cornwall in 1783 after fighting the war in America—only to discover his sweetheart engaged to his cousin, his father dead, and his inheritance in tatters. Ross has to rely on himself alone to rebuild his life in Cornwall, treading a turbulent imbalance between the expectations of the gentry and an inborn sense of devotion to the mistreated lower-classes—all while grappling with the lost love of his youth, and a growing affection for the kitchen-maid whose life he saves at the expense of his social standing.
Revisiting Dear Old Friends
Opening the first pages of Book 1 feels akin to flipping through the family photo album and fondly remembering how much the once-young have grown. I have to approach these books with the knowledge still fresh in my head of where I last left them at the end of the saga with Book 12. To rewind four decades into the lives of this family, back to where it all started, feels like a personal treat. Winston Graham writes about his characters with such raw profundity, that the Poldarks feels like real people who you genuinely want the best for, and worry over when things look poorly for them. To go back to the beginning, revisiting a 24-year old love-lorn Ross Poldark with the knowledge of how it all turns out in his mellowed older-age, is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of returning to such a beloved book series.
The First Thread That Weaves Together a Saga
We begin with Ross's coach-journey heading homeward to Cornwall—followed by the great reveal at Trenwith House of the disappointment that ends up curving the arc of his entire life. Graham weaves the first installment of his saga with a first thread so all-important: one that sows a seed so bitter in the heart of its hero, that it takes a lifetime and many wrongs to finally conquer. That disappointment is Elizabeth.
Ross's first love—the sweetheart he thought he was returning home to with a happy future awaiting him—had thought Ross perished in the war, and is now engaged to his cousin, Francis. It's the first of many disappointments for Ross on his return home: his father is dead, his house a shambles—but nothing comes close to the weight of the disappointment of Elizabeth. In a later book, Ross will say that the curse of the Poldarks is "swiftness to anger, readiness to hold a grievance, and an inability to compromise," and perhaps this lies at the head of the unconquered sense of betrayal and bitterness that steeps in Ross from this first setback. It's absolutely vital to everything that follows for the next forty years of these characters' lives.
This time around, I'm looking at the series with a keen eye on Elizabeth and whether her actions actually line up with the villainy we're so often ascribing to her. One of the highlights of Winston Graham's writing is that he never tells you whether a character is "good" or "bad"—instead, he shows you how another character feels about them, but ultimately lets you, the reader, decide whether it's a sound judgement or not. Too often we hear about other characters perceiving Elizabeth for her many surface-level perfections—and this isn't an endearing quality. She has always been considered something of a villain in Poldark, but she's a trickier character than I realized the first time reading the saga, because Graham purposefully never lets us near her. We look through Ross's eyes, through this first hurt, and pronounce judgement alongside him that Elizabeth betrayed him in marrying Francis.
Ross isn't allowed too near her thence on—and consequently we have to rely, just as Ross does, on merely news of her or the odd glimpse. She is a shadow of some old, unforgotten youthful love, and that memory holds more life somehow than the "real" Elizabeth. She's a withdrawn, aloof creature, cold and fragile—and most decidedly a woman of her time. Marrying well, relying on good-breeding and an ancient family name is the foremost goal of her life—her mother's life—the life of every gentlewoman of her time.
As any woman of her station must do, she never publicly stumbles from the social requirements of the day. It's breeding that keeps her so aloof, and the end-goal of an economically-recommendable marriage that takes her eyes from Ross to Francis in the first place. We don't see her heart or know her feelings because she never reveals them, and we don't even get to hear her side of what happened from when Ross left for the war up to her betrothal to Francis—because a woman like Elizabeth in 1783 couldn't . To tell the truth, I'm convinced that the point Winston Graham was trying to make with Elizabeth's character, and the society of the period in which Poldark takes place, is that she's not real. I don't mean that she's merely a fictitious character, but that she represents the unreal shadow of an old ideal—perhaps even the ideal of an era. Instead, it's Demelza Carne who is the real, flesh-and-blood living thing.
Our Beloved Demelza
Dear, dear Demelza. To think that such a wild-hearted rosebud took her place in Ross Poldark's life as a scrawny, dirty, thirteen-year-old urchin in her brother's clothes at Redruth Fair.
Demelza Carne is the antithesis of Elizabeth—passionate, stubborn, rough, true-hearted, unrefined, low-born and hard-working. Demelza is the oldest of a brood of miner's children, and while Elizabeth grew up trained to join society as a gentlewoman, fiery and independent-spirited Demelza was raising her six brothers and receiving the bite of her father's whip. She was never taught to restrain her passionate nature—as a miner's daughter, there would be no thought of education or society spared to her. There is nothing "shadowy and idyllic" about her: unlike Elizabeth, Demelza is totally and unashamedly real.
Ross first meets the love of his life in what is my personal favorite thing he ever does in a saga of 12 books' worth of justice-seeking for the poor. He sees a child being kicked and trampled on in attempt to retrieve her stolen dog at Redruth Fair. The gentlefolk of 1783 gather round to watch the "amusement"—but Ross Poldark (in his finest hero moment) refuses to stand by and watch, and rescues the child (and her dog) from the crowd. The child is thirteen-year-old Demelza Carne, and he brings her to safety and feeds her, caring nothing for the slight on his reputation this stir has caused in the eyes of his fellow gentry. When he discovers that the child's home-life is far from serene, he thinks to offer her a good home, and employs her as his kitchen-maid—little-knowing how monumental a decision this would be for his life.
Ross Poldark vs. the Men of His Day
This brings me to the character of Ross himself, and just why so many readers find that even Mr. Darcy pales in comparison. If Winston Graham wrote the unlikable Elizabeth Poldark to be a symbol of the gentlewomen of her day, then he wrote Ross Poldark to be the opposite. Ross is most decidedly a man not of his day, and its the bane of his life! While Elizabeth and her kind are constrained by the social demands of the time, Ross does everything in his power to rebel against it. I'm convinced this is why we see him as such a compelling hero. He sees the injustices which the higher-classes rule by—which Mr Darcy, too, ruled by!!—and throws all caution to the wind in the way of his own reputation if it means fighting the corrupt system by which Georgian society was governed.
It's no wonder that with Cornwall as a backdrop, only a hero such as Ross could headline the saga with his stormy, passionate nature—mirroring the backdrop of the Cornish sea itself with its ever-varying turbulence.
Verity Poldark is the rare sweet rose of the clannish Poldarks. She has none of their coarseness or arrogance—but she does have their fervent loyalty, even in stubbornness, and with an exceptionally sweet spirit she is often the over-used caretaker of Francis, Elizabeth, and their son Geoffrey Charles, instead of a sister and aunt. At twenty-seven, society has labelled her a sure spinster—but when Verity meets and falls in love with the so-called disreputable Captain Blamey, all of society takes a stance against her—though none worse than her own family.
Sure, Captain Blamey might be a tempestuous, fiery match to sweet-hearted Verity—but more than the stories attached to Blamey's name (which he has totally vouched for to Verity), it's clear that Francis, her brother, cares more about the Poldark reputation (and the prospect of losing a sister who waited on him hand-and-foot) than saving her from an imprudent or potentially unhappy marriage. Interesting to note, once again Graham refrains from telling us whether Verity is actually in the wrong for pursuing someone who is, admittedly, a questionable choice for her. He always lets us decide, which is a credit to his mastery as a writer.
Verity seeks refuge in Ross, who has always been affectionate and kind to her. Ross initially wishes to help his cousin in spite of reservations about Blamey, and permits them to meet secretly at Nampara. It's a short-lasting scheme, however—as Francis and his father discover the truth...and Francis, in his limitless stupidity, challenges Blamey to a duel.
Perhaps Francis is a casualty of his time, in the same way that Ross is a hero for being anything but. Francis believes in the society he was brought up in, as any gentleman of 1783 must—but in the shadow of Ross Poldark, he can't help but fall short of comparing himself to his cousin. His marriage to Elizabeth has been a failure, and he can't help but blame Ross, who after all was Elizabeth's first choice. (It's another curse of the Poldarks that they can never accept when they are in the wrong, as Francis surely was in this case, what with taking on another woman and gambling away much of his inheritance.) Francis can't help also seeing Ross's interference in the way of Verity as a personal slight against him, knowing that Ross must blame him for the unforgotten disappointment of losing Elizabeth.
Post-duel, with both Francis and Blamey surviving, Verity has to accept that her one dash with romance in life is ended, totally. She has been pushed all her life by her family, and been faithful, but at last they have succeeded in snuffing out her happiness like a candle flame. The passages that follow it, recounting Verity's lonely return to her room at Trenwith, reflecting on how many little joys and pains that room had held within its walls and at its window in her lifetime, is one of my favorite passages from the whole book.
"...The room which had seen her grow to maturity, would see her dry up and fade. The gilt mirror in the corner would bear its dispassionate testimony. All the ornaments and furnishings would be her companions through the years to come. And she realized that she would come to hate them, if she didn't already hate them, as one hates the witnesses of one's humiliation and futility."
The Mistress of Nampara
And so we come back to Demelza Carne, who had our hearts from the first, and will have our hearts ever-onward. At Nampara, Demelza finds a house of refuge, full of treasure-troves of unexpected wonders in spite of the hard work involved—knowledge...history...and surprisingly, kindness. Ross holds a kindly interest with the young girl that grows with the passing years, just as she does. He values her opinion and rewards her hard work with liberties that Jud and Prudie could never aspire to in their decrepit idleness. He comes to know her not as a low-born kitchen-servant, but as a trusted friend and partaker of the household.
Ross and Demelza's trusting relationship comes initially as an unexpected result of his bringing her to Nampara—but as the years pass and the young girl becomes a young woman, that relationship proves itself worthy in Ross's eyes as some valued untainted thing amid all the cares which his stormy nature inevitably adds to his life. Demelza adores and upholds Ross as the man who saved her life, looking up to him with a sincere pride to be so included in his affection and esteem. She earnestly loves him, and it shines as the bright spot in her life, which was grim and menacing before he entered it.
Threaded into Demelza's growing relationship with Ross is his overarching stance on social-justice for the lower-class, finding outlet in the form of Jim and Jinny Carter, a poor young couple from the mining district who work for Ross at Nampara. As the corn merchants hike up their prices out of the reach of the poor, Jim is drawn to poach on forbidden land in order to feed his wife and young child. When Jim is caught, Ross takes his first (of many over the course of 12 books) public stance against injustice to the poor, speaking on Jim's behalf publicly in court—but to no avail. His own fiery temper snuffs out the last hopes of freedom for Jim, in spite of the good intention that went behind it.
Ross returns home to Nampara that night in the stormy aftermath of his failure to help Jim. And in spite of the anger, the fiery-temper behind it and the righteous indignation smoldering the flames...there's Demelza. It's a climactic day for Ross, because it ultimately forces him into an irrevocable acceptance of his growing feelings for her . . .
And when I say irrevocable, I mean—*ahem*—I mean irrevocable. So much so in fact, that Ross decides to do the right thing without a care for the societal consequences.
So he decides he might as well marry her.
Demelza's journey from kitchen-maid to Mistress of Nampara is undoubtedly my favorite character arc of the saga, and for very good reason. There is, unquestionably, something incredibly dashing, romantic and swoon-y about Ross Poldark marrying the kitchen-maid whose life he saved and braving the disapproval of his family and fellow gentry, all with a simpering sense of humor because, at the end of the day, his marriage to Demelza is a success. It's the answer to all of Ross's restlessness, his bitterness about Elizabeth, forcing him at last to do the proper thing and settle down happily no matter how his nature rouses him. And to everyone's astonishment, including Demelza's, Ross actually falls in love with his own wife.
So we come to the best part of Book 1: the actual falling-in-love bit. I love a backwards love-story, and Graham's is top-tier for me. Ross marries Demelza very suddenly—but not out of love, really more of a final rebellious resort to thumb his nose at society and do something sensible with someone whose company he actually values. He didn't expect to fall in love with Demelza, but he does—and who could help it? It's outstanding that he could have ever thought the cold, untouchable, beautiful Elizabeth could ever have made a good match with him when compared to down-to-earth Demelza. She is truly the very thing Ross needed...and watching him begin to realize it is the most beautiful aspect of the beginning of their marriage.
I'm especially fond of this section of the book, and Demelza's journey holds the heart of it. Her reluctance to allow the stranger-eyes of Verity to interrupt her first happy summer alone with Ross—her fear of being looked down on by the Trenwith Poldarks—her longing to be genteel, learned, and well-mannered for the sake of her adored Ross, to make him proud of her—just fill my heart to think of. I'm already feeling the need to read it all over again, and it's only been a few weeks, ha! Watching Demelza begin to love Verity, and the beautiful friendship that results, is another standout.
Though Book 2: Demelza covers the widest area of her growth into the role of mistress of the house and gentlelady, the first months of marriage covered in Book 1 are simply the very sweetest. Book 1 closes with the events of Christmas, in which Ross and Demelza go to Trenwith and she at last has to face the family—and Elizabeth in especial. Elizabeth will always be a point of contention, and even Ross, in the happiness of his marriage, acknowledges to himself that she still holds something over him from that old unforgotten ideal, and the bitterness attached to it. Elizabeth, very apparently unhappily married to Francis, unsurprisingly looks on Demelza with a tinge of envy—while anxious, unsuspecting Demelza looks on Elizabeth as a superior ideal that she'll never be able to aspire to.
Ross is at the center of that envy. Graham lets the contention simmer a little, but calm down again just as Ross realizes once again all that Demelza means to him. It's a pattern that will reach a head one day, and already Graham is sowing the seeds—or rather showing us the little character flaws which will one day lash out with a vengeance.
Demelza's first Christmas as Mrs. Poldark is a success—and she proves herself before all to be worth far more than her social standing and lack of breeding. She comes into her own as Ross's wife with the knowledge that she's something to be proud of, and loved, after all. Book 1 closes with the promise of their firstborn child to be born in the spring, and so the first installment of the saga comes to an end . . .
I've heard many readers herald Book 1 as being the unbeatable best of the saga—and others who find that the books get better and better with each succession. I would say personally that Book 1 is the "tightest", in that each chapter has a clear and direct place in the story Graham is unfolding, very evidently with a great deal of care and research. The books arguably get somewhat "looser" down the line: Graham becomes more comfortable adding a chapter of comic relief to ease the tension, or adding in new characters that add to the atmosphere, but not necessarily to the plot. Book 1 in comparison reads very clear: every detail, every character, has been carefully tended to by its storyteller. It has the flavor of a true modern classic.
That said, objectively-speaking perhaps it really is the "best" book of the saga (though I'd argue Book 8: The Angry Tide is on an equal footing), but from a subjective standpoint, many of the other books in the saga rank even higher to me as favorites. Beloved characters met along the way, and especial events in the lives of the Poldarks have everything to do with this—for instance, Book 2: Demelza is even more fun than its predecessor in my view! We certainly have a lot to look forward to with the next Poldark Perusal. :)
Thank you so much for joining me on this happy return to the Poldark Perusal series! I would absolutely love to hear from you if you are thinking of beginning the saga, or have already begun the journey through the gripping Cornish romance of Poldark. You can leave a comment below to get the conversation started! :)
If you're anywhere near as fond of Demelza Poldark as I am, you may fancy my 4x6" art print available for purchase in my shop! :)
Until next time,
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