The Poldark Perusal - Book 11, The Twisted Sword
❝ Deliver my soul from the Sword; my darling from the power of the dog. ❞
Welcome back to The Poldark Perusal, a series here on the blog documenting my journey through Winston Graham's Poldark saga. If you're new here, I started watching the marvelous BBC / Masterpiece PBS series almost four years ago...and fell wholeheartedly in love with all-things Poldark. It's been an unchangeable love that has only grown through reading the books. I read the first book of the saga three years ago, and primarily over the last year and a half I've made my way through the 12-book saga...with presently only one left to go. It's been an incredible, incomparable journey, and documenting it through my Poldark Perusals has been a real treat.
In the last Perusal, I unpacked Book 10: The Loving Cup, which was an emotional rollercoaster with twists and turns I never dared expect. I generally like to fill my time between Poldark books with a few other reads, but over the last month or so it's honestly been hard to think of much else other than "what in the world is going to happen to these Poldarks and Warleggans (and Carringtons, unfortunately) next?!?!" I love looking forward to a book and holding off for a bit, especially when it comes to the end of a saga so beloved and unending. The idea that it will ever end feels wrong somehow! But without further ado, let's unpack Book 11: The Twisted Sword.
Book 11: The Twisted Sword
DISCLAIMER: This review contains in-depth spoilers!
Last time, we left off The Loving Cup with Jeremy eloping his long-time doomed lover, Cuby Trevanion; Stephen and Clowance are (so far) happily wed, and George and Valentine Warleggan cut ties when the latter reveals he secretly married Selina Pope. Book 11: The Twisted Sword begins with a summons for Ross and Demelza to go to Paris on a mission for the Crown while the Bonapartist victories seem to have subsided...until Napoleon rises again and war tears the Poldarks apart. Stephen and Clowance's marriage hits a bump when Stephen's son shows up. George takes up a new tactic to ruin Stephen, while Harriet announces she is a pregnant. Ross and Demelza, torn by war and land and sea, come together again after the most grievous of circumstances. Jeremy and Cuby's marriage begins with happiness...and ends in tragedy and tears.
I walked into Book 11 with only the knowledge that a trusted reader had told me it was one of the best books of the saga...and needless to say, my expectations were set pretty high. And lo, I have to start with a confession that The Twisted Sword just became my favorite book in this saga yet. Winston Graham takes me by surprise every time, and I still haven't gotten over the fact that he wrote these books throughout his lifetime, and in spite of them being rather large volumes (this one was 680 pages!!) there is rarely ever a slow or dull moment. This one in particular was an absolute thrill from start to finish, full of continuous drama, high-stakes, and tragedy. Through the last third of the book I felt emotionally drained, as though I'd lived through all of these events at the Poldarks' side—which is absolutely a testament to Graham's masterful writing, which has only excelled with time.
I said several times in my perusal for The Loving Cup that I kept guessing every incorrect outcome and being shocked when the last thing I expected occurred, but this time 'round I was so shocked that I couldn't even guess the next thing. It was a thrill and a half, honestly. I think there were at least a dozen times whilst reading that I literally gasped out loud, and one occasion in particular in which I was so stunned that I blurted, "W-what...?? No...NOO!" before promptly bursting into tears. Oh, you know what part I'm talking about. Poor, poor Jeremy...
But the real strength of this book is that Ross and Demelza are front and center again, as they haven't been for the last three books. Finally, the attention is taken off of (that dratted) Stephen Carrington, and we're reminded of why we fell in love with these books in the very beginning...because Ross and Demelza are just that good. While reading, I could just feel how glad Winston Graham was to be writing about these two again. And I don't blame him one bit!
A Summons to Paris
We open with Ross receiving a commission from the Crown to secretly observe the French army and report his findings, and to throw off suspicion, Demelza and the children come along with him. And oh, Ross has been offered a baronetcy, too! (Aha, this is a real laugh when we remember all the years and trouble and money George Warleggan went through to secure one...and here his nemesis was just offered it.) Lord and Lady Poldark enter Paris with their prestigious new titles; new surroundings bring with it new characters, and a friend in Madame Jolie de la Blache, who is the widow of a French naval officer Ross met during the time of Dwight's French imprisonment back in Book 5. We have new enemies established, too...and with the threat of duels at every turn, I suspected from the beginning that we'd get some kind of sword-fighting duel with Ross at the forefront (which by the way didn't actually end up happening).
One of the most intriguing aspects of this saga is how rich they are in history, and this book deals heavily with the fall of Napoleon...but at from a personal distance this time! We're not in Cornwall anymore, Toto. While the world believes the Conqueror is vanquished (and goodness knows why in the world they didn't just execute him), Napoleon rallies new forces and takes back his French land without a finger lifted. France is divided with Bonapartists and Royalists, but its the latter who have to make a quick escape out of the country before their enemy swoops down upon them. Napoleon's return comes at an unfortunate time for Ross and Demelza, as Ross is far from Paris on a short mission when the news comes, and the two are separated in a time of peril. Demelza has no choice but to take the children and flee Paris with Madame de Blache, while Ross makes the torturously slow trek back to Paris in search of them. He's just hours too late...but just in time to witness Napoleon's return.
Demelza and the children find their way to Brussels, where Jeremy is currently stationed, and Cuby is introduced to the family as his wife for the first time. It's a tense time, with Ross's fate so undecided and knowledge so scarce, but behind it all, it's undeniable that Cuby and Jeremy's marriage has so far been full of unrivaled happiness, and we really get a chance to see that Jeremy's once-doomed love-affair was perhaps the way it was always meant to be? But it almost seems as though the newlyweds are too happy. And Cuby announces she is with child fairly soon. Happy, happy, happy. I started to suspect that something would have to deter their joys a bit. I mean, this is Poldark after all. I actually anticipated that something would befall Cuby, because certainly nothing could happen to Jeremy, right?
That Dratted Stephen Carrington
As for Stephen, things have (really frustratingly) gone his own way for his too-long tenure in the saga, but lo, we finally see his comeuppance begin to draw nigh!! Clowance is home alone one day when she receives a visitor...who says he's come to see his father. Uh-oh.
Stephen, as it turns out, has lied about his past yet again. And to his own thinking, he believes he's in the right for "sparing Clowance the trouble" of knowing things about her husband that would've made her seriously question her decision to marry him to begin with. As it happens, apparently Stephen has a son...and was previously married! Big shocks here. It happened when he was seventeen...and the lies aren't through yet. Apparently he lied about his own age to Clowance because he was worried she would think him too old for her...which he definitely is. He's thirty-seven! She's what, twenty now? Oh, dear. Clowance, you foolish girl...why did you ever believe a thing he said in the first place? And this son of Stephen's is nearly Clowance's own age, too. Dear, oh dear.
But the troubles aren't over for Stephen! (Luckily) George Warleggan digs up some new evidence about the infamous stage-coach robbery that incriminates Stephen pretty neatly. George set up the chess board for a countermove that will destroy Stephen's entire finances and leave him bankrupt (which I don't mind in the least)...but (unfortunately) Lady Harriet steps in and warns George not to ruin Stephen for the sake of Clowance, who happened to rescue one of Harriet's beloved dogs quite recently. Oh, and she's pregnant! (Harriet, not Clowance).
Is it bad that I really just want somebody to simply do away with Stephen for good already? In case you needed yet another reason to hate him, he actually blames Clowance for George's (justifiable) harassment. Instead of accepting that he robbed George and now George is getting even, he throws the blame on the Poldark/Warleggan feud. Which makes this...Clowance's fault somehow??? Even though she warned him about George in the first place?!? Stephen just can't allow that he is ever in the wrong...
Jeremy...dear, poor, beloved Jeremy.
While Ross seeks to leave Paris, he ends up being imprisoned by the French under the grounds of spying. It's weeks before he manages to escape his prison (and we absolutely expect that of him) and he's back on the run from the Bonapartists. He meets a Polish Royalist officer who luckily leads him directly to Wellington's army. Ross is offered a choice to leave for England or to help the armies and fight against Napoleon...and in true Ross fashion, he chooses the fight. Besides, he hears that Jeremy's division isn't far and the reunion would be something to win.
Meanwhile, Jeremy has taken leave of Cuby to join his ranks...newly given the title of Captain, as well. The bloodbath of the last Napoleonic battle ensues...and Jeremy fights bravely alongside his men, almost to the end...until a stray bullet hits him in the back.
Ross arrives at the battle's end...just in time for his son...his first-born, beloved son...to die in his arms.
I don't think any of the eleven Poldark books I've read thus far have hurt me in quite the way Jeremy's death did. And it's strange, because I can't say I really ever liked him that much. I was fond of him until the stage-coach robbery, when he frustrated me beyond measure with his love-struck madness about Cuby. But somehow his death was a serious blow, and it literally took me several days to process. Ross's final moments with him are heart-wrenching. I never imagined Jeremy could die...I really thought that stray bullet would be nothing more than a wound to heal. But what's even more gutting and emotional is the letter Ross finds himself writing to Demelza...to tell her of their son's death.
It's one of the only times we really see Ross caught in the outpourings of emotion, and it's all felt through the words he pens to his wife. Oh, that letter. It was impossible to read without blurred vision for tears.
It feels unfair that Jeremy was taken just as his life—which has seen quite a lot of bitterness and misery and heartbreak in the last few years—was finally in a bright, joyful place with hope for the future. He had what he had yearned for...he had the love of his life, so long sought for, and was just beginning to build a life with her. And it's snatched away like a little flame caught in the wind. I think his tragic death actually made me more fond of him in the end. I can look on him now with a hurt look and a woebegone feeling of heartache, instead of the frustration I felt for three books straight.
Ross returns home...broken...to a broken-hearted Demelza, who is so altered in her grief that our own hearts break to realize this is a burden too heavy even for her to carry. With all that she and Ross have faced in life, the death of Jeremy leaves a hole that feels impossible to fill. It's a bitter time of mourning...and especially for poor Cuby, who is bereft of the life she was just beginning to lead with her husband and forthcoming family. When Cuby comes to Nampara for a visit, the rawness of Demelza's emotional turmoil sets in in ways that really made me step back and applause Winston Graham yet again for taking his characters to such real depths. At the back of Demelza mind, to her own horror and shame, is the thought that she could blame Cuby for Jeremy's death...since it was because she would not have him in the first place that Jeremy enlisted at all. She wonders—Cuby, however she loved her son, could never love him as much as she, his mother did...had...does.
Demelza feels ashamed for having such thoughts, but I can't help appreciating how genuine and real they are. This meets a heavy, emotionally gutting scene when Cuby seeks Demelza in private and tells her that she is only hiding her true grief...and we learn everything we need to know about Cuby's real feelings when she clutches Demelza's hands and says, "I wish I could die."
Oh, dear. I can't even think about that scene without my eyes misting. Cuby has redeemed herself forever to me. I think Jeremy was ever the only one who could see through her veil of hardness and pride. But that's all gone for me now...and I do love her.
Stephen's Comeuppance (...finally)
In the midst of family turmoil with Jeremy's death, Clowance is left heartbroken for her brother (while Stephen actually thinks she should be getting over it soon considering how great he is doing!). Stephen buys himself a horse...and then feels a pressing need to show everyone high and low this new horse for...reasons? Honestly I've given up trying to explain a thing this horrible, narcissistic man does. Anyway, he sees Lady Harriet Warleggan in the woods (and apparently he's always been attracted to her??? Umm?) and shows her his new horse. There's a very strange moment when he actually kisses her (!!!) but at this point I can no longer be shocked by a thing he does. Harriet gets on her horse and leaves, Stephen follows...but lo, his new horse isn't quite as show-off-able as he thought, because he's wildly thrown off only to land and break his back.
Ohhh, now his comeuppance is here.
I was so desperate that this back injury should kill him that when it started to look like he would get better, I was so furious that I actually (and this is a very bad thing for a reader to confess) peaked at the next chapter to pacify myself that yes, he would die. (I know, I know, that's a hard confession to make).