The Poldark Perusal - Book 12, Bella Poldark
Welcome back to the last edition of The Poldark Perusal, a series here on the blog documenting my journey through Winston Graham's 12-book Poldark saga. It's been nearly four years since I first watched the outstanding BBC / Masterpiece PBS series adaptation of the books, and my love for all-things-Poldark has only grown since then, most especially due to reading the books. I read Book 1 three years ago this month, which feels impossibly long ago...but three years later, I have finally reached the end of the saga. This journey has been unforgettable, and documenting it through my Poldark Perusal series has been a real gift.
In the last Perusal, I unpacked the penultimate story, Book 11: The Twisted Sword, which was one of my favorites of the entire saga. I had to deliberately wait a few months to process the fact that, yes, I did indeed only have one book left of the saga. It's bittersweet, because now that I have finished it, I've spent the last few weeks processing the fact that it really is over. Winston Graham is a masterful storyteller because his characters feel so real, so lifelike that you can't imagine their stories could ever end, but must go on as life inevitably must. I was so curious about how he would end this saga he'd spent a lifetime writing...whether he would tie up every end so that the individual stories really concluded, or if it would end with room to live on in the comforting knowledge that there really always is more left unsaid...
As this is the very last Poldark Perusal, I'm going to format this edition a little differently. While I will document the book's general plot in the usual way, I want to end this post with a conclusion of thoughts on the saga as a whole—my favorite books, characters, and final feelings. For such a deeply intricate saga spanning generations, it's worth taking a look back at the stand-outs of the series. Now, onto the review!! Brew a pot of tea and assemble a delicacy of your choice, and let's unpack Book 12: Bella Poldark.
Book 12: Bella Poldark
DISCLAIMER: This review contains in-depth spoilers!
Where we left off...
Last time, we left off The Twisted Sword with Ross and Demelza still reeling after the tragic loss of their son Jeremy, who was killed while serving as a soldier in France in the final Napoleonic War—leaving his wife Cuby a widow, and their baby fatherless. The Poldark's eldest daughter Clowance was also left widowed following the death of Stephen Carrington, who was killed after suffering internal injuries from a riding accident. George Warleggan and Lady Harriet welcomed twin girls into the world. Valentine Warleggan is still estranged from George, and Valentine has made advances towards establishing a fatherly relationship with Ross (oh dear).
This time around...
Book 12 begins three years later. The Poldark's youngest daughter Bella pursues a musical career on the stage (by the encouragement of Captain Havergal, now her fiancé). Clowance struggles with letting go of Stephen's memory, while two rivaling suitors (who are genuinely both rather nice, for once) have designs of matrimony for her. Valentine Warleggan finally goes rogue and gets a pet ape. Yes, you read that right. An actual ape. George almost dies in a hole but Lady Harriet's dogs sniff him out before it's too late (aha). Ross and George join sides (!!!) to save Valentine from prison. Bella makes some questionable choices with a French producer. An actual murderer stalks Cornwall seeking female victims, and Demelza is almost one of them. (!!!!!). Ross nearly dies, and a major character actually does die, but more on that further down... Needless to say, a lot's going on here!
The pressure was on for this being the final book of a saga so dear to me, and I was a little nervous going into Book 12. Winston Graham wrote this book at the age of 94, amazingly! He passed away the following year in 2003, but it was always clear that Book 12 was meant to be the last. Bella Poldark had many of the traditional Poldark elements that are absolute key necessity to keep this saga consistent, and Graham's writing does not in any way suffer with age—but this one wasn't a series-standout for me. It was probably the only book in the series that suffered from being a bit dull and flat—and this is the longest book of the saga, just short of 700 pages! The rest of the series has been consistently 4-5 star, but I think Book 12 will receive a 3.5 from me.
Valentine and the ape was the real pendulum swinger for me. Throughout the entire second-generation half of the saga I have imagined how Debbie Horsfield (who adapted the first 7 books for the television series) may one day adapt these books—but throughout Bella Poldark, I kept thinking, She can't include the ape. Please, not the ape! It was the most bizarre plot point of the entire saga, and Valentine's party habits combined with his ape-antics were a wee bit cringeworthy to read about. I had qualms about the serial killer plot as well. I didn't like how it entwined with characters only just introduced, like the unfortunate Agneta or the traumatized ex-soldier, Philip Prideaux. What I really wanted for the final book was for all the beloved characters we've known for so many years to be brought together and reminisced over—like catching up with Drake and Morwenna and their daughter maybe, or a bit more of Caroline and Dwight (who show up only once in a while through the last few books)...
On Bella Herself
It's necessary to bring up Bella, for whom the book is obviously named after. I have to admit, I just didn't like her character at all through this book. As a child in the previous books, she was likable and naive, endearing while daring and bold—but this time, now that she is seventeen, her decisions prove her to be reckless and irrational, and very selfishly focused on her own pursuits, and none of those who love her. The saga has been so enriched by well-researched history, but inversely I felt that Bella's stage career (and playing the part of Romeo in particular) was rather unbelievable for the time. For 1820, a woman on the stage would have been ranked with harlots and dissipated living. It wasn't respectable, and despite the free reign Ross and Demelza have given their children, I had a hard time accepting that they would have actually encouraged Bella to pursue this career.
Bella's suitors were both rather insipid to me—and downright repelling. Captain Havergal never sat well with me because he fell in love with Bella when she was thirteen (even if he did think she was fifteen at the time and was willing to wait, it's still creepy). Maurice the French producer was even worse, and I think the less said on these two unworthy gentlemen, the better. Unworthy as they are, Bella herself treated them both pretty badly—as she does everyone in some way, unintentionally, all in the pursuit of her own happiness. She takes advantage of the generous Miss Pelham (Caroline's aunt) rather unkindly—then takes advantage of her fiancé Captain Havergal (dislike him as I do) by running off to France with Maurice—and then tries to drop Maurice offhandedly the moment she returns to England. She ends up marrying Havergal, but I just...didn't care, honestly. I just couldn't get past her selfish behavior to actually like her.
Closure for Clowance
The highlight of this book for me, and what made it necessary for the sake of closure, was the small part Clowance has to play. In my previous Perusals, I've made it no secret that she frustrated me constantly with her undeserved love for (that dratted) Stephen Carrington, but I was surprised to find that Book 12 changed my mind about her. I realized that of all the Poldark children (and let's be honest, they have all apparently been doomed to irrational decision-making and an inexplicable attraction for the wrong people), she is the only one who remained steadfast to all she held dear. Even if I can never praise her loyalty to Stephen, I can finally admire her for, at the very least, never letting go of her principles or her self-respect despite every chance to do so. The questionable attachment to Stephen finds her now, in this book, struggling with the fact that he died while there was discord between them. Her longing for closure, knowing closure is impossible, gave me a newfound admiration for her.
While Jeremy (dear, dear Jeremy) allowed his grief and heartache in Book 9 to take possession of him until it drove him to rebel against the law (and his heart), all because he didn't get the girl he loved, it's incredible to think of how steadfast Clowance was in always choosing to remain true to herself despite her own husband's illicit behavior, manipulative schemes, and endless lies. Comparing Jeremy and Clowance, I think many of us would agree that Jeremy seemed at times far more likable and pitiable—and yet, looking at it now, I think Clowance was stronger, and proved herself to be long-suffering and true. She never once compromised herself or what she loved, even when she had been deeply wronged.
In this book, the comparison between Clowance and her younger sister Bella is startling and compelling. Clowance recognizes to her own surprise that Bella is more worldly-wise and "older" despite age, and the both of them face a similar dilemma in the book. Two men want Bella—and two men want Clowance. I've already briefly addressed Bella's insipid suitors, and though they unfortunately take up far more of the book than do Clowance's, it's the latter's who I found far more interesting. Both Captain Philip Prideaux and Lord Edward Fitzmaurice have tender feelings for her, and for once, they are both genuinely nice men with honest intentions. Clowance is very self-aware about her struggle to find romantic feelings within herself for another man but Stephen, and again, it's an admirable struggle that I deeply respect. She ends up choosing Lord Edward, and I felt truly, honestly happy for her. Edward has loved her for years (before she even married Stephen). At long last, Clowance finally ends up with someone who won't take her for granted like Stephen did. I feel convinced they'll be very, very happy—and she far and away deserved her happy ending if anyone did.
Yes, I've already talked about the bizarre ape plot, but we need to talk about Valentine himself. He's a tricky character, because despite growing worse and worse and more monstrous with each book, it's hard to overlook the fact that he was doomed to this life by two men who wronged him. One, Ross Poldark, who committed the treachery against Elizabeth that takes the course of the entire saga to expound—and which resulted in Valentine's birth. Two, George Warleggan, who poisoned Valentine and his mother's life with the bitter suspicion that Ross was the real father. Ross and George's conflict is central to the Poldark saga, and every ill move that either of them make seems to have a rippling effect of lasting repercussions for innocent people.
Valentine isn't someone to like, and he proves that in this book by his damaging relationship with his estranged wife Selina, his son Georgie (aha), his vile affairs and outrageous behavior. The ape was just the tipping point, but it wasn't an evil, in the way that his treatment of women has been. I don't know quite how to feel about Ross putting so much effort toward building a fatherly relationship with Valentine. While it's satisfying to see Ross finally taking responsibility for his actions, I can't help but feel this is a treacherous step to take, especially for his relationship with Demelza, which has been shaky since the tragedy of losing their son Jeremy. It seems that Jeremy's death is what spurs Ross on to look after another "son," but again, I'm conflicted about this.
Ross's relationship with Valentine reaches a climax, and an ending, when the ape (sigh, I just hate even mentioning it) sets afire to Valentine's house. Ross is on the scene when this happens, and he goes back into the burning house to rescue Valentine. It's a marvelous, well-executed scene when we find that Ross, weary and spent amid the flames, finally discovers Valentine at his feet, crying out, "Father!" I was moved to tears a bit, I confess. It seemed like, suddenly, in a half-real vision, Valentine was no more than a lost boy, a lost son, crying out for the father who had denied him—and Ross was finally extending out a hand to that son. And then all at once, the burning roof caves in on top of Ross...
He survives (as we knew he must), and gets away with an injury and a concussion. And what of Valentine? Apparently he was found dead, burned, with his ape—nowhere near where Ross was found. Was it all a hallucination? Had Ross never heard that cry, seen that face? It's left undisclosed, but it haunts Ross afterward. Did Valentine see Ross just as we read of, and then crawl back to his ape in an act of suicide, or did Ross ever even see Valentine? We'll never know...
"Ross thought, the only thing that mattered was that he had lost a son. So after twenty-six years and three-hundred-and-one days the child born under a black moon fulfilled a destiny which Aunt Agatha, consumed with spleen, had prophesied at his birth."
I found this tying up of the old, long-standing thread throughout the saga really quite satisfying. It isn't just about ending Valentine's story—but Elizabeth's, and the ghost of the deed that Ross committed with lifelong repercussions for so many. It's finally buried.
Brief Thoughts on the Murder Situation
I just...didn't like this aspect. I didn't care about the serial killer on the loose, or understand why it was even necessary to include. It was clear early on that Philip Prideaux was just a red herring and in no way the murderer, and I wasn't particularly interested when it was revealed to be Paul Kellow. Of all the people who deserve closure in the end of this saga, I don't quite see why he was one of them? Okay, I did find the Demelza encounter rather heart-racing and intense even if it was clear someone would save her in the end, but still, it just seemed unnecessary to me that this was even a part of the book—and it took up a lot, too!
The End of the Journey
As I stated at the beginning of this Perusal, I was so curious how Graham would wrap up this story—whether the loose ends would all be snipped and we'd have a happy-ever-after moment, or a touching scene of everyone in the family coming together with a reminiscent farewell to their lives and loves—or if the story would be left half-closed, with room to imagine that the Poldarks' lives would go on even if the books did not.