The Poldark Perusal - Book 8, The Stranger From the Sea
“It is hopeless for older people to tell younger ones – particularly their own children – that they have been through the same thing. Such information is no use at all! It bounces off one’s own grief – or jealousy or distress. If we are all born the same we are also all born unique – we all go through torments nobody else has ever had.”
-WINSTON GRAHAM, Poldark: The Stranger From the Sea
Welcome to another Poldark Perusal!! It's been far too many months since the last perusal when we explored Book 7, The Angry Tide, which has so far been one of the greatest books of the saga. Book 8 will look rather different to you, as the book jumps forward a decade—leaving behind a few beloved characters from the first half of the saga to become acquainted with the new.
Before we even begin this Perusal, I feel like my thoughts (which, I must confess, are more than a month old as I've been putting off this review for quite a while now!) won't be fully-formed until I dive further into the final books of the saga, as this book seems to serve as an 'introduction' to a Poldark generation that I haven't fallen in love with yet. I imagine it would be like reading Book 5: The Black Moon, and thinking, "Who in the world are Drake and Morwenna and what have they to do with anything?" And then of course, by the next two books they're your absolute favorite characters of the saga and you were subject to a premature opinion.
It may very well happen that following the next few books, I'll look on The Stranger from the Sea more fondly than I do now. But I won't stumble around with my words here—I really didn't love this one.
If you're new to the blog, The Poldark Perusal is a series of blog posts documenting my journey through Winston Graham's 12-book Poldark saga. I began the Perusal from Book 5 onward (a deep regret of mine that I didn't cover the first four books, alas!), having first watched the marvelous BBC / PBS Masterpiece series several times over. If you're a fan of the tv series, I can't recommend the books more highly. Graham is a vivid, masterful writer, and the books do go quite a bit deeper than the marvelous television series.
Now, onto the review!!
Book 8: The Stranger From the Sea
NOTE: This review contains spoilers! In addition to key plot events particular to this book, this review also references a major character death that occurred at the end of Book 7 (or the season 4 finale for those familiar with the television series).
It's been ten years since we last met the Poldarks of Nampara—since the tragic death of Elizabeth Warleggan, the killing of Monk Adderley, and the long-awaited marriage of our beloved Drake and Morwenna Carne. Ross is now serving as a spy for the Crown in Portugal; George Warleggan still mourns for his late wife. While Ross and Demelza's lives have reached a period of contentment, their eldest children, Clowance and Jeremy, begin to have unsettling trials of their own—instigated by the arrival of Stephen Carrington, the stranger from the sea.
I'll be frank—I found Book 8 a bit difficult to get into. I've given every previous book a five-star rating, but I think this one will sadly get a three out of five from me. Stephen Carrington was a pain to read about—he's new, he's a trouble-maker, he makes me furious practically every scene he's in—and in many ways, I feel like he's the equivalent of Season 5's Ned Despard fiasco. Say what you will about the problematic final season of our beloved Poldark, Ned was just not good. We weren't given a single reason to care about him, and it was distressing to see how he led the Nampara-folk southward with trouble. Ergo Stephen Carrington! Perhaps Debbie Horsfield tried to bring a few Book 8 elements to the table with the final season—but it didn't work for the same reasons Ned doesn't.
Before I even get into my hatred for Stephen Carrington, I must say that while he was definitely a major reason this book didn't ignite my interest in the way the series always has in the past, there were other gripes!! For one, it was a sad wrench to realize that Drake and Morwenna have just vanished from the saga, that Sam and Rosina's love story is documented in two pages and are hardly mentioned again, and Caroline and Dr. Enys are barely involved at all! There were too many new characters—and too few reasons to love them. I like Clowance and Jeremy, but I don't feel as though I really know them yet. Every time I felt like I was starting to care about them, they infuriated me by being enthralled (and fooled) by that dratted Stephen Carrington.
Those are my big no-no factors—but there really were a few things I loved about this book, and if there'd been more, I might've bumped this book up a star. For one, Ross and Demelza's relationship feels more secure than it ever has before: they've had so much fire and hail in the past, and finally they seem to understand the secret to each other's happiness. The previous two books found their marriage in the shadows of Hugh Armitage's love for Demelza, and I thought it a beautiful touch that Demelza still keeps Hugh's magnolia in the garden because it reminds both she and Ross of the mistakes of the past and the price they paid for the peace of their current contentedness.
Something About Spies and Portugal???
Book 8 opens in Portugal, Wellington's Army, 1810. Ross is on an oh-so-secret mission (that I feel 78% sure I missed the purpose of), and he reunites with a few past characters... One, we meet Captain McNeil of Book 4 fame! Yikes, I bet that was an uncomfortable meeting. (McNeil tried (and failed!) to seduce Demelza some twenty years ago). And for a second and altogether happier reunion, Ross meets his nephew, Geoffrey Charles, who is currently a cadet in his late twenties. It's mind-boggling to me that I can remember him being born at Trenwith back in Book One. How times have changed! Ross and his nephew haven't seen each other in several years, and Ross gives him a much-needed (for us, at least!) family update to remind us readers what's been going on during the 10-year gap.
Ross and Demelza have another daughter, Isabella-Rose, age 8; Clowance is now 16, Jeremy 19. Drake and Morwenna have moved to Looe with their daughter, having, as Geoffrey Charles says, "too many memories around Trenwith." George Warleggan, still mourning for Elizabeth, has quite abandoned Trenwith, and is even rumored to be courting a certain Lady Harriet!
The problem with this spy/Portugal business is that I really don't know what in the world Ross was doing there or why. Though it featured in the book quite a lot, and he has several meetings with high-up people in the service of the Crown, I never quite understood what was going on or how Ross ended up in this position. Perhaps it was mentioned in the first chapter and I forgot—but I really just don't know!
George Warleggan's Financial Comeuppance
One of the most interesting plotlines this book follows is (Sir) George's financial collapse, which lies at the doorstep of his Very Awkward Romantic Pursuit. Ha! George meets (and is frankly bewitched by) the widowed Lady Harriet Carter, and in order to impress her, he makes a few unwise investments that prove to his near ruin. How satisfying, after he has schemed and plotted the ruin of his enemies for so many years!! And this, at the hands of his attatchment to a woman he hardly knows! Granted, it's been quite a long time since he's actually looked at another woman and realized she was a woman—since Elizabeth's death.
Villainous George hasn't had the best of decades since losing his beloved wife (whom he treated pretty terribly and basically drove to her death). But somehow I surprised myself by missing her almost as much as he did! One of the most masterful writing devices of Winston Graham's is his ability to humanize his villains: particularly George and Elizabeth. They're interesting villains, especially Elizebeth, whose actions are complexly derived by her circumstances. A previous and incomplete attachment to Ross? Villain! An unhappy marriage to Francis, who was unfaithful and left her destitute? Villain! Widowhood that leads Ross to do a Very Bad thing? Villain! Marrying George for the sake of her poverty-stricken child? Villain!
And yet, it's so fun to hate her, isn't it? I really missed her and George plotting their evil schemes and the drama of the Nampara/Trenwith feud. I must admit, a real flavor is gone without her there. I felt it in this book, and I felt it in Season 5 of the tv series: I missed her terribly.
Early on into Book 8, we hear a little of the grief George went through after losing Elizabeth. I remember show-writer Debbie Horsfield stating that the madness of Sir George in Season 5 was developed from the idea that he was in extreme mourning and couldn't process Elizabeth's death—and, say what you will about the mess of the fifth season (and I could say a lot!), I actually liked the idea of George "losing it." He's the one character who has always kept a lid over his emotions, believed vulnerability was a weakness to be conquered, and conquer it he strived to do. The very irony of George going mad is deliciously amusing, and this plot gave Jack Farthing room to deliver the most unforgettable performance of an otherwise slapdash season. He was truly marvelous.
A really good display of his character comes out in Chapter 3 when George, on the anniversary of his wedding to Elizabeth, pays his yearly visit Trenwith to pay homage to her memory. He revists her grave, and in true George fashion...
"He had brought no flowers. He never did; it would have seemed to him a pandering to some theatricality, an emotional gesture out of keeping with his dignity. One could remember without employing symbols. Besides, they were a waste of money; nobody saw them, and in no time they were withered and dead."
As much as I enjoyed the prospect of George's financial downfall, I enjoyed even more how Ross and Demelza handled the news when it reached them—because Ross had the opportunity to see George destitute, and refused to be a part of it. As a member of a successful Cornish bank, he had a chance to ruin his longtime enemy once and for all by suggesting the bank refuse to prop up the Warleggan Bank at this time of their backsliding. Ross goes to Demelza for counsel, feeling it unsafe to put his emotions into his decision. As if we couldn't love our Mistress of Nampara more, she wisely says to him,
"What George and his kinsfolk have done they have to live with. What we do we have to live with. I look back on my life, Ross; oftentimes when you are away and I have no one to talk to I look back on my life, and I do not remember many shameful things. Perhaps I forget some! But the less of such I have to remember the better it pleases. So in saying have no part in it, it is not of George I think but of ourselves."