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Review: Ross Poldark, a Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787, by Winston Graham
Sourcebooks, 2009 [1945]. 314 pp. $17

Captain Ross Poldark returns to Cornwall from the American war to find that everything has gone to pieces. His father has died, leaving behind debts. The two servants tasked with keeping up the modest ancestral home and surrounding farmlands have let them go to ruin and sold off the livestock to keep themselves soused. Worst of all, though, Ross’s sweetheart, the beautiful Elizabeth, is shortly to marry his friend and cousin, Francis.

Beach in Cornwall (Courtesy Mike Coates, publicdomainpictures.net)

Beach in Cornwall (Courtesy Mike Coates, publicdomainpictures.net)

To say that this novel is about a man who overcomes pain and disappointment to put his life back together is like saying that Huckleberry Finn is about a boy on a raft. Ross indeed has plenty of reconstruction to do and ways of submerging (but not drowning) his sorrows. However, it’s how and why he goes about rebuilding his life, who helps or hinders him, and how everyone else feels about it that make Ross Poldark a marvelously entertaining story. Further, the novel also offers a finely detailed picture of eighteenth-century England, warts and all.

That’s because Ross, though a man of his time, has no use for conventions, institutions, or prejudices that unjustly protect his social class at others’ expense. Whether his years among American revolutionaries influenced his views, or his youthful, independent cast of mind has flowered in adulthood, Ross repeatedly dares gossip and ostracism to do what he thinks is right. He has his limits, of course, believing in social distinctions. And to avoid making enemies, he sometimes takes the middle road, only to learn that he can’t please anybody.

Nevertheless, seemingly with every action he takes, problems occur, and he rises to meet them, revealing conflicts within himself and with the society in which he lives. Even so simple an exercise as dancing with a young girl to let her feel that she’s not a wallflower has far-reaching complications because of the way girls are treated like marriageable chattel. Defending a cottager from poaching charges sets Ross against the local magistracy while putting class and social inequities on hideous display. Restarting an old copper mine touches on ills of the Industrial Revolution and the constant struggle for a living wage.

But nothing arouses as much gossip or spite from the community, or ambivalence within Ross himself, as his rescue of Demelza Carne. Ross first sees the twelve-year-old Demelza at a fair, where she tries to rescue her dog from being tortured by a pack of boys, only to be set upon herself. Ross wonders why she’d go to that length for a mere animal–another common eighteenth-century English attitude–but when he sees the welts and bruises that her father has inflicted on her, he resolves to hire her as a live-in maid. He knows what people will say, but the more they say it, the less he’s willing to listen.

Wise choice. Once Demelza emerges from beneath her miserable childhood and realizes she can be a real person, she seizes the chance with both hands, changing the Poldark residence in the process. Over time, her vivacity, directness, and ability to see to the heart of things make her formidable indeed, and her way of putting things can only be described as delicious. She’s no prodigy–in this, Graham has wielded a lighter hand than many novelists I could name–but she has considerable resources that not even she’s aware of. In brief, she’s a firecracker, if a subservient one–for now.

Ross Poldark is the first of eleven volumes, which, I’m told, became a British television series, aired on PBS. I consider myself lucky that I never saw it, because I can appreciate this wonderful novel with fresh eyes.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.