You can leave your shirt on: Jenny Shelton explains why Winston Graham’s Poldark is far sexier on the page.
To everyone who’s been swooning over Aidan Turner’s Ross Poldark on screen, I bring good news: you’re going to like the Ross Poldark of the books even better.
As a teenager, I fell in love with my mum’s old copies of the books, even taking Ross on my first girly holiday abroad (my best friend brought Being Jordan: My Autobiography). Back then, no one had heard of Cap’n Poldark except those of my parents’ age who’d seen the 1970s TV series.
But I loved those books, even the later ones which got a bit silly (pet monkey, all I’m saying). The characters were vivid – I adored funny, charming Demelza as much as impulsive Ross – and Graham’s lively prose set a giddy, galloping pace.
Graham wrote the first book of the Poldark series in 1945. Bella Poldark, the twelfth book, completed the saga in 2002, a year before Graham died. It’s a sweeping family saga, told with heart and humour, about the fight for love and survival; about the rich, the poor, the young and the very old. There’s passion, politics and there are pilchards. Here’s why you should add Ross Poldark to your bookshelf.
“A tender, troubled heart and a social conscience? You can keep your washboard stomach, thank you.”
Like many great stories, the first Poldark book begins with a death. Joshua Poldark is the Ned Stark of the series, a patriarch whose passing sets in motion a series of rivalries, family feuds and grapples for gold (well copper, mostly) within this close-knit Cornish community, reliant on the inconstant fortunes of the tide and the mines sunk deep into the wind-battered cliffs.
Back to this rugged way of life rides Ross, who went to the American war a boy and came back a veteran with a scar and, unlike the show, a limp. But his family believe him dead and have moved on, to his crushing despair.
I can think of few more thrilling homecomings than Ross appearing, unannounced, at the engagement feast of his childhood sweetheart and his cousin. The scene is vividly gothic, from the ancient, shadowy hall with its billowing curtains and candles, to the wild, dark night outside.
It’s a mix-up which seems impossible now. Today, you could hardly go to America for two years without getting word home that you were alive. You can Skype from space. In a 2016 updating, Ross would definitely have been texting Elizabeth from the front – at least. And there’s nothing like a naughty Snapchat to take the mystery out of romance.
Instead, because it’s 1783, even after Ross marries another, Elizabeth remains a tantalising vision of what he never had: a goddess on a plinth to Demelza’s earthy realness. But what he cherishes is a construct of his imagination – we clever readers know that aristocratic Elizabeth is as boring as she is pretty. Turns out it’s her loss, not his. But these realisations take time and not a few mistakes. All of which makes for excellent drama.
Now, listen. I’m not about to whinge about the books being better than the show (which continues on Sunday at 9pm, BBC1), but too much has been written about Turner’s abs. On the page Ross cuts an impressive, rather than a hunky, figure. He is described as ‘tall, thin and big-boned’ with a ‘wide mouth’ (I always felt Graham was insistent about that odd detail).
His is an ‘unusual face’, and the author’s description of him swinging a scythe is of his mindset, not his chest. It’s a scene in which Ross grapples with a new sense of disillusionment with life, struggles to let go of the future he imagined for himself and worries about the community he’s responsible for. A tender, troubled heart and a social conscience? You can keep your washboard stomach, thank you.
Aside from the leads, Graham gives us a bustling cast of satellite characters. My favourite is toothless Great-Aunt Agatha who, at nearly 100, is deaf when it suits but pin-sharp to the passions of those around her. She’s past caring what anybody thinks, so says exactly what she likes. Her mischievous, gummy jibes from the corner make her the perfect addition to dinner party scenes.
Naturally I’m as much a fan of tricorn hats and country dances as any historical fiction fan, and Graham delivers ravishing detail in spades. Demelza’s first ball is a sensory delight and his description of the 18th-century lady’s toilet – with its powder and patches – is fascinating. But Graham, like Ross, looks beyond just the pretty gentility of the neighbourhood, taking us to rambunctious miners’ weddings and down gloomy pits, too.
There’s a good deal more quaffing of gin in grubby parlours than your average Jane Austen. A lot of people ‘roar’ and use the words ‘Damme!’ and ‘Arf!’ There are colloquial accents and lice. Yet there’s more heart and beauty than Dickens, and it’s often seen in the simplest moments.
Graham’s books create a raw and captivating vision of Cornwall in the 1780s where life’s trials and joys are met by all classes. There’s danger – for the miners underground, for women unprotected from unwanted attentions and for children of all classes who are taken or spared at random by disease. And there’s love, in all its many forms. And more pilchards.
For fans of: The Forsyte Saga, Vanity Fair, Cranford, Sharpe
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Jenny is a writer and displaced northerner who has danced, baked, flown planes and hugged giant seals in the name of journalism. She is also a secret birdwatcher, serial book-buyer and sucker for a Sunday night costume drama.