Recently I’ve Read … Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall 1783-1787 by Winston Graham

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Winston Graham’s Poldark novels have twice been adapted by the BBC (once in the 1970s and again last year). On this evidence, it is easy to see why.

Ross Poldark lends itself perfectly to dramatisation with its quick scene changes and brisk pace. For some reason, I had expected a somewhat dry novel, made unwieldy with swathes of lengthy description. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Graham is a writer of such skill that he is able to convey a lot with a little. He creates characters with real psychological depth, and reveals so much about them, through dialogue, interaction, and pithy, genius-level one liners. A great example of this technique is this description of the banker George Warleggan, a man of humble origins who is taking advantage of social change and making something of himself, as seen through the eyes of the more aristocratic Francis Poldark (Ross’s cousin):

Francis raised an ironical eyebrow. George was a good friend and an indulgent creditor, but he could not refrain from bringing into a conversation the price he paid for things. It was almost the only sign left of his origins. (Graham, 1945)

The novel’s central relationship is between Ross Poldark, a soldier who returns from war to find the woman he loves betrothed to his cousin, and Demelza, whom he takes in as a maid when she is just a tomboyish urchin of 13.This is a far from conventional romance (though it should be pointed out that the romance does develop when Demelza is 17 and not 13!) but the gradual deepening of the bond between the two and the increasing tenderness between them is beautifully conveyed. Again, Graham illustrates this growing intimacy with just the tiniest of details:

Ross and Demelza ate their cakes and took a sip of brandy from the same flask and talked in lowered voices of what they saw. (Graham, 1945)

There is a large cast of characters in this novel and the majority are completely three-dimensional. However, Ross and Demelza are the most compelling by far and the novel does lose its sparkle when it pans away from them (I would hate to come across as a complete misery here, but I found some of the ‘comic’ scenes particularly tedious). Luckily, the pace of the novel means that we are never far away from another Ross and Demelza scene – hurrah!

Ross Poldark covers a period of social change and touches on themes of class and social injustice. There is something almost Dickensian about it: we meet characters from all walks of life, get to know them intimately (there is such psychological realism here) and see how they are affected by the society they inhabit.

I was thoroughly smitten with this novel, both as a very tender love story and as a staggeringly brilliant piece of writing.

Oh, and viewers of the most recent BBC adaptation may be interested to know that that scything scene does appear in the book. I am not sure it has been depicted accurately though so I may have to watch it again …

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