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** The Location **
This book is set in Cornwall in the 1780s.
Many of the locations in the story are real. Those very familiar with Cornwall can even identify those locations with fictional names. The location work for the subsequent TV series had to be great to stand a chance of living up to what this author can describe with words, as his familiarly with the county, and his love for it, shine through the storyline.
** Introduction to Plot **
Capt Ross Poldark returns home to Cornwall from America, wounded after fighting in the War of Independence. He bravely tries to hide the fact that he is limping, and hopes this injury will heal.
Near the end of his journey he stops by at his uncle's house, where they are celebrating the engagement of his cousin to the woman Ross loves and expected to wed on his return from war. She seems to have doubted whether he would ever return.
The bad news doesn't stop there. Ross's father died shortly before his return leaving him an estate that has been extremely run down.
Ill health had prevented his father supervising most of what the two live-in servants did towards the end of his life, but they did even less after his death, that is until their new master came home again.
Ross decides to keep Jud and Prudie, the lazy servants, after they agree to work without wages, "until some of the gin is sweated out of them."
All of this happens very early on in the book.
** Discover Their Ways of Life **
The ways of life covered include farming, mining, fishing, medicine, hunting, gambling, cockfighting, wrestling, duelling, smuggling, taxation and the revenue men, plus crime and punishment generally but especially poaching. I would expect individual readers to have differing levels of interest in the above activities.
The way medicine was practiced grabbed my attention. I was horrified by much of it, especially the fact that, after a difficult delivery, the doctor decided that it would be beneficial to a new mother to be bled to stop her feeling faint. Then drinking sea water was prescribed for catarrh. The cure for failing sight I thought the most bizarre though. A silk kerchief (much better than rough rope) was tied about the patient's throat, tightened until she was nearly strangled and all the blood forced into her head, and then she was bleed from behind the ears! "God, save us from doctors," was what I thought the patients ought to be praying. Ross Poldark, among others, is wisely sceptical about the work of a lot of doctors, though he does trust one. (The bad medicine that I have specifically mentioned only happens in the sub plots.)
In contrast to the extremely graphical descriptions of the natural beauty of Cornwall, the way bloody activities like duelling, cockfighting and hunting are described is mild. This suits me, as I think there was enough description to keep the story line realistic, without being too gruesome for the reading pleasure of those who abhor blood sports. There are differences of opinion among the characters as to whether these activities are entertaining or disgusting. The romantic scenes also give the reader the minimal sexual details needed for understanding the story.
I was surprised at how the author got my interest in fishing. Although I like eating fish, I have never been interested in the way they were caught before, but I found the excitement of the annual arrival of the pilchards infectious. If you don't think pilchards could excite you, I challenge you to read this book, or at least the chapter beginning on page 351, which is practically self-contained.
I also like the way that important historical events, both national and international are brought to the reader's attention, often by conversations between the more educated characters.
A dominant theme throughout is the social relationships between the oppressed poor and the wealthy landowners, even though Ross Poldark is a landowner who does have a social conscience.
It is clearly illustrated that while working as a farm labourer is no where near as lucrative as being a miner, the working conditions are a lot less detrimental to health. Although the farm labourers generally live longer, there families have less money to spend on essentials for good health. Even a caring landowner has to live by the rules of market forces, if he is not to go bankrupt, so this limits how much better he can treat the workforce. Basically the poor are trapped by the system.
** The Characters **
All the main characters are written about in depth, so that I feel I am very well acquainted with them. They have differing amounts of obvious good and bad qualities, and although some people are a lot more likeable than others, just as in real life, there aren't any perfect romantic heroes or heroines.
Capt ROSS POLDARK has a mind of his own and doesn't want to conform just for the sake of it. He is a loyal friend but can be harsh to those who cross him.
Although he can have an acid tongue at times, to those who are loyal to him he is a caring employer, especially by the standard of most members of his class. On his farm, Ross often leads by example, helping with much of the work. He also hopes to mine part of his estate, and gets together a group of potential shareholders.
Bald JUDD and fat PRUDIE are the live-in servants that Ross inherits from his father. Although both will usually do as little work as they can get away with, a girl called Demelza brings out the good maternal side to Prudie.
I found that the lazy servants, despite being irritating to Ross, provided a bit of comic relief for me during the grimmer parts of the storyline. Judd's predictable repetition of certain phrases, especially made me laugh. The humour being that anyone who knew Judd well was unlikely to believe his answer to a question, when the answer could be guessed at, even without knowing the question. (A more up to date example of this sort of humour is found in the song Shaggy recorded called It Wasn't Me.)
DEMELZA is, a half-starved urchin girl, who is beaten by her miner father, when he is drunk, which is often, who Ross employs as a help for Prudie in the kitchen, after he rescues her. She is not afraid of hard work, and quickly blossoms.
As well as kitchen skills, she also learns from Prudie that it is possible for people to be free from flees by keeping themselves clean and well groomed. Before then, Demelza thought everyone had "crawlers".
This determined and intelligent girl wants to make the best use of the opportunity Ross has given her to get away from being the regular victim of cruelty. Before Ross took her in, the author describes her as, "Like a young animal that has spend 14 years in blinkers, narrowing her gaze to the smallest domestic circle and the most primitive purposes."
In case you haven't guessed, Demelza is my favourite character.
Cousin FRANCIS POLDARK, also a neighbour, marries Ross's childhood sweetheart, the beautiful and refined ELIZABETH. I soon began to wonder if she would regret this marriage because he behaves too selfishly, or whether it would all work out well. Francis' father leaves him considerably better off financially than Ross.
Kind, practical and intelligent VERITY POLDARK is Francis' sister and Ross's favourite cousin, who continues to live with Francis and Elizabeth in the home that their father left to him. Ross and Verity comfort, console and try to help in times of difficulty, as well as enjoying each other's company during the better times.
When I saw that the way the people from poorer backgrounds spoke was indicated by spelling their speech phonetically, I thought that it might be a problem for me, but I soon got used to it and found that it added credibility to the characters. The only speech I had to concentrate hard on was the women who had a lisp as well as a Cornish accent. Thankfully she had a small and unimportant part to play in the story.
** The Author **
Winston Graham OBE, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, wrote over 40 books, of which the Poldark series is the most famous. The Poldark books, which were written between 1945 and 2002, have been translated into many languages, and there have been television series based on them. As the chronological order of the books is not obvious from their titles, I will list them for you.
Ross Poldark (period covered 1783-1787)
Demelza (period covered 1788-1790)
Jeremy Poldark (period covered 1790-1791)
Warleggan (period covered 1792-1793)
The Black Moon (period covered 1794-1795)
The Four Swans (period covered 1795-1797)
The Angry Tide (period covered 1789-1799)
Stranger From The Sea (period covered 1810-1811)
The Miller's Dance (period covered 1812-1813)
The Loving Cup (period covered 1813-1815)
The Twisted Sword (period covered 1815)
Bella Poldark (period covered 1818-1820)
Other books by this author have been made into films, including Marnie, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Sean Connery.
He lived in Cornwall for about 30 years, and served with the Auxiliary Coastguard Service there during the Second World War. This work apparently led him to be alone for long periods of time, in all weathers, with the job of watching the sea. This, no doubt, helped him later when writing some of the descriptions for his novels. Until I read about his coastguard work, I thought he might have been describing Cornwall's rugged, sometimes beautiful, sometimes cruel, landscape, through the eyes of a painter. Then, at times, his descriptions of the natural world seem almost poetic.
He made a point of doing a lot of research for his books. If you want to learn more about that, and other aspects of his life, you could read his autobiography entitled Memoirs of a Private Man, which he finished just weeks before he died in 2003, aged 93.
** Recommendation **
I would think that anyone who is interested in historical fiction would enjoy Poldark books, and I highly recommend all of the series of books, which I think are best appreciated if read in order.
I usually alternate my reading for pleasure between humorous and more serious authors, as I find the contrast means that I enjoy both types of stories better. Once I started reading the Poldark series, however, I just wanted to keep reading one book straight after the other. That is because each book contains action and romance, with a serious plot that also includes a lot of subtle humour. The only slight difference between the books is the mix of these ingredients.
This first book in the series contains more descriptive scene setting and romance, and therefore less action, than many of the others, but as I have already mentioned above under the Ways of Life heading, action is still most definitely included.
Only lovers of historical fiction who need bucketfuls of action to interest them, and who dislike romance, should miss this first book. Even then perhaps you should attempt to read it, to best set the scene for the others, which I also hope to review when time permits.
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Pan (23 Feb 1996)
Tired from a grim war in America, Ross Poldark returns to his land and family, only to find his father has died, his estate is derelict and the girl he loved is engaged to another. But then he rescues a half-starved urchin girl and takes her home, an act which, it turns out, will alter his life.