Liz Fenwick on Ross Poldark's Cornwall
Liz Fenwick, award-winning author of four Cornwall set novels, explores the enduring appeal of Winston Graham's Poldark series and the landscape that inspired the best-loved TV series.
Liz Fenwick, award-winning author of four Cornwall set novels, explores the enduring appeal of Winston Graham’s Poldark series and the landscape that inspired it.
There have been many novels set in the Duchy of Cornwall, but very few have had the enduring appeal of Winston Graham’s Poldark series. Its grip on the hearts and minds of readers worldwide began with the publication of the first Poldark novel in 1945, and continues to the present day.
The skill of the writer, the characters he created and his knowledge and love of Cornwall are inherent in the books, and help to transport the reader back to a historic Cornwall that is accessible and relevant.
Graham’s longstanding relationship with Cornwall began aged sixteen when he travelled to Cornwall on a family holiday in September 1925. The following year the family moved to the Duchy from Victoria Park, Manchester, primarily due to his father’s ill health. Although Winston left the Duchy in 1960, eventually settling in East Sussex, Cornwall had been his home for thirty-four years and was the muse that inspired fourteen novels.
During his early years in his beloved town of Perranporth, he spoke to men who had mined, fished the treacherous seas and farmed the unforgiving land. His experience of living in a remote village on the north coast helped to feed his understanding of the past. Graham knew Cornwall at a time when it was less populated by incomers. Visitors and holiday makers appeared in the summer, but left it alone through the winter. During these isolated months, nature held sway with fierce storms rolling in with regular monotony from the Atlantic, and the harsh coastal soil provided little opportunity for flowers to grow, let alone the crops.
In his memoirs, Memoirs of a Private Man (2003), Graham talks about being a writer and what the role entails – the unique state of taking part in reality, yet also watching it closely from afar.
From 1926 until the commencement of World War II, Graham observed Cornwall – its people, its land and its history – in detail, and during his long hours of coastal watch the story of Ross Poldark began to take shape.
Shortly after the start of the war, Graham met a convalescing RAF pilot on a train to Truro. In his memoirs Graham recounts that, ‘he had a substantial, barely healed scar from temple to lower cheek.’ The appearance of the airman resonated with the writer and throughout their conversation Graham sensed ‘a high- strung disquiet about him that made a great impression on me. And a depth and darkness that lay behind the frivolity of his air force language . . . but one guessed that strong nerves contributed to his latent vitality.’ This encounter grew in the writer’s mind, and would eventually form the basis for his protagonist.
Ross Poldark, the wayward son of a dissolute man, sets off for war in the Americas and returns to find his world has changed. The complex and layered character that Graham has created is the main appeal of the series.
Ross is certainly flawed, but ultimately his sense of right rings true with the reader. Although from a privileged background, Ross is able to see the misfortunes faced by his fellow countrymen and strives to improve their lot.
From the moment he steps in to save the urchin Demelza from a fairground brawl, the reader is on his side, even when some of his actions leave us appalled.
Graham is adept at creating characters who are representative of their own time, but to whom the modern-day reader can also relate.
But this story isn’t just about Ross Poldark. The novel is populated with characters who are full of life, and the storyline continually hinges on Ross’s struggle to forge a relationship between his class and the local poor. The captivating love triangle between Ross, Elizabeth and Demelza weaves through the narrative, pulling Ross in two opposing directions.
When Ross returns home from the war expecting to find Elizabeth, his first love, still waiting, the readers’ hearts break along with Ross’s when he discovers her engaged to his cousin, Francis. How can we not root for the underdog and cheer loudly when he falls for his kitchen maid, Demelza, who adores him? Ross moves effortlessly between society’s classes; those around him are conscious of this interplay, but Ross himself rarely notices it. He follows his beliefs, confronting injustice wherever he finds it. But his marriage to Demelza only serves to cement his status as an outsider. This fluidity between the classes does, however, make the historical character more accessible to the modern reader. His world is as it should be for the time, but he is as unique as the land he belongs to.
Graham’s books explore the primitive beauty of the Duchy and the hard living that was eked out of the land and from the mines during the late 1700s. It was a time of great change. Up until 1770 the mining industry had been prosperous enough to make Cornwall the richest county in England. But the discovery of a large shallow copper lode in North Wales, which was more easily accessible and less expensive to mine than the Cornish ones, unseated Cornwall from the enviable position of the world’s primary copper producer.
Graham’s decision to represent this turbulent time for the Duchy and the country as a whole provides his protagonist with the scope to explore his own limits and those of the society he lived in. Changes in the mining industry brought the middle-class merchants to the forefront of society, rather than the landed gentry, and Graham beautifully illustrates this shift of power with the growing tension between Ross and the antagonist, George Warleggan, whose grandfather was a blacksmith. Ross distrusts him as an upstart, whilst also despairing of his own class and their selfish lack of vision.
Of course, Cornwall itself forms a huge part of the lasting appeal of the series. From its history to its landscape, Graham’s prose is imbued with the Duchy.
Many writers have tried to tap into Cornwall’s mystery and magic, but few have done this as well as Graham.
Setting his book in Cornwall demands that the land and sea be a part of that story; it cannot be ignored. If it is, the narrative can lose its power to transport the reader to the place, and also loses its emotional impact.
Choosing a tumultuous historical period only intensifies the need to draw on the setting. This is a landscape exposed to the elements and shaped by the sea. The climate may be milder but never easier. Life at the end of the country, thrust out into the Atlantic and buffeted by the winds of fate, will always be unpredictable and risky, but also more rewarding.
Graham captures this essence of Cornwall so eloquently in the lives of his characters. Through them, we feel the place and its vulnerability. Ross Poldark may come from the landed gentry, but his fate is as tied to the caprice of the elements as that of his tenants.
The stormy, changeable nature of the environment reflects that of the hero. When the sun shines there is no better place to be, and when the storms batter the coast you feel the raw power of nature. Ross and Cornwall are inextricably joined. Ross is scarred by war just as Cornwall is by mining and the weather. Through Graham’s descriptions the reader experiences both the man and the land as one.
This piece was extracted from the Macmillan Collector's Library edition of Ross Poldark.
Liz Fenwick has been a bit of a global nomad with nine international moves so it's no wonder her heart is forever in Cornwall. She is the award-winning author of four Cornwall set novels beginning with The Cornish House and most recently Under A Cornish Sky. Find out more at lizfenwick.com or find her on Twitter or Facebook.
Find out more about all the books in Winston Graham's Poldark series here.
Listen to audio extracts from the Poldark series of novels below.