“The greatest thing is to have someone who loves you —and to love in return”; in his classic tale of the joys, sorrows and hardships of life in rural Cornwall, Winston Graham succeeds in demonstrating the cruelty of the class system and the moral struggle society encounters.
Set in the fields and manors of Cornwall in the late 18th century, Poldark is a novel detailing both the trivialities and adversities of life across the classes. Ross Poldark is a young gentleman newly returned from defeat against the American Revolution, with a scar on his face and resentment in his heart. After a two year absence, he arrives in England to find his father dead, his childhood sweetheart engaged to his cousin and his small estate crumbling into the cliffs. His father was the second son of the family, known to the county as a scandalous rogue, and in his later years incurred crippling debts that leave Ross with a pitiful state of existence. But this would be easier to bear if it wasn’t for the betrothal of his beautiful English rose Elizabeth to his cousin Francis, a man easily influenced by his family and cunning friend, George Warleggan.
The Warleggans are one of the richest up and coming families in Cornwall, owning one of the most successful banks in the district as well as the fortunes of many of its ancient noble families; the name of Poldark is no exception. Many of the old mining families are sinking into the ground as the price of copper plummets, deeply affecting the peasant families that work for them. Living on Ross Poldark’s land are the Carters, young Jim and his new wife Jinny, dependent on the mining work for their entire existence. Yet Jim’s poor health – from years of hard labour in the soot and sulphur of the mines – begins to deteriorate, leaving him unable to protect his family from the deadly attentions of Reuben Clemmow…
Up against the expectations of his traditional, pompous family and their acquaintances, Ross endeavours to maintain his land and livelihood, daring to open a new mine of his own in the dangerous economic climate. He also employs and reforms a young girl, Demelza, formerly a young urchin lacerated by the drunken beatings of her father. Along with the reprimands of his father’s seasoned servants Jud and Prudie Paynter, Demelza blossoms amidst the pastoral beauty of the Cornish countryside, attracting considerable attention surrounding the nature of her relationship with her master.
Sensitive yet humorous, Graham’s novel is a testament to the ways of life of the Cornish people in the late 18th century. Often mistaken for overly romanticising its depictions of simple country living, it is also critical of the selfishness of the upper classes and their often blatant disregard for the hardships of the poor they depend on. Starvation, disease and abuse is skilfully tackled, as well as the senseless greed of the rich, ultimately culminating in an enriched tale of human life.
Having watched the BBC TV adaptation, I would say that it is interesting – albeit fairly unnecessary – to read the book it’s based on. The book is not what you’d term riveting, though it makes for a nice easy read and thankfully doesn’t require too much concentration. However if I was picking between the two, I’d likely just watch the TV show!
Ultimately the novel is a reminder that though the Western world now largely lives in a state of relative ease and comfort, many places around the world are still subject to the struggles and prejudices that the characters of the book face, and whilst these hardships should never be glorified, the book is a testament of the astonishing and inspiring resilience of humanity.