I have a shameful confession. Other than a few notable exceptions (Tolstoy, Anthony Trollope, Jasper Fforde) I rarely enjoy fiction written by men. I can’t even discuss it without resorting to stereotypes I would resent if it was women being lumped together, but if I was forced to say something it would be that even when I’m intrigued by the stories male authors have to tell, their characterizations, particularly of women, tend to make my skin crawl.
So while I’ve been eagerly awaiting each TV episode of BBC’s Poldark, I remained hesitant to try the books by Winston Graham that the series is based on. Hesitant, that is, until I read the opening pages of this first book and got hooked.
The prose is beautiful, even graceful, without being ornate or fussy and Graham writes his characters, female and male, with clear-eyed but sympathetic insight that reminds me of George Eliot. There are touches of history (the doings of mad King George, the unrest in France, etc.) and humor, but the heart of the story centers on the families–noble and not–of Cornwall. We see their courtships, their marriages, and their home lives, and we travel to the mines, farm fields, and ocean waters where they earn their livings. It’s a credit to Graham’s skill as a writer that I was actually interested in the sections on copper mining.
In the first chapter of the book–and first episode of the TV series–Ross Poldark returns to Cornwall after fighting with the British in the American Revolution, only to find his father dead, his property in ruins, and his girlfriend engaged to his cousin. Ross is the son of a younger son, and not much interested in the niceties of class and society, making him an appealing character for modern sensibilities. His quick to learn but almost feral kitchen maid Demelza also plays a major role in the story, and so does Elizabeth, his former girlfriend, and his cousins Verity and Francis.
The book and the TV show complement each other wonderfully. The gorgeous scenery of the BBC production made my reading pleasure all the more vivid, and the book fills in details that the show has to skim over. The novel also gave me a chance to dwell in the story a little longer–an addictive pleasure. Immediately after finishing the first book I started the second volume in the series.