The British Broadcasting Corporation is currently remaking Poldark, an immensely successful television drama first broadcast in 1975-77. The drama is based on a series of novels by Winston Graham. The video version of Poldark has outsold every other costume drama except the 1995 version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The new series will be screened by the BBC in the UK in 2015. For the United States, PBS Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton has announced that the new series will feature on the MASTERPIECE program next year.
Why was Poldark so popular?
Winston Graham’s drama is set in Cornwall at the time of the French Revolution. In 1783, Captain Ross Poldark returns from the American wars to find the family estate derelict. His fiancée has abandoned him for his more prosperous cousin, and the country is in the grip of a severe economic slump. The copper mines of Cornwall are closing down and the miners are starving.
Much of the dramatic tension comes from Poldark’s status as an outsider and a rebel who transgresses the codes of class and caste that prevail in his society. Perhaps because of his experience in the American wars, he is willing to challenge the injustices that he sees about him.
The fall of the Bastille is hinted at in his attempt to break into a prison to free one of his own employees, Jim, who has been jailed for poaching.
His failure to save Jim increases Poldark’s hostility to his own class when he encounters them at a society event hosted by the king’s representative, the Lord Lieutenant:
There were too many people here, people of the kind who had sent Jim to prison. Painted and powdered up, dressed to the eyes, high-heeled, fan-flicking, snuffbox-clicking, people with titles, people wanting titles, place holders, place seekers, squires, squireens, clergymen with two or three rich livings, brewers, millers, iron, tin and copper merchants, ship owners, bankers. People of his own class. People he despised.
Because Ross has married Demelza, the daughter of a miner, the couple faces ostracism from the local aristocracy.
The Dowager Lady Bodrugan, who was twenty years younger than her stepson, hitched up her fine satin cloak in a disgusted fashion and stared Demelza up and down. “Who is this? I haven’t had the pleasure, miss”.
This is Captain Ross’s wife. From Nampara. Damme, I was saying we’ve been lax in our manners not asking ‘em over to an evening of whist…”
“D’you hunt, mistress?” demanded Constance Bodrugan.
“No, ma’am.” Demelza finished her port. “I have some sympathy for the foxes.”
Lady Bodrugan stared. “Pah, a Methody [Methodist] or some such! I smelt it. Let’s see, weren’t you a miner’s daughter?”
Inwardly Demelza trembled with sudden unruly anger. “Yes, ma’am. Father hung at Bargus for the crows to pick; an ‘Mother was a highway-woman an’ fell over a cliff.”
Poldark’s status as an impoverished, aristocratic outsider gives him a clear view of the rising bourgeoisie and its rapacious methods. This bourgeoisie is personified in the figure of the banker George Warleggan, who can make or break other men, including the aristocrats, through his control of credit:
Ross was not a man who would have gone in for display had he been able to afford it; but the contrast struck him to-day with special irony; It was not so much that the Warleggans could afford a carriage with four horses while he could not buy a second horse for the necessary business of life, but that these merchant bankers and ironmasters, sprung from illiteracy in two generations, could maintain their full prosperity in the middle of a slump, while worthy men like Blewett and Aukett—and hundreds of others—faced ruin.
It is Ross Poldark’s conflict with the Warleggans, and his challenges to their unscrupulous methods and monopolistic practices that drives the story forward. This makes Poldark a little different from the usual Country House drama, with its fox-hunting and grouse-shooting scenes. The BBC will probably tone down the conflict between the different social classes, but the new Poldark might still be entertaining to watch.
— Catherine Vigier, Zeteo Contributing Writer
- Winston Graham, Ross Poldark: a novel of Cornwall, 1783-1783. London, Pan Books, 2008.
- Winston Graham, Demelza, a novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790. London, Pan Books, 2008.
- BBC One announces Aidan Turner to star as Poldark in new series http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2014/poldark
- Photo: Aidan Turner as Captain Ross Poldark in the BBC’s forthcoming production. Credit: BBC.
In fact, Poldark is willing to challenge the injustices that he sees about him, not because of his experience in the American wars –this is a platitude, but because his fiancée has abandoned him for his more prosperous cousin. This fact, which subliminally depicts the woman as a manipulative and materialistic being (typical of most literature at the time), has not received critical attention, including female attention!
Elizabeth marries for money which was not uncommon then or now. She is passive and weak and middle-class and in this she is a perfect contrast to Demelza who does pretty much as she pleases and doesn’t worry about marriage at all. Anyway, why would being abandoned by his fiancée make Poldark more radical? It might just make him a bitter old misogynist.
This is the whole point: his bitter misogyny may well have made him seem radical, from his standpoint, as a way of “sublimation” at a very superficial level!
Should we feel satisfied, then, when the magistrates arrest Poldark and accuse him of being ‘a Jacobin and a Revolutionary’ because he ‘incited’ the miners to riot? Hanging would put an end to his misogyny, at any rate.
I’m not sure about satisfaction. In accusing Poldark, the ‘revolutionary’ act in question is ‘real’ for the magistrates but is still subliminally illusory for him. Poldark’s unexpressed misogyny seems to be unwittingly class-orientated. He does end up marrying his servant (Demelza), a situation which shows a radical act of subverting class-distinctions but only superficially –as his passion for his fiancée (Elizabeth) simmered for quite a while. After all, he was forced to take the side of the underclass against the ruthless middle- or even upper-class (Unlike Cadman who DID opt for serving the poor rather than the rich).
So the female individual being “passive and weak and middle-class” would not justify the collective intention to depict her as a manipulative and materialistic opportunist. Nor would the male individual being executed justify the demise of a collective motion of the mind.
Edmund Burke made the same criticism of the Jacobins while appearing to defend Marie Antoinette. As Mary Wollstonecraft pointed out, he was really defending rank and private property, because of which “Girls are sacrificed to family convenience, or else marry to settle themselves in a superior rank, and coquet, without restraint…” (Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, p.23)
I can only see an academic endeavour to point at some sort of perceived similarity that is coupled with a quote from an early feminist writer whom I myself love. Where is exactly the point of similarity between the criticism I am making of certain justifications and the criticism levelled at the Jacobins by Edmund Burke, whose pity for Marie Antoinette was nothing else than fabricated (given his false theatrical tableaux)?
As Wollstonecraft said to Burke, “I perceive, from the whole tenor of your Reflections, that you have a mortal antipathy to reason.” Wollstonecraft insisted that the Jacobins were motivated by reason, and had the right to overthrow bad government. Burke said they were motivated by base impulses and used the example of the attack on Marie-Antoinette – their alleged misogyny – to support this argument.
[“Elizabeth marries for money which was not uncommon then or now. She is passive and weak and middle-class and in this she is a perfect contrast to Demelza who does pretty much as she pleases and doesn’t worry about marriage at all. Anyway, why would being abandoned by his fiancée make Poldark more radical? It might just make him a bitter old misogynist.”]
First of all, Elizabeth, like Ross, is a member of the upper-classes. Second, the reason I find her a more interesting character than Demelza is because is she flawed and complex . . . and not a borderline Mary Sue.