I admit it: For the first time, I've jumped on a literary bandwagon. And, yes, I'm annoyed, mainly because I had to request the book from the library and waiting in the queue was a major pain in the ass. No, but seriously, this wasn't a whim brought on by the new BBC adaptation; having been a fan of the original series starring Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees as Ross and Demelza, I intended to read the series way back when. (Not when the original series came out—I'm not that old! I'm simply talking sometime in the late 90s, maybe early naughts.) But I never got around to it—one of those situations of getting caught up with other books and losing track of my to-read list. (This was well before I'd stumbled upon Goodreads and its handy virtual library shelves.) Then I bought the DVD set of the original series a couple of years ago and it reminded me of the books, but, weirdly enough, at that time my library didn't have them. You'd think the Poldark series would be a pretty solid, mid-20th century classic set of books for a library to own, but since it's the Sourcebooks copy they own now, with Aidan Turner from the new BBC production on the cover, they obviously only bought in it the past couple of months or so. Aaaaand I'm getting off track.
Anyway, this is billed as a classic romance, but it's not, not really. At least not in the way you'd expect. After all, it's written by a man and (not to get all reverse sexist here, but) men don't really do romance. Don't expect flowery prose, complicated and complex conversations concerning the relationship, softly lit and erotically charged love scenes, etc. In fact, beyond a few musings from Ross (“Hmm, I still regard Elizabeth, but Demelza takes up most of my thoughts,” “Hmm, I think I'm falling in love with Demelza,” that kind of thing), it's more about the actions than any deep feelings expressed. Which is fine, but rather leaves one wanting. I mean, you go from Demelza as urchin to Demelza as bedmate and wife and wonder, where was the actual wooing? Then again, it's symptomatic of the time period and the region: life in Cornwall in the 18th century was short and harsh, so there was little time for extensive romance; you found someone you liked well enough, agreed to make a life together, and did so. Which is just what Ross and Demelza did.
Short-shrifted romance aside, this book is mostly about Ross (obviously, otherwise it would've been titled Francis or Elizabeth) and how he fits back into life in Cornwall after fighting in the American Revolution. When he returns, his father is dead, his family farm is in ruins, the family servants are slovenly sloths, and his mining interests are all but exhausted. Basically, Ross has nothing and must rebuild his life from the dust and debris of what he's given. As he figures out how to come back from this precarious position, we also watch him develop as a person; when he returned, he was not much changed from the angry young man who'd left--a bit wearier, a bit more cynical of human nature--but the small joys found in his new life eventually sand away the rough edges that remain and while Ross still rebels against the class system that keeps the poor poor (and starving, near homeless, jobless, and without any means of improving themselves), he's less likely to use his fists to fight the injustice he sees (although that doesn't mean he won't if it comes down to it; Ross doesn't become a total pussycat). And that's what makes Ross unique; even though he's a country squire, someone of a higher class than the farmers and miners whom he supports, he'd much rather socialize with his "inferiors" than with those who are his supposed peers, and there are several occasions when he rails against those of his class for remaining willfully oblivious to the suffering of the lower classes.
If Winston Graham isn't generous with romance in his dealings with Ross and Demelza, he is, however, overflowing in his love for the Cornish people and countryside. And that's where the book shines. The landscape comes to life--the roiling sea, the salt-wind-swept grasses and heath, the dangerous and claustrophobic mining caves--along with the rough-and-tumble people who struggle to eke out an existence in this harsh, but beautiful land. But you also see and feel and smell the horrors of the time, the casual cruelty of beatings and cock fighting, the unwashed bodies crawling with lice, the crowded jails filled with forgotten souls, their only companions Pestilence and Death. This balanced perspective keeps the novel from becoming either too saccharine or too grim.
About the only real criticism I have is for the language. Oh, not that it's salty or anything (it's not), but there are occasions where reading the dialogue of certain characters was quite difficult. One, the young wife of the local doctor, because she had a speech impediment--she lisped quite badly--meaning I had to read and re-read what she said several times to understand it, and sometimes I still didn't fully comprehend certain words, even when I used the context of the entire sentence, so I simply gave up and moved on. The other occasion was the patois of the native Cornish speakers; most of the time it was pretty easy to work out what was being said, but occasionally it got a bit thick--Jud in particular--again necessitating a couple of re-reads before I got the gist of things.
In a slightly off-topic rant, reading the book gave me a new appreciation for the TV adaptations, though. The first one, with Robin Ellis, followed the books much more closely, while the second adaptation was quite a bit freer with the story. Then again, that seems to the be the trend whenever a classic miniseries is remade: the story is trimmed, oftentimes quite dramatically; the source novel is only lightly touched upon; and most importantly the “cheesy” soundstages and interior shots are exchanged for location and outdoor shooting, which is fine except when certain productions seem to go overboard in that direction just to prove a point. You notice that? The original Upstairs, Downstairs had 68 episodes and while it wasn't shot on a soundstage, it was shot pretty much exclusively inside 65 Eaton Place, Belgravia, London. The new Upstairs, Downstairs had, what, only 9 episodes as well as outside and location shooting alongside filming at 35 Clarendon Square. The original Forsyte Saga runs for 26 episodes and more closely follows the book, which includes making Soames Forsyte the bastard he is, while the later Forsyte Saga runs only 10 episodes and is quite a bit more loosey-goosey with the story. (And there are a lot of people who hate that this later version made Soames more sympathetic, going against the grain of the original story.) Personally, I like the later version of The Forsyte Saga mainly because of the luminous Gina McGee, but I acknowledge it takes quite a few liberties with the source material. And then we have our current topic, Poldark. The original TV production ran for 29 episodes, which allowed for a deeper exploration of the books' storyline, while this newer production seems to be skipping over some bits. And, don't get me wrong, I admire Aidan Turner's tumbling, windswept curls as much as anyone, but it seems like most of the shots seem to be of them rather than of anything else. I know I'm exaggerating, but you get my drift. And why do we still not have a Demelza with black hair, as she is in the books? I love gingers, I do; I wish I was a ginger and have dyed my hair often enough to achieve that end, but still... Demelza has black hair, even with her fiery personality. Okay, rant over.
To get back to the book (after all, this is a book review, right? Right): At the end of the day, this is a solid mid-century historical fiction novel, with the slightly stilted writing style typical of that era. Yet it remains a strong, highly readable story focused, at heart, on the same human emotions and turmoils from which we still suffer today.
Read from August 19 to 24, 2015