Ross Poldark is the first in a series of twelve historical novels written by Winston Graham about eighteen and nineteenth century Cornwall. The first four novels were written between 1945 and 1953. Graham returned to the series in 1973, writing the remaining eight novels between 1973 and 2002. Poldark is now a television series starring a scorching, seething hot Aidan Turner.
Ross Poldark is the central figure in Graham’s novels, which explore Ross’s relationships with his family, friends, neighbors, and enemies against the backdrop of a flagging Cornish economy and world-upending events beginning with the French Revolution and continuing with the Napoleonic Wars. The story opens with Ross’s return from the American Revolution. Ross finds that things are very much different from when he left. Elizabeth, Ross’s true love, believing that Ross has died in the war, is now affianced to his cousin Francis Poldark. Ross’s estate has been depleted, and he is virtually penniless. The romantic tension between Ross and Elizabeth persists even after Elizabeth and Francis marry and Ross himself marries Demelza Carne, the miner’s daughter who had been serving as Ross’s scullery maid. As Ross works to revive family tin and copper mines and restore his fortune, he feuds with the evil banker George Warleggan, an old schoolmate who has shamelessly weaponized his growing wealth. George, too, loves Elizabeth and proposes marriage to her after Francis dies in a mining accident. That proposal unleashes irretrievable events that impact successive generations of Poldarks and Warleggans.
The Poldark novels are bodice rippers, and bodices are ripped with amazing frequency, although not always consensually. That’s not to say that Graham’s work descends to the level of Harlequin romances. He imbues every aspect of the novels with amazing historical detail, describing mining technology, military life, budding steam engines, smuggling and privateering, theater, and even banking in ways that don’t feel forced. Who’d have thought to encounter the Corn Laws in a novel. The Corn Laws were tariffs imposed by England upon imported grain. They supported domestic producers and kept the poor close to starvation (Ross may be a member of the gentry but he is egalitarian in spirit). Graham details the corruption of rotten and pocket boroughs. These were parliamentary districts with very few electors, literally in the pocket of powerful and wealthy patrons. Not being a Brit, I probably missed cameos of numerous historical figures. In one instance, when Ross is in France on the eve of Napoleon’s return from exile in Elba, he and Demelza have a lot of doings with a chap named FitzRoy Somerset. Somerset kept turning up until it finally occurred to me to google him. Turns out that the earnest young Somerset who befriended the Poldarks later became 1st Baron Raglan, the Commander of the British troops during the Crimean War and the fateful Charge of the Light Brigade.
Ross may be the series’ focus, but Demelza is its moral heart. She understands kindness and forgiveness. Born in the working classes, she doesn’t stint from hard work and the ugliness of daily life in a mining community. She’s said to have an uncanny instinct for people’s feelings and motivations. I rather think that Demelza’s perceptiveness is a product of her generosity of spirit combined with her low birth. The gentry is simply too self-absorbed to get it. Demelza has more sensitivity and a more abundant understanding of noblesse oblige than most of those who consider themselves her betters.
So Was It A Rape?
Upon learning about Elizabeth’s engagement to George, a smoldering Ross hastens to Trenwith, breaks in through a window, and forces himself on Elizabeth. Television viewers are debating whether Ross raped Elizabeth, but the real question is why there is even a question. Graham does not use the word rape, but it’s clear that Elizabeth demands that Ross stop when he begins to kiss her. While there is some intimation in subsequent novels that Elizabeth yielded to her buried passion for Ross midway through the assault, in the final novel in the series, Bella Poldark, a more introspective Ross admits to himself “that he had taken Elizabeth against her will.” This act has repercussions that will stretch for generations. It will also be the ultimate cause of Elizabeth’s death.
The Elizabeth scene is completely unlike a later scene in a subsequent novel in the series in which Osbourne Whitworth rapes his wife Morwenna. Graham has no hesitation in condemning Whitworth and calling Whitworth’s actions what they were.
Later, Ross, in all seriousness, advises his grown son Jeremy to seize Cuby, the indecisive young woman whom Jeremy loves—rape in its original sense, a seizure, as in the Rape of the Sabine Women.
A product of his time, Graham appears to have believed that an alpha male is entitled to use force to overcome an indecisive woman; the brutality will shake loose the woman’s underlying feelings of affection, transforming objection into consent.
While Ross may have acted out of frustrated love for Elizabeth, inflamed by her engagement to his greatest and most detested rival, the scene most recalls a vicious dog marking his territory.
Smuggling And Wrecking
The Poldark novels describe the various forms of smuggling and wrecking that were prevalent in Cornwall in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These ranged from beach-combing for salvage, every piece of driftwood a shield against winter, to looting goods from a damaged vessel. Ross allows smugglers, for a price, to use a secluded cove adjoining his property. Valentine buys his own ship and smuggles tin to Ireland. Facing trouble with the law, Ross relies upon the known propensity of Cornish juries to acquit smugglers. The Poldark novels do not depict wrecking in the sense of luring a ship to its doom by using false lights; modern scholarship considers wrecking to have been a myth even though it’s the focus of Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall novel, Jamaica Inn, as well as the opera The Wreckers by Dame Ethel Smyth.
During the period described in the Poldark novels, England financed its wars with import duties on luxury goods such as tea, tobacco, liquor, and French lace and silk. It also levied high export duties on tin. The result was prolific smuggling. During the greater part of the eighteenth century, 20,000 Englishmen were involved in the Trade full-time. A parliamentary report found that between 1773-1782, 7.5 million tons of tea were smuggled into England, 70% of domestic consumption. Even as England was fighting with Napoleon and blockading French ports, English smugglers were trading with the enemy. In fact, Napoleon used English smugglers as part of his war effort. He established smuggling bases at Dunkirk and Gravelines. In return for contraband, smugglers repatriated escaped French prisoners of war and carried gold guineas to France. Smugglers brought into France over 1.6 million in gold guineas, equivalent to 42 million in French francs.
Cornwall with its hidden coves and impoverished fishing communities became a center of smuggling. By 1770, about 470,000 gallons of brandy and 350,000 pounds of tea were smuggled into Cornwall yearly at a loss of revenue to the Crown of about $27 million in today’s dollars. Cornish smuggling grew during the Napoleonic Wars on account of a new tax on salt. Salt was needed by Cornish fisherman to preserve the pilchard catch for domestic and overseas trade. There was only one way to obtain cheap salt. Although over the years, Parliament vainly used various tactics to reduce smuggling from lowering duties to regulating sizes of boats and kegs, it was only the establishment of a National Coast Guard that ended large-scale smuggling.
See Daly, Gavin. “English Smugglers, the Channel, and the Napoleonic Wars, 1800–1814.” The Journal of British Studies 46.01 (2007): 30-46.
Johns, Jeremy. Smuggling In Cornwall: An Illustrated History. (2016)
The Rothschild Libel
In the penultimate Poldark novel, The Twisted Sword, George cashes in on the Battle of Waterloo. Hypothesizing that the Rothschilds had the swiftest communication system, he learns through an inside source that Nathan Rothschild has informed the British government that Wellington had prevailed at Waterloo but that Downing Street has discounted the information. George then watches Nathan at the Exchange. Nathan first sells stocks, causing the market to plunge.In the last minutes of trading Nathan, followed by George, buy low. Both the “influential Jew” and George make a bundle.
This story is a variant of a myth that originated in an anti-Semitic leaflet published in France in 1846 by an author signing off as “Satan.” Satan had Rothschild making £20 million off of market manipulation based upon presumably exclusive knowledge of the outcome at Waterloo. Economic historian Niall Ferguson debunks the myth arguing that the Rothschilds lost money on the Waterloo campaign since the family had banked on the renewed fighting lasting much longer. Ferguson states that Nathan made his fortune before Waterloo by supplying cash to Wellington beginning in 1814 to pay the British army. A recent story in The Independent goes even further: several others had early news of the British victory and Rothschild was not the first; the information was publicly available early in the day; Rothschild did not manipulate prices, since there was no drop in the market that Wednesday; and rival investors who had bought cheaply and in bulk much earlier reaped gains that dwarfed Rothschild’s.
The Rothschild libel has persisted for 170 years. It’s very easy to make things up. Digging for the truth can require lots of time and money. It’s especially difficult to dismantle intentional lies when there’s a huge audience of bigots willing to believe them. We’re learning that lesson again.