Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

Ross PoldarkI’ve often thought about reading the Poldark novels but there was always some reason why I didn’t; it never felt like the right time to start a twelve volume series or I could only find copies of the later books and not the first one. I had been aware that the BBC were making a new adaptation to be shown this year but I had forgotten about it until seeing a trailer a few weeks ago. That left me with a dilemma as the first episode is being shown on Sunday and obviously I wouldn’t have time to read the whole series by then. But I could at least read the first book and that is what I’ve done.

Ross Poldark is set in 18th century Cornwall (in fact, it is subtitled A Novel of Cornwall 1783-1787). At the beginning of the novel, Ross Poldark returns home from fighting in America to discover that things have changed in his absence. His father has died, leaving his estate, Nampara, to Ross – and Elizabeth, the woman he loves, has just become engaged to his cousin, Francis. With his heart broken, Ross devotes his time to restoring Nampara, which has fallen into disrepair having been left in the hands of the servants, and investigating the possibility of opening a new copper mine.

Life is not easy for Ross – as well as managing his father’s lazy, drunken servants, Jud and Prudie, and dealing with the problems of the tenants and workers who live on the estate, he also has to cope with seeing Francis and Elizabeth together at family gatherings. Then one day, Ross rescues fourteen-year-old Demelza Carne from a brawl at the fair and brings her home to work in his kitchen. With an age difference of ten years, the relationship between Ross and Demelza is at first one of master and servant, but as time goes by a friendship forms and Ross will eventually discover whether or not he is able to love again.

When I began to read Ross Poldark last weekend I thought I might have started it too late to finish by Sunday, but I needn’t have worried; I found it so easy to get into and the story so compelling that it turned out to be a very quick read. I loved the Cornish setting; I won’t comment on the accuracy of the descriptions or the dialect, not being from Cornwall myself, but I thought the overall sense of time and place was very strong. Although they’re quite different stories, the setting and the mining element made me think of another book I enjoyed: Penmarric by Susan Howatch.

As the title character, this is very much Ross Poldark’s story (and Ross is the sort of hero I could immediately like and care about, right from the moment he arrives home to find that the woman to whom he was planning to propose is marrying his cousin) but I found Demelza an even more intriguing character. She changes quite a lot over the four or five years the novel covers and she does slowly grow in confidence, yet never quite shakes off her insecurities and her feeling that the Poldarks are looking down on her because of her background. She is still just in her teens when the novel ends and I’m sure there will be more development to come in the second book. I also liked Verity, Ross’s cousin, and found her personal storyline as interesting as Ross and Demelza’s.

As well as the main characters, there are also lots of memorable secondary characters representing all different levels of society, from the Poldarks and their friends to the farmers and miners who work for them. Quite a lot of time is devoted to the servants Jud and Prudie, and also to one of Ross’s young tenants, Jinny Martin, and two rivals for her love, farm boy Jim Carter and the villainous Reuben Clemmow. Whenever the focus switches to these characters, it provides a diversion from the main plot, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, as well as showing us how Ross handles the problems on his estate and interacts with the people around him.

At the end of this book there are still a lot of unresolved storylines and loose ends and I’m looking forward to continuing the series with the second book, Demelza.