April Book Review: Demelza by Winston Graham

*There is a BBC adaptation of this series starring Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson. Seasons 1 and 2 have already aired, Season 3 is currently being filmed.

 

Winston Graham’s Demelza sees the return of the characters we grew to love in the first instalment of this series. Now married, Ross and Demelza find themselves enduring the ups and downs of married life. Amid the newness of starting a family, Ross is still fighting for the miner’s rights and attempting to keep his own mine prospering during a time of great poverty and dwindling mines. As his wife, Demelza continues to seek out her new place in society, striving to better herself rather than embarrass both her and Ross, and now their child, Julia, with her unladylike behaviour. In her efforts to secure the happiness of a close friend, she sets plans in motion which could destroy Ross’s trust in her, ruin their marriage beyond compare, and create a rift between Ross and his family at Trenwith.

This book has so much more happening in it when compared with the first novel. There are more elements of danger, and tensions run high as Demelza begins to overstep her boundaries. But the storyline surrounding the new relationship between Mark Daniel and Keren Smith is, I think, what provides the novel with a notably darker tone. There are plenty of small but effective moments of foreboding which inevitably create that feeling of anticipation, and once again Winston’s description is notably on-point. Take this chapter opening, for example:

‘It was an easterly sky, and as they reached Falmouth the sun was setting like a Chinese lantern, swollen and crimson and monstrous and decorated with ridges of curly cloud. The town was a grey smudge climbing the edge of the bay.’

Winston’s words have a way of transporting the reader directly into the heart of Cornwall and all its pastel beauty. But it isn’t just the landscapes. The description is often in the detail, for example (and – prior warning – I am about to reveal a major spoiler), during the moments following Keren’s death. The broken moonflower laying on the threshold, still damp and fresh, but soon to fade, a beautiful metaphor. The way the sun falls into the cottage, illuminating the sanded floor which is scuffed with the marks from their shoes during the struggle. The robin entering the cottage and leaving almost immediately because of the eerie quiet. A lot of nature seems to enter the domestic space at this moment, and I find that very interesting. In fact, women are often linked to nature throughout the novel, particularly to flowers and fruit. In a way, it is demeaning, but it stays true to the way women were portrayed and considered during that period in history, and it also brings an interesting dynamic to Winston’s detail. At the Warleggan party, we see Demelza’s entrance through the eyes of the gentlemen at the party. This reflects the way that women were consumed as commodities through the male gaze; something to be looked at and enjoyed, and it’s this subtle narrative decision that has such a significant impact despite its quiet delivery.

As the eponymous title suggests, this novel seems to tell the story considerably more from Demelza’s point of view, but also from the perspectives of other characters. It makes the narrative feel well-rounded and thorough, and only helps the reader to understand each character much better. Winston leaves no corner of his fictional world untouched; he delves into every facet, giving us an up-close and personal insight into the lives of the working class. I especially loved the chapter when so many members of the community came together to help build a house for Mark and his young bride. What better way to describe the sense of community and that unmistakably English trait of lending a hand to a friend in need?

Unexpectedly, both in the first instalment and in this one too, I really enjoyed discovering more about the Cornish copper mining industry. It has been quite interesting to discover just how difficult an industry it actually was. There were lots of risky investments with, often, no capital to really back the ventures, and little chance of profit at the end of it. I think this is communicated really well with the closing of Grambler in Demelza. The closure begins with the managers of the mine and Francis stopping the machines at noon. Then we move to the last of the miners staying behind to chisel away what little copper they can find before the water levels rise and make it impossible for them to keep working. Lastly, we’re left with the image of Zacky Martin sitting alone in the mine, reflecting on his many years at Grambler. The way the scene plays out, slowly trickling down from the owners to the lone working-class miner, illustrates the tragedy of the trade. It may have been devastating for the mine owners to lose business, but it was more often than not life and death for the miners, and it was their livelihood – their pride. I found this one of the most poignant moments in the book, and also one of the most human and emotionally provoking.

Winston provides a hard look at the quality of life back then. We’re taken along with Ross and Dr Enys as he visits one of the region’s prisons and describes the inmates as animals in cages, begging for food and money with no access to fresh air, medical attention, or toilet facilities. The scene ends with them having to amputate Jim’s arm because of the spread of infection, and him losing his life. Not long after his young wife, Jinny, finds out, she tries to hang herself, no doubt out of grief, but I also couldn’t help wondering if it was because she knew she would be a burden on her family once again, without a husband to support her anymore. This, for me, showed the real effects of poverty and loss, and the injustice showed to working class people throughout history. It is clear that Winston intended this book to contain a lot of hard-truths as well as enjoyable fiction, and I think that’s part of what makes the novel so appealing. Plus, there has always been something attractive and pleasing about the Robin-Hood type figure, throughout literature, and I think Ross Poldark embodies that idea. The idea of one of the higher classes displaying sympathy and compassion for those beneath him. Perhaps it’s because we’d all like to be the one to display such humanity, we just don’t know how. Literature has a funny way of allowing us to explore the versions of ourselves we’d like to be.

While some of the details of the books have been adapted and changed slightly for the TV show, I still feel like the essence of the story remains the same. This is a story about community and relationships, and the every day struggles of life in a mining community. The casting is inspired, and the performances are really what makes the show such a continued success. But as with most great TV shows and movies, the book came first.

 

May Book Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

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