The first novel in Winston Graham’s series, explores the lives of a small mining community in Cornwall during the 18th century. The protagonist, Ross Poldark, returns home from the American Revolution to find his sweetheart engaged to another, and his father recently deceased. Having inherited his father’s humble home, Nampara, and its accompanying land, Ross sets out to restore the family mine in the hopes of providing work for the local community and distracting himself from his own heartache. Along the way he takes in a poor urchin child from a neighbouring town and sets her on as his kitchen maid, despite the scandalous gossips this incites.
The first thing I have to say about this book, is that Winston had a talent for cultivating description. He has a way of transporting the reader into the scene because his description is so alive and convincing. He also seems to have a gift for communicating emotions and sensations in a way that makes the reader understand their own feelings. Putting emotions into words is probably one of the most difficult challenges a writer can face, and Winston seems to achieve it effortlessly.
When you’re dealing with dramatic fiction, the narrative can sometimes feel lacking because nothing overtly spectacular happens, and this essentially means that the characters are very stripped-back because they become the focal point of the story. But I think the intricacy of Winston’s characters is what makes this novel so interesting. Because they’re the novel’s sole interest, there cannot be any vagueness, and Winston seems to grasp that perfectly. He knows his characters inside out and that’s the reason it’s so easy for the reader to believe what he writes. I particularly enjoyed the concept of the protagonist, Ross. He is, without doubt, a man of the people. Kind of like a Robin Hood figure, I suppose, except more ordinary and therefore real. Throughout the story, he struggles with his class, being that he is still a cut above the working class thanks to the land he inherited from his father. But he also possesses a keen sense of justice and, having grown up with the young men in the village, he still cannot help but to enjoy the banter and friendship with those lower than himself. Ross very clearly despises the hypocrisy and superiority of his social class, which seems to allow him to retreat an entirely different space where he identifies with the working people but still retains his title as a landowner. I would argue that for him, Nampara is a kind of safe middle-ground, which happens to be closer to the working class houses than to those of the middle and upper classes. His father, Joshua, the youngest son, did not inherit the family estate and therefore had to make his own way in the world. I find it interesting that Winston chose to explore this. The life of the eldest son who inherits the family fortune is a tale many people are more familiar with, so I can’t help but feel that Winston very deliberately chooses to give a voice to the unspoken stories of history. Throughout the novel he tells the story of the ‘ordinary man’, the marginalised, the poor, and all of this provides a very interesting dynamic which ultimately allows Winston a way in to creating a discourse and, arguably, a critique of social class.
As with any novel set in a historical period such as this one, there can be no half-heartedness in terms of historical content, and Winston does not disappoint. Whether or not the periodic details are accurate (and I have no idea if they are because I am certainly no history buff), the historic details appear to be so in depth that it feels like a real story. I think it’s safe to say that when a writer manages to make fiction feel like a true story, they have done their job. This novel seamlessly integrates its fictitious elements with those historical details which are carefully woven into the fabric of the narrative. I don’t normally indulge in a lot of historic fiction, but Winston may just have changed that.
Personally, I enjoy a novel with plot twists and big reveals, but this kind of writing doesn’t necessarily use those conventions. Instead Ross Poldark explores the drama the characters encounter in every day life. And maybe it’s a good thing that this book didn’t give me the plot twists and dramatic unfoldings I’ve come to expect from good fiction. Perhaps what Winston is doing is far more important because it’s subtle and effective in its own rite. He suggests that there is something intriguing in every day life; intriguing enough that it doesn’t need to be amplified in order to be thrilling. I think he must have been a people-watcher, because he seems to be interested in exploring human nature and human behaviour in a way that lends the novel a philosophical element which is something I always enjoy. And despite the fact that this could also be dubbed a romance novel, I think Winston cleverly keeps the romance from enveloping the distinctly human aspect of his work. Don’t get me wrong, I love the evolution of the relationship between Ross and Demelza, which transcends the limits of their master and servant roles and ends up becoming a deep friendship which leads to compassion and admiration. But I make no mistake in surmising that the focus of the novel is intended to explore the conflicts of social class, and the struggles of the mining industry.
From my English-Language-studying days, I found it strangely gratifying to notice Winston’s careful use of dialect throughout the novel. As Demelza slowly moves up in social rank from kitchen maid to Mistress of Nampara, she understands that her language has to adapt too. She becomes genuinely interested in learning and discovers an appetite for acquiring new skills. I found that her dialogue reflected this really well. As she becomes well-spoken, this is reflected in the way she speaks on the page, but as soon as she interacts with another character belonging to the lower classes, she notably slips back into her old, considerably coarser sociolect. As an English student, I got a little kick out of that. I think it demonstrates Winston’s attention to detail which overall creates this very vibrant representation of a small mining community.
Of course, I have to discuss the setting of the novel, which happens to be Cornwall. Like in the BBC adaptation of Winston’s novels, Cornwall feels like another character in the book. It is tangible and has a definitive kind of flavour. It’s a tempestuous setting which matches the mood and tone of the book, enough to enhance the narrative and elevate it to another level.
So if you’ve been on the lookout for a book which is going to throw you a bit of a curveball and take you by surprise, this could be it. It’s refreshingly human, simplistic in style, but complex and filled with light and shade, enough to keep you turning those pages until the very end.
April Book Review: Demelza by Winston Graham