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.

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20 thoughts on “Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

  1. Yvonne says:

    I remember the Poldark TV series from the 1970s and loved it. I didn’t know a new series had been made, but here in Australia it won’t appear on our TV screens for while, if at all. Like you I was tempted to read the series but never got around to it. Penmarric is one of my favourites and I remember that TV series too!

    • Helen says:

      I hope you’ll have a chance to see the new TV series in Australia eventually, Yvonne. I love Susan Howatch’s books – Penmarric, Cashelmara and The Wheel of Fortune are all on my list of books to re-read soon!

  2. Fleur in her World says:

    I loved these books back in my schooldays and I’m planning to read the again, so I’m pleased you thought well of this first book – my younger self was less critical of books than my present self!

    • margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

      Hi Fleur, I’ve re-read these books several times as an adult and they star the test of time. (As I said there’s a couple out of the 12 I wasn’t so keen on, but most are very good.)

    • Helen says:

      I did wonder if these might be books I would have enjoyed more as a teenager and if I’d left it too late, but luckily that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  3. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    I read the first four books while at university – I finished Ross Poldark at c 4.00pm and my boyfriend cycled the couple of miles to get to the bookshop before it shut at 5.00pm to get me No 2 because I couldn’t wait till the following day to read on! I loved most of the series and am a little apprehensive that I won’t like this new adaptation – Apparently Winston Graham did not want his books to be turned into bodice rippers on TV and the first series wasn’t, but it appears that this one has been sexed up – a shame imo if it has considering that would go against both the writing and the desires of the author.

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t feel the compulsion to start reading the second book immediately, but I’m sure I’ll read it soon! It would be a shame if the new TV series turns out to be just a bodice ripper – I’m hoping it will be true to the book and the writing.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve never seen the 1970s series but I know how popular it was so I can understand not wanting your memories spoiled. I’m glad you loved the books too.

  4. jessicabookworm says:

    I am really looking forward to the BBC’s new adaptation but I must honest I had not heard of these books before! I am glad you enjoyed this I will definitely have to consider reading these too.

    • Helen says:

      I had heard of these books and had been told I would probably like them, but I didn’t really know what they were about until now. I’m looking forward to the new adaptation, especially now that I’ve read this book.

  5. lindylit says:

    I have seen brief clips of the 1970s version on some digital TV channel and remember my mum saying it was good, but I never realised they were books. Your review has made me want to hunt down a copy of the first book, but for now i might have to stick to the TV programme.

    • Helen says:

      I really enjoyed this book and it will be a good thing if the new TV series encourages more people to read it. I haven’t seen the 1970s version but everyone who watched it seems to have loved it!

  6. Jo says:

    I am looking forward to the programme, and I remember my late nan loving the books and the 1970s series, which I very briefly recall.

    I think I will certainly pick up the first book to read at some point during the coming months!

    • Helen says:

      I’m looking forward to watching it too. Now that I’ve read the book, I’ll be interested to see how closely the series follows the book and whether the characters look and sound the way I imagined them!

  7. piningforthewest says:

    I loved the books and the series and although I’m not at all sure about the new choice of the actor playing Ross I’m going to watch it to visit Cornwall again, without actually having to travel there. No doubt I’ll get engrossed in the series again though.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy it, Katrina. Not long to wait now! At least as I didn’t see the original series I won’t have anyone to compare the new actors with.

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