Monday, August 3, 2015

What to Make of Poldark

Like Poldark star, Aidan Turner, I had never read the Poldark books nor seen the original 1970s TV series. (Of course, he is a lot younger and so wasn't even around then - among other obvious differences!) So I approached the 8-episode BBC/PBS series that just ended last night with no real preconceptions and few specific expectations - apart from a mild but long-established and genuine fondness for dramatizations of stories set in the 18th or 19th centuries. Suffice it to say that such expectations as I entertained about the series were certainly more than sufficiently surpassed. I now even find myself wishing for a chance to get to see and experience the Cornish coast in all its gloriously bleak isolation!

OK, but - beyond all the costume drama glitter, the breathtaking scenery, the excellent acting, and the range of interesting characters - what is one to make of Poldark the story and even of Ross Poldark himself?

The basic plot line follows the story of Ross Poldark, a member of the Cornish gentry (although only of the cadet branch of the family), who returns to Cornwall (and the family's mining business) after spending three years in the British army on the losing side of the American War of Independence. He returns to find his father dead, his estate in shambles, his family's mine closed, and his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth ("born to be admired"), engaged to his cousin Francis, the heir (in the senior branch of the family) to the Poldark name. He resolves to stay in Cornwall, rehabilitate his property, and reopen his mine, meanwhile taking on a somewhat wild, very lower-class girl, Demelza, as a kitchen maid and falling in love and ultimately marrying her (despite the obvious social problems such an unequal marriage would pose in 18th-century society), but without quite abandoning his love and desire for Elizabeth. Entangled in all this is the story of another cousin, Francis' virtuous-in-every-way sister Verity, a true friend to Ross (and eventually Demelza), who stoically suffers with the pain of being a still unmarried woman at the old age of 23 (until she too meets someone unsuitable and - with Demelza's poorly thought-through assistance - finally elopes with him). And dominating everything is the larger context of the socio-economic conflict between the declining old landed elite (represented by the Poldarks) and the rising capitalist moneyed interests (represented by the by the greedy banker George Warleggan.) 

It's a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs for the Poldarks - definitely upward for Demelza, largely downward for the Poldark clan as a whole, and a confounding mixture for Ross himself. Attractively portrayed by Aidan Turner, Ross is genuinely devoted to the community, to improving the lot of all especially his tenants and miners (those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale), but just as genuinely headstrong, reckless, and self-willed - the inevitable "tragic flaw" dictated by dramatic convention. When he reproves Demelza for acting according to her lower-class ideas (helping Verity and her suitor get back together, apparently ignorant of the consequences this will have for the relationship between the two branches of the family and for Ross's business ventures), Ross tells her, “We Poldarks are hasty, sharp-tempered, strong in our likes and dislikes.” But that statement would certainly have been even more accurate if he had said "I" instead of "we." After all, one can barely count up the times Ross has flouted convention (and law) to act on his own impulses - the very thing he is repeatedly warning others not to do! So even his surprise arrest at the end was in a sense repeatedly hinted at in the many warnings he had received about his various unlawful actions.

That fits the classic "tragic flaw" model because it actually gets in the way not only of his own and his family's welfare but of his usefulness for those he is so determined to help. And, while it is hard to judge how sincere (if at all) his rival George's occasional efforts to reach out to him are meant to be taken, still one wonders whether things might have turned out better if Ross had at least tried to get along a little bit with his rivals. But Ross always goes his own way - his inner isolation signified by the repeated images of him riding alone along the coast.

Ross's recklessness costs him dearly, but his underlying care and concern for those around him do make him some friends. The sad scene when he buries his infant daughter is rendered even more powerfully poignant by the presence of so many who have obviously come to the churchyard to show their real respect and friendship for him.

Ross's heroic independence from convention almost suggests a certain post-modern sensibility which would have been completely out of place in 18th-century Britain. He can recognize how dysfunctional Demelza's lower-class commitment to "love" (in Verity's case) could be, but cannot apply a similar analysis to himself (except to some extent after the fact when the damage has already been done).

Family life and domestic arrangements have changed so much in the past 200+ years that it might seem difficult to extract lessons from the various Poldark family dramas. On the other hand, while social, economic, and political institutions have likewise evolved since then, the series' basic haves vs. have nots dilemmas remain surprisingly relevant, along with the lesson Ross has found it so hard to learn - that hard work and virtuous behavior do not necessarily pay off in a society where the deck is definitely stacked in favor of few at the expense of the many.

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