24 September 2018
It’s best if one constantly bears in mind while viewing “Poldark” that it’s a saga, a fable, an extended yarn and glorified soap opera. That way its many implausibilities in the form of corny, awkward, and unrealistic social situations become more tenable, believable, acceptable. It’s good to know too that the Cornwall it portrays is an illusion, a fiction, a fantasy of endless summer days, bright and sunny, of brilliant sunsets and picturesque postcard beauty. Ross Poldark is part Byron, part Jim Morrison rock star — dark, swarthy, moody, tempestuous, his temper volcanic when aroused and angered, yet his spirit almost gently angelic when the temper subsides. He’s three dimensional, not quite a cardboard cut-out the way some of the others are, or even many of them are. Even so, his heroics have the look of comic-book legend much of the time, like when he sets off for Revolutionary France across the Channel, swims ashore from a coastal ship, rescues a British sailor from prison and the guillotine (by slipping past haplessly sleepy French gendarmes without uttering a word of French) and brings the captive home without suffering so much as a scratch. What a man!
Ludicrous to put it succinctly, in other words, but we’re asked to suspend judgement and verisimilitude for the sake of entertainment, which amazingly we end up doing. If not, how could I buy this very reasonably priced set from Amazon of the first four seasons of the series? I’ve done it and don’t regret it because as soap operas go this is one of the finer ones.
Characters I like:
Ross Poldark, his common-law wife Demelza, Dr. Enys, his aristocratic wife Caroline, Drake Carne (brother of Demelza), and Morwenna Whitworth, the young love interest of young Drake. Somehow the potential happiness of Drake and Morwenna means something to me, perhaps because they’re made to suffer so much — Romeo-and-Juliet style — for their love. They do so with the aid of outlandish scripts that throw just about every conceivable obstacle in their emotional path, blocking the road to bliss.
A character I despise:
George Warleggan, Trump-like in his petty, petulant grievances, his narcissism, jealousies, feuds and vindictive viciousness. He’s always unpleasant and unattractive, so it makes nearly zero sense that his attractive and intelligent wife Elizabeth remains loyal and faithful to him and — hard to believe — actually seems to care for him despite his pouting, selfish, immature and reprehensible character. What’s in it for her? Lady MacBeth ambition is out. Elizabeth can be rather unlikeable herself at times but she’s no murderer. She just seems constantly delusional, remaining steadfast and attached to a blackguard whose chief occupation seems to be the humiliation and ruin of others, especially that of Ross Poldark if he can manage it, a person who endlessly inflames Warleggan’s smouldering jealousies and childish envy. Empty and vain, Warleggan is paradoxically full of himself, so it’s really quite incredible that Elizabeth sticks with him, slogging it out. But she has to do it in order to make many of the lame plot devices work. Ah, the acting trade!
Other awful creatures:
1. Cary Warleggan, George’s uncle and political/financial advisor, a machiavellian manipulator whose main emotion is schadenfreude, a condition that delights in witnessing the suffering of others.
2. Osbourne Whitworth, the bloated, pig-like, bestial husband of Morwenna, a vicar, liar and hypocrite who treats Morwenna like a private, housebound sex slave, mounting her at will with nary a care for her person and feelings. He calls her “wife”, never Morwenna, as she’s nothing more than property to him, a handy outlet for his steady lust. But on the occasions when she manages to refuse and avoid him, his appetites take him elsewhere. For instance, to Morwenna’s younger sister, now married, or to prostitutes whose toes he sucks when the younger sister is unavailable for rape. A man of the church who preaches morality from a pulpit on Sundays. Way to go! Nietzsche was right about religion, a cultural sickness that afflicts far too many (even now in the 21st — not the 18th — century. Go figure!).
3. Osbourne’s mother is insufferable too. Smug, condescending, arrogant, she treats Morwenna like a scullery maid, and elevates her son’s non-existent virtues into regions positively Christ-like, proving that she’s just as mentally ill as her barmy son. So what does she try to do with Morwenna when her daughter-in-law continues to resist her deranged son’s advances? She tries to have her put away for depression in an asylum. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.
These awful people deserve nasty ends and we get to witness at least one of them, a death that made me happy!
In these ways, and others, the characters in “Poldark” are out-sized, larger than life, and so too their situations. There’s always a crisis brewing or unfolding, one new social, economic or political set-back after another: excessive taxation, bankruptcies, harvest failures, food shortages, epidemics, mining disasters, murders, duels, riots, arrests, convictions, imprisonment, hangings, and war with France or the threat of it. Added to these: infidelities, betrayals of trust and the heart. Life wasn’t easy in those days, the producers of “Poldark” and their scripts want you to know, even if there were no nuclear warheads or rap music back then. Only the tough survived.
As mentioned, it’s best to suspend judgement and just plunge into the fantasy. Cornwall never looked so good and hairy Ross really is sexy with his shirt off, as it frequently is when he chops wood, bales hay, makes love, rides round the cliffs of Cornwall on his horse or dives into the foamy surf like Darcy or Colin Firth diving into the carp pond at Pemberley. The ladies know, so they watch. Some of them want Darcy, Jane Eyre’s Rochester, Heathcliff, Byron or Ross Poldark. And they’ll take these men in fantasy if they can’t have them in reality.
“Poldark” is like some sea shanty about things that never were yet still manages to beguile and bewitch. One hears the melody and can’t get it out of the head. I try to dislike “Poldark”, I really do, but I can’t. If I’m hopeless, it’s due to romance. Why else would a man my age and standing (university professor) read Jane Austen? The English novelist Anita Brookner thought we read fiction because it has a logic and design that life never has. We love how love stories develop and of course we simply adore happy endings, wishing the events in our own life story could be as tidy and lovely. They seldom are, so works of ‘art’ such as “Poldark” remind us how sweet life could be if only it took its cues more often from the pages of novels or from period dramas by ITV. Keep that shirt off, Ross!