(Warning: contains possible spoilers up until the end of episode four).
Moving from plumes of cloud and sullen mist to the flaming spit of fire below, the opening sequence of Poldark sets us up for a journey through the sublime chasms of history down to the core of its hero’s heart. The scene is Cornwall in the 1780s. The story is a beautifully rendered television voyage through various Romantic archetypes, culminating in the protagonist himself, who stands alone facing the open, churning sea, in the manner of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Romantic painting, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’. In the first episode, Captain Ross Poldark returns, miraculously alive, from the American War of Independence, bearing the mark of his experience in the distinctive dark scar upon his cheek. After the battle scene in which Poldark alone escapes with his life, a dreamy flashback presents our hero in smart uniform, ready to go abroad, acquiescing to the breathless urge of his lover Elizabeth: ‘Pray do not be reckless, I wish you to return’. Well, like Robinson Crusoe from his shipwreck and 28 years of island isolation, Poldark does return. Only, while Crusoe returns to ‘civilisation’ to find a hefty profit from his Brazilian plantations to fill his greasy palms, Poldark returns to find his finances in ruins and his dear Elizabeth now married to his insipid cousin. What follows is a tale of Poldark’s redemption; once the idle gambler at war only to ‘escape the gallows’, he evolves into a near prototypical Romantic hero, embodying the necessary sentiment, broody solitude and bad-boy glamour that brought Byron his fame and trouble.
But while Poldark represents an idealised benevolence cut with rugged beauty, he is not a dandyish poet in the manner of Byron or Wilde, but a man of war and experience. While Byron would go off gallivanting with his many women, writing hopes of radicalism back home, Poldark says little of his time overseas – a quietness that only emphasises the intrigue of his character. As the frequent close-ups of his scar insist, this man has done battle, a distinction that reinforces his difference to the other men of Cornwall’s stuffy society.
And indeed, Poldark puts his experience to virtuous use. He represents in some ways that much-loved ‘cult of sensibility’ that wormed its way into novels and poetry of the eighteenth-century: rescuing a wayward waif, providing work for starving labourers and delivering an impassioned courtroom speech in defence of an unfortunate young poacher (played – did anyone else notice – by metal-head Rich from Skins). Sensibility, as we might guess from the title of Henry Mackenzie’s popular novel The Man of Feeling (1771), was a kind of fashion for displaying emotion; a newly remodelled masculinity which was exhibited through tears and expression and other public manifestations of feeling. While Poldark is by no means the soppy hero of Mackenzie’s novel (the Editor’s Introduction to The Man of Feeling warns that the novel ‘proceeds in due course through so many tears that it is hardly to be called a dry book’), his compassion towards the struggling labourers contributes to our image of him as a benign venture capitalist, a hero of industry for our postmodern age of corrupt public figures and criminal bankers. The symbolism of a man attempting to re-open a mine threatened by closure and poor investment, to work alongside his miners in the sweaty heat of the pit and to share the profit, was perhaps not lost on Poldark’s viewers when it was first broadcast in the 1970s. While many period dramas fall into the trap of caricature when representing the ‘lower classes’, Poldark offsets this problem by honing in on individual experiences which highlight the precarious economic and social position of Cornwall’s labourers in the late eighteenth-century: the plight of the young poacher, and, importantly, the story of Demelza, who is adopted from the streets by Poldark as a house-maid and later becomes his wife.
This is a show that milks the viewer’s voyeurism. Any chance it gets to parade Aiden Turner’s sweaty golden torso, visible as he swims in the sea or hacking at the land, it takes it. However, such enticing demonstrations of abs and strength are not merely to keep Turner loyalists from the Being Human days happy. They also serve as an interesting parallel to scenes of Demelza alone in nature. Well, not quite alone. While Poldark ranges the cliffs on foot or on horseback – once again parading the dazzling iconography of Romantic solitude – Demelza wanders off at dawn with her little scruffy dog. While Poldark is a figure of Promethean strength and virility (here another connection between strength and suffering – Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound), Demelza’s ethereal looks, in tandem with her ‘exotic’ Cornish dialect, establish her as an almost mythological figure of Romantic fascination. There are many tender scenes where she lies languid in the long grass, playing with pretty cornflowers, or trailing over the rolling cliffs; but there are also scenes where she tills the land with all the power of Poldark himself. We are led into believing the credibility of their marriage because the show sets them up as equals. Demelza is, in a way, Wordsworth’s ‘Solitary Reaper’: the ‘lass’ with the regional accent, who ‘cuts and binds the grain, | And sings a melancholy strain’ which flows through the land with ‘more welcome notes’ than a ‘Nightingale’. When we first encounter her, begging in the street and being heckled, she is clearly a ‘peasant’, a mess of coarseness and dirt; but her time as Poldark’s domestic tames her appearance, though not her spirit. While Wordsworth’s female Reaper was just one of the rural characters to feature in the revolutionary Lyrical Ballads (1798), Demelza is not merely a figure of some traveller’s amusement or poetic interest. The camera does not gaze at her always from a distance, but switches to close-ups and pan shots of the scenes around her: the swaying grain, the face of her dog, some plain little flower or the ever-present sea. At times, then, we share her perception. Episode by episode, we are lured in with her sweet pure voice; significantly, the voice which settles Poldark’s love for her.
The master/servant romantic dyad is certainly not an original one, but a trope embedded in many prominent examples of canonical novels since the eighteenth-century. Hailed as one of the first ‘novels’ in the sense recognised today, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1970) tells through a series of its heroine’s diaries and letters the story of a virtuous servant girl resisting the sexual advances of her master, eventually redeeming his character through her writing and in turn being rewarded with an equal marriage based on love and respect. What made Richardson’s novel unique was that it placed value upon a ‘mere’ servant-girl’s right to self-respect, to protect her chastity and resist the common (and indeed legal) assumption that a servant-girl was her master’s property, to do with what he would. Also, the level of psychological detail afforded by Richardson’s epistolary form allowed the reader an incisive insight into the consciousness of Pamela’s character, a consciousness that gained integrity and resistance through letter-writing itself. While Richardson’s novel gives us an excess of detail, Poldark speaks often through silence. It is those moments in the gloomy interiors of Poldark’s home, with the fire flickering shadows over a rustic meal, or against the backdrop of the ocean, with only the gulls’ moaning, that things change between Poldark and Demelza. The show fleshes her out with a backstory and a problem father, a sense of longing for an unspeakable freedom – the kind of Romantic liberty we experience in her plain, almost Blakean singing.
When Poldark and Demelza do get married, almost on a whim, the show deals with the social consequences of this unlikely coupling. Like Pamela, who has to get used to calling her master by her name, Demelza struggles to address Poldark as ‘Ross’ instead of ‘master’ or ‘sir’. Moreover, the rebellious couple face an onslaught not only of gossip but the kind of exclusion that has very material consequences, not just in terms of how Poldark is treated by polite society but even in business, as investors withdraw from his start-up mining company. This is something Demelza worries about greatly, as does Pamela in her marriage to her master, Mr. B-, as she reflects:
The great Mr. B—— has done finely! he has married his poor servant wench! will some say. The ridicule and rude jests of his equals, and companions too, he must stand: And the disdain of his relations, and indignation of Lady Davers, his lofty sister! Dear good gentleman! he will have enough to do, to be sure! O how shall I merit all these things at his hand! I can only do the best I can; and pray to God to reward him; and resolve to love him with a pure heart, and serve him with a sincere obedience. I hope the dear gentleman will continue to love me for this; for, alas! I have nothing else to offer!
Richardson’s novel, I should add, was riffing off the tradition of conduct literature, expressing a kind of Puritan message of self-restraint and virtue. It loses pace in the second half, where Richardson has shunned the romantic convention of ending on a marriage and instead spends the rest of the book describing Pamela’s efforts to run a virtuous domestic set-up. It is with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) that the servant-girl heroine is imbued with a wilder, more defiant streak. While Pamela shows her strength not through any physical feat (indeed, her only two escape attempts constitute a foolish notion to drown herself in the garden pond, and a runaway plan which is aborted when she comically mistakes plain old cows for menacing bulls), Jane displays real physical endurance when she manages to flee Mr. Rochester after discovering about the sham marriage she was almost tricked into. I cannot help but quote that famous, impassioned speech that she makes to her would-be husband:
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you,–and full as much heart! . . . I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh:–it is my spirit that addresses your spirit: just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,–as we are!
This transcendentalist ideal of love carried through spirit is profoundly Romantic, and one that comes to inhabit the space of Poldark through the mystic enchantments of Demelza’s singing. This taps into Romanticism’s trope of the folk ballad and the femme fatale, found particularly in Keats but also Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, that warns of the strange seduction of the ‘wild’, exotic female:
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
Perhaps this description could be applied to Demelza too, as she dances at the village carnival and skips fairylike along the cliff top meadows. In Keats’ ‘La Bella Dame Sans Merci’ (1819), the speaker meets a curious, vampire-like woman, who seduces him then leaves him cold and alone in the ‘gloam’ of the lake’s bird-less landscape (and, of course, birds are a very importance presence in Romantic poetry). It is interesting that in the twentieth century, with the impact of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), that the myth of the vampire, the lethal seducer, was transferred from the female to male (Turner himself played the tortured vampire Mitchell in Being Human). There are no vampires in Poldark. Demelza is more of the innocent fairy type, embodying the kind of alienated selfhood that Jane encounters as she perceives herself in the mirror: ‘the effect of a real spirit […] like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp’. Estranged from what she thought she was – a mere governess – and hurled into the beautiful turmoil of a fairy story.
It is in Demelza’s metamorphosis from fawn-like (as Elizabeth describes her) child to Poldark’s wife that the show reaps the reward for both parties. When Demelza finally works up the courage to try on a jewel-green dress she finds stuffed into a drawer, it is in this dress that she winds up in bed at last with her master. Yet even here she still looks shrunken, pixie-like in the dress too-big for her, representing the absurdity of the bourgeois identity that she is inadvertently stepping into, like Cinderella. Here, she remains, like ‘plain Jane’, elusive and fairy like, ephemeral in her selfhood. It is in her later endurances, her resistance to the jibes of polite society, that Demelza emerges as our true heroine.
In Brontë’s novel, stumbling alone and starving over the moors, Jane Eyre embodies both female vulnerability and endurance against hardship within the stifling social conditions of the era. Steadfastly she refuses to be Rochester’s mistress and live under a sham marriage. Eventually, like Pamela, she too is rewarded for her virtue, by in turn claiming her own (now, like Poldark, wounded) Byronic hero, whose redemption is signified in the purging of a dramatic fire. The hearth is enflamed from quiet warmth to primitive passion. At the end of episode 4 of Poldark, Ross confesses his love to Demelza in a scene of bedroom intimacy that well resembles that of Pamela and Jane Eyre:
‘You are not too ashamed o’ me?’ asks Demelza, sitting on the bed.
‘Why do you think I married you?’ her husband turns to her.
‘I don’t rightly know.’
‘To satisfy an appetite, to save myself from being alone […] I had few expectations. At best, you’d be a distraction – a bandage to ease a wound. But I was mistaken. You have redeemed me; I am your humble servant, and I love you’.
Like Rochester, and Mr. B-, Poldark is a man redeemed by humble love. Only time will tell (no spoilers) how this pans out. The novel is a form which tends to drive towards closure, the pursuit of some fulfillment of marriage, death or didactic morality; whereas television drama feeds us with cliffhangers, the always open promise of a sequel. This is of course a simplistic distinction, but even so, the point remains that with a book, you can physically see when you are getting to the end, where the pages are running out, and with television, there is a kind of abstracted spatiality and temporality that leaves you always hanging.
As if I were watching a serialised version of Byron’s biography, I intend for the rest of the series merely to sit back and enjoy the picturesque landscapes and the pretty hair, the romance and tragedy and beautiful costumes. All acts of consumption I suppose, which is fitting because Romanticism, as Timothy Morton argues in The Poetics of Spice, invented consumerism; consumerism in the sense of Marxian ‘commodity fetishism’ – consuming something for its representative, fantasy qualities more than for the use value of the thing itself. Wordsworth with his mountains, Coleridge with his opium; objects of desire which offer some form of imaginative potential to the self. But I won’t go into anymore detail; that’s another story, another romance.