A funny thing happened last Sunday night. My wife and I sat by the fire watching the dramatic end to the beautiful BBC dramatization of Poldark. We both cheered as Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) swung round and felled her wandering husband Ross with a punch to the jaw, as he returned from his all-night tryst with Elizabeth. Then, as the credits rolled and we sat, stunned in the firelight, my wife smiled and said: ‘So, it wasn’t rape after all.’
‘Yes it was,’ I said.
What? Surely it should be the other way round? The woman cries rape and the man protests innocence. Not this time. Our roles are reversed!
‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘Ross Poldark breaks into Elizabeth’s house, Trenwith, in the middle of the night. He surprises her in her bedroom and refuses to leave when she asks. He strides up and down ranting that she can’t marry George Warleggan. She asks him to leave, several times, but he grabs her, kisses her, throws her on the bed, and has sex with her. Isn’t that rape?’
‘Ah yes,’ says the missus, ‘but you could see she was clutching him to her and kissing him back. She wanted him, she loves him really.’
I’m looking at the wife with new eyes now. The firelight flickers in her eyes, the dog sighs at our feet. Is there something I’ve misunderstood, all these years? Perhaps if I’d behaved differently …
Anyway, as you can imagine, we continue this discussion in private for some time, and come to an amicable conclusion, as usual. (I’m not Ross) So here it is.
We decided (amicably) that whether it was rape or not, it was a classic moment. Full of history and consequences for the Poldark saga. It’s true, of course, that Elizabeth still loves Ross. She’s told him so, in a previous episode, while her husband Francis was still alive. Indeed, the main reason for Francis Poldark’s descent into drunkenness and debt is his realisation, soon after his marriage, that his wife still loves Ross, not him. And Ross’s rape – if that’s what it is – is an attempt to prove to her that that’s still true. She doesn’t love George, Ross insists, she loves him.
So Ross might claim a defence, of sorts. Despite her repeated protest that she loves George ‘to distraction’, he thinks she’s lying and sets out to prove it to her. And he’s right.
Does that mean that he had a reasonable belief that she consented to sex? I don’t think so. But to a man of his class, in the 1790s, perhaps. Anyway Winston Graham, the author, makes it pretty clear. The last words of the chapter are:
‘Ross, you can’t intend . . . Stop! Stop, I tell you.’
But he took no further notice of the words she spoke.
He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed.
Rape, surely? But then – and I admire Winston Graham hugely – it has to be said he rather ducks the question. Or perhaps, writing in the 1950s, saw the question as less important than we do today. He, also was a man of his time.
But Debbie Horsefield, today’s excellent screenwriter, has tried to take the matter further. She, unlike Winston Graham, attempts to portray the morning after. Ross spends the night with Elizabeth, and next morning she asks Ross, pathetically: ‘What shall we …’ ‘When can we …’ She doesn’t seem to resent it or accuse him of rape, not then. She hopes they have a future together.
Instead of accusing Ross of rape, it might be more interesting to focus on the way he behaves afterwards. He goes home and, apparently, makes no further effort to contact her again. He stops trying to prevent her marriage to George Warleggan. It’s as though he’s lost interest. As though the act of having sex with her has purged him of all the romantic longing he has had for her over the years and he’s realised she’s not that special after all. No angel, just an ordinary flesh and blood woman like all the others. George can have her, and welcome.
That’s pretty callous, isn’t it? At least as cruel as the rape itself.
And of course, it will have terrible consequences …