This question goes to the heart of why Poldark is such a hugely successful series. All novels are about love, but very few are about marriage.
In one way, it’s a simple Cinderella story. Demelza is a classic waif – a barefoot ragged urchin rescued from a dusty squabble over a dog in a fairground. At first Ross thinks she’s a boy – it’s only when he gets her home, strips her naked and washes her under the pump in the yard (a scene pretty much dodged by both TV series) that the reader, and probably Ross too, gets the first glimpse of the femininity that is to come. Once washed, she’s set to work as a kitchen maid, just like Cinderella.
So if Demelza is Cinderella, Ross must be her prince – though he’s a pretty grumpy one, at first. So how does she transform herself into a princess, and marry him? She faces plenty of challenges.
There are no ugly sisters, apart from her fellow servants, Jud and Prudie. But there are several big sisters, who are scary because they’re beautiful, not ugly. Ross’s first love, the ethereal Elizabeth. Mrs Teague, who schemes for Ross to marry her daughter Ruth. Ross’s cousin Verity. The formidable Aunt Agatha. Women whose beauty and breeding puts them as far above Demelza as it’s possible to be.
So her gradual transformation, from kitchen maid to wife, from urchin to lady, is the classic Cinderella journey.
How does Ross look to Demelza? Is he a prince, in her eyes? Well yes – not just because he’s so far above her in social class, but also because – so far as we know – he’s the first man this teenage urchin has ever thought about sexually, and – lucky girl – he’s a real gentleman. Not just socially, but in character. He behaves perfectly: he rescues her from the market, he gives her a job, he saves her from her drunken father. And then – he doesn’t want to have sex with her.
This is a key point: Ross doesn’t seduce Demelza, she seduces him. It’s very clearly and beautifully described in the first Poldark novel, and well acted in the modern BBC TV series, although – to author Winston Graham’s annoyance – it was portrayed quite differently in the original 1970s TV series. The scriptwriters back then had him marry her because he got her pregnant. Wrong. That’s not what happens at all, in the book.
She seduces him, and then he marries her, two days after they sleep together. Why does he do that?
Even Demelza can’t really believe it. (Nor could the scriptwriters in the 1970s!) He didn’t have to; he could have just carried on, taking advantage of this girl who’d thrown herself at him, as most men of his rank at that time would probably have done. ‘Well done, Ross lad,’ the other country squires would have said, ‘that’s what we all do – or would like to.’ ‘Tch, tch,’ their ladies would have gossiped, ‘just like his father, can’t keep his breeches on.’
But Ross could have coped with gossip – in fact he and Demelza had been coping with it, for the past three years. That’s why her father comes to take her home, because he’s afraid she’s living in sin, when she isn’t. So with perfect irony, she seduces Ross in order to avoid going home to a life of virtue! Naughty girl. But then Ross, who is ten years older, insists on marrying her. Why?
It’s not because he loves her; he doesn’t, yet. He’s still hopelessly in love with Elizabeth, who has married his cousin Francis. The day after Ross first sleeps with Demelza, Elizabeth comes to visit, seeking a reconciliation. As the beautiful, elegantly dressed Elizabeth sits in Ross’s parlour, Demelza comes in barefoot, carrying bluebells. Ross sees the two of them side by side and compares them: Demelza is earthenware, Elizabeth porcelain, he thinks. What has he done?
Demelza recognises the difference too. Elizabeth has ‘skin like ivory; never done a day’s work. She’s a lady and Ross is a gentleman, and I am a slut. But not last night, not last night.’ Elizabeth has come one day too late, she tells herself.
But if Ross doesn’t (yet) love Demelza, why marry her? She’s only a child of seventeen, they’ve slept together once. She’s not pregnant. He could still pursue Elizabeth, illicitly, or seek out a society beauty of his own class, like Ruth Teague. So why?
Perhaps this is what the scriptwriters in the 1970s couldn’t fathom. But the answer is quite clear. Ross marries Demelza is because he is angry. Angry and rejected; not just by Elizabeth, but by ‘respectable society.’
Demelza seduces him the same evening he comes home from court. He’s been pleading for mercy for his tenant, Jim Carter. Ross’s plea has been rejected – Jim Carter gets a fatal prison sentence for poaching a pheasant. Ross is furious with the magistrates – all members of the same ‘respectable society’ which has criticised him for months for sleeping with his kitchen maid, while secretly envying him at the same time. They’re all hypocrites, he thinks. And here’s this girl who loves him.
So for Ross, marrying Demelza is a sort of in-your-face challenge to his own class. While for Demelza, seducing Ross is a way of escaping the respectable Methodism of her father. They are both rebels; in a way they are marrying to live in sin!
A bit like Cinderella, perhaps? But much better, more complex. Ross Poldark is not a novel which ends with a wedding, like Jane Austen. It’s the first of twelve novels about a marriage, which lasts the rest of their lives. The sudden, shocking, unconventional marriage of Ross and Demelza is the heart of this magnificent, beautifully written series of books. Cinderella marries a prince who is angry. Read and enjoy.