Why do I love Poldark? The answer to this is simple: it’s great historical fiction. Winston Graham was a very talented writer, and his series of twelve historical novels about Ross and Demelza Poldark are some of my favourite books. I’ve read them all twice – most recently sharing the joy with my wife and my 90-year-old mother – and sometime soon I’ll probably go back to the beginning and start all over again.
Why? Well, because the books are full of marvellous stories, very well told. Winston Graham has all the gifts and skills you could possibly want in a novelist: he creates wonderful, well-drawn characters, he has a brilliant, accurate ear for dialogue, he writes beautiful, concise description, there’s an enduring love affair at the heart of it – what more could you want? The plots of these novels are wonderfully crafted; he is the master of setting a little time-bomb which will tick away in the back of your mind for hundreds of pages before it explodes. The stories are very dramatic – these believable, very real characters do things of quite breath-taking audacity which the author has the skill to develop thoroughly so that all the consequences are quite fully worked out. The villains are truly evil but in human terms thoroughly understandable, and the good characters sympathetic but satisfyingly flawed. He has a great gift for comedy too – particularly in the early books where the antics of Jud and Judie Paynter had me laughing out loud. The historical research should not be forgotten either – he paints a wholly believable picture of Cornwall during the Napoleonic Wars and the early Industrial Revolution, which brings a bygone world to life. If I could write historical fiction half as good as this I’d be proud.
Like many people of my age, I first knew of these books through the BBC TV series which was a great hit back in the 1970s, with Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees as Ross and Demelza. The whole nation used to stop to watch it; when it was broadcast on Sunday evenings vicars used to reschedule church services to be sure not to clash with Poldark. I think I read the first two books then, before university, work and family took over. But coming back to them in later life I realise what an enormous achievement they really are. And now – joy of joys! – here it is again, the BBC making a modern version, this time with Aidan Turner and Elinor Tomlinson as the main characters. And this time, the BBC promise to film episodes from all twelve books – their answer to Downton Abbey, perhaps!
But Downton, good as it is, is only a TV series. Poldark is much more than that – what you see on TV only skims the surface. To really get into the characters, and understand their world, it’s worth exploring the stories as Winston Graham originally wrote them. It’s definitely worth it. If you are looking for a long, well-written, fully realised series of historical novels to sink into and enjoy, these are the books for you!