Sunday, June 16, 2013

Passion, Tide and Time

What I've learned from Poldark about the promise
(and complexity) of being in relationship.

Angharad Rees and Robin Ellis as Demelza and Ross Poldark
in the BBC television series Poldark (1975-1977)

Winston Graham's Poldark series of books is comprised of twelve "novels of Cornwall" set in the years 1783-1820. Throughout the series the relationship between Ross Poldark and his wife Demelza is central. Indeed, it's as elemental to the series as the rugged Cornish coastline against which the many interconnected story lines of the novels unfold. This inter-connection of characters, narrative and setting was not lost on publisher Pan-Macmillan. When marketing a reprinting of the series in the 1990s, the publishing house opted for the poetic tagline: "Passion, tide and time."

I was first introduced to Graham's novels through the TV series Poldark, the BBC's immensely popular adaptation of the first seven Poldark novels in the mid-1970s. In the TV series Ross is played by Robin Ellis and Demelza by Angharad Rees.

Yes, I must admit it was an odd television show for a 12-year-old boy to be drawn to, but drawn to it I was. And I believe a major reason for this was the relationship between Ross and Demelza, a relationship I recall being simply yet powerfully encapsulated each week in the show's opening title sequence. As I remember it, Ross stands alone, gaunt and forlorn, on a windswept cliff. The sea pounds angrily below him while the title music builds to a foreboding crescendo. But then Demelza appears and the music is calmed by an ethereal female operatic voice. Demelza approaches Ross and the two hold one another and look into each other's eyes as the music hauntingly ebbs and the title sequence concludes.

Such a combination of visual and audio cues may well be viewed by some as, well, corny. Yet I believe it spoke to my young heart and mind of the transforming power of love and, in particular, of that special type of love-relationship between two people that is characterized, in part, by a mutual experience of sexual attraction and connection. The gender of those involved in such a relationship matters not one iota. Gay people are just as capable of finding and building this type of relationship as straight people. And just as capable of screwing it up.

The opening sequence of the Poldark television series conveys the hope and possibility that brooding isolation and a sense of impending unravelment can be replaced by union, groundedness, and a sense of connection and shared purpose. When Ross and Demelza look into one another's eyes it is not simply a lovy-dovy gaze. To be sure there is love present, but it's the type of love that involves a sense of journey and challenge. Present too is an awareness that the journey being shared involves a lot of work. Intrinsic to this work is the willingness to think less of oneself and more of one's partner and of the relationship being forged and shared. Also key is the awareness of just how crucial (and fragile) is the protective layer of trust and loyalty that surrounds the type of relationship we're talking about here.

Finally, this type, or better still, this depth of relationship requires an openness to being changed in ways that, I've come to realize, have the potential to facilitate emotional, psycho-sexual and spiritual growth. Such growth isn't always easy but, let's be honest, it's often the caliber – the strength and flexibility – of a relationship that brings about such transformation.

In retrospect, I see all of the characteristics and elements I've discussed represented in what I recall of the opening moments of the Poldark television series. My subsequent reading of the Poldark novels and, in particular, of Ross and Demelza's often turbulent relationship, has, along with my own observations and life experiences, confirmed my interpretation of the television series' depiction of the Poldarks' relationship and of relationships in general.

I share all of this as a way of introducing two excerpts from The Four Swans, book six of the Poldark saga. These excerpts not only exemplify Winston Graham's gifted writing style (he's been described as "a master of period detail and atmosphere"), but also provide an insightful depiction of Ross and Demelza's relationship, and thus, I believe, the beauty and complexity of any authentic intimate relationship. In Ross and Demelza's case, this complexity ensures a number of distinct challenges. Yet the beauty of their relationship, a relationship of both companionship and desire, continually surfaces to guide and strengthen. Of course, both Ross and Demelza play an active role in this "surfacing," primarily by their commitment to honest communication and their desire to be present to each other in ways that are understanding and intentional. In many ways their relationship stands in stark contrast to that of Ross' nemesis, the wealthy and ambitious banker George Warleggan and his wife Elizabeth, Ross' first love. You may recall that in a previous Wild Reed post I shared an excerpt from The Black Moon (book five in the series) that involves a conversation between George and Elizabeth.

In the first excerpt from The Four Swans that I share below, Ross recollects a conversation he has recently had with Demelza concerning his reluctance to enter politics, despite the fact that he is now a prosperous country squire and is being courted by powerful political entities within Cornish genteel society. He refers to two occasions in which he broke into prisons – once, years ago, in Bodmin to free an ailing young man who had been in his employ but who had been caught and sentenced for poaching on a neighboring landowner's estate; and more recently in France, where he had led a daring raid on a prisoner-of-war camp so as to free his friend Dr. Dwight Enys. As he notes about the two incidents: "For one I am named a hero and for the other a renegade!"

He had said: "You were so disappointed that I turned down a seat on the bench, which is a small thing, but you applaud my wish not to attempt to become a Member of Parliament, which is a great."

A curl had fallen across her forehead as she wrinkled it.

"Ross, you must not expect always reason from me. Often it is what I feel, not what I think, and that sways me. But I'm not one for words."

"Try," he said. "I have found you very much one for words most times."

"Well, it is like this, Ross. I think you live on a knife edge."

"A knife. Whatever do you mean?"

"A knife. The knife is what you think you ought to do, what your – your conscience or your spirit or your mind thinks you ought to do. And if you move away from that, stray from that – what's the word? – then you cut yourself."

"Pray go on. I am wholly fascinated."

"No, you must not laugh. You asked me to say what I meant, and I'm trying. As a justice you would have been on the bench and say in judgement – isn't that right? – and helped with local laws. That I thought you could do – should do – and if you failed sometimes you yet would not have to bend. And it is the duty of a gentleman to help in this way. Isn't it? I would still like you to be that. But in Parliament, if what you say is true, would you not often, quite often, be asked to bend? . . ." She impatiently pushed back her hair. "By bend I don't mean bow; I mean bend from what you think you ought to do."

"Deviate," Ross said.

"Yes. Is that it? Yes, deviate."

"You make me sound very stern and noble."

"I wish I could say it better. Not stern. Not noble. Though you can be those. But you oftentimes make me feel you're like a judge in court. And who's in the dock? You."

Ross laughed. "And who better to be there?"

Demelza said: "Most men as they grow into middle life, it appears to me, get more and more self-satisfied. But you every year get more and more unself-satisfied."

"And is that your reason?"

"My reason is I want you to be happy, Ross, and doing things you enjoy doing – and working hard and living hard. What I don't want is to see you trying to do things you can't do and having to do things you don't agree with – and cutting yourself to pieces because of what you think is failure."

"Give me a coat of armour and I'll be all right, eh?"

"Give you a coat of that sort of armour and I'd say accept!"

He had finished the conversation off by adding in some exasperation: "Well, my dear, your summary of my virtues and failings may be quite correct; but in honesty I must confess it is not for any of your reasons, nor really for any of the reasons I have yet stated that I'm sure I'm right to refuse. The real crux of it is that I am not willing to be anyone's tame lapdog. I don't belong in the world of pretty behaviour and genteel fashion. For most of the time I'm happy enough, as you know, to observe the courtesies – and as I grow older and more of a family man and more prosperous, the impulse to – to kick against the traces become less and less. But – I reserve the right. I want to reserve the right. What I did last year in France is little different from what I did a few years before in England; but for one I am named a hero and for the other a renegade!

– Excerpted from The Four Swans: A Novel of Cornwall, 1795-1797 (1976)
by Winston Graham

In the following second excerpt, Ross broaches the subject of Hugh Armitage, a navel officer whom he had freed along with Dwight from the French prisoner-of-war camp, and who is now hopelessly enamored of Demelza.

As they went into the parlour Ross said: "Does he touch you, my love?"

She half glanced up at him, with a glint of embarrassment.

"Yes . . ."


"A little. His eyes are so dark and sad."

"They light up when they look at you."

"I know."

"So long as your eyes don't light up when you look at him."

She said: "Who were those people he mentioned? Heloise, was it? Isolde?"

"Legendary lovers. Tristan and Isolde I know. I can't remember who loved Heloise. Was it Abelard? My education was more practical than classical."

"He lives in dreams," Demelza said. "Yet he isn't a dream. He's very real."

"I rely on your wonderful common sense always to remember that."

"Well . . . yes. What I try to remember is that he's so young."

"What? Three, four years younger than you? That at most. I wouldn't look on it as an unbridgeable gap."

"I wish twere more."

"You'd like to be old? What an ambition!" He put his arm round her shoulders, and quickly she leaned against him. "I see," he commented. "A tree in need of support."

"Just a small matter shaken," she said.

– Excerpted from The Four Swans: A Novel of Cornwall, 1795-1797 (1976)
by Winston Graham

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
A "Useful Marriage" for Morwenna
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality

Recommended Off-site Links:
The Official Winston Graham and Poldark Website
Winston Graham’s The Four Swans: "There is No Transference — Can Be No Transference — of Experience” – Ellen Moody (Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, November 3, 2010).
Winston Graham's ObituaryThe Telegraph (July 11, 2003).
Poldark Actress Angharad Rees DiesBBC News (July 21, 2012).
Poldark Remake for BCC1BBC News (May 9, 2013).

Images: Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees as Ross and Demelza in the BBC television series Poldark (1975-1977)

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