Sunday, July 21, 2013

"Hers Would Be the Perpetual Ache of Loss and Loneliness"

Remembering how, as a deeply closeted gay boy,
I resonated with the isolation and the fears
of a lovelorn eighteenth-century spinster.

The success of the Poldark television series in the mid-1970s ensured that a boxed-set of Winston Graham's first seven Poldark novels was a popular item in bookstores across Australia. I remember the 'box' part was colored red and, like the books it contained, featured pictures of the actors who starred in the TV series. I also remember pleading with my mum to get me the boxed-set of Poldark books for Christmas. That would have been Christmas 1978 or 1979. Maybe earlier. I can't remember exactly.

Anyway, after checking with one of her avid reading 'tennis lady' friends, a Mrs Davies, if I remember correctly, mum determined that the Poldark novels were suitable reading material for me. The boxed-set was subsequently purchased, wrapped, and placed under the Christmas tree as a present from Nanna and Pop Smith.

I admit is was a rather odd present for a teenage boy. But then I wasn't your average teenage boy. I remember one of my high school friends dismissing the Poldark television series as "eighteenth-century Days of Our Lives." Believe me, the books are far from that. In fact, collectively, they comprise one of the greatest works of historical fiction ever written.

As I've mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I'm currently re-reading all twelve Poldark novels. I'm currently up to number nine, The Miller's Dance. I must say it's been interesting reading them as an adult. I mean, for one thing, when I read them for the first time as a teenager the characters were all older than me. Not by much but, let's face it, when you're fifteen those in their mid-late twenties seem old! Yet now many of the characters, including the series' protagonist Ross Poldark, are younger than me – considerably younger. Well, up until the seventh novel, that is. The eighth novel jumps forward ten years, and so now I'm younger again, but only by a few years (Ross is in his early fifties and has two adult children).

I know I shouldn't find it so, but I must admit I do find it all a little bit disconcerting. I guess it's because I'm reminded of some rather obvious truths that perhaps I've been avoiding. Chief among them the fact that I'm old and getting older! This, in turn, brings up all manner of questions about the ways I've chosen to live my life over the past two decades and, perhaps more importantly, what it is I want to be doing with the rest of my life and where I want to be doing it.

Answering such questions, however, is not what this post is about. Rather, I simply want to share a part of the first Poldark novel, a part that I can vividly remember reading for the first time 30+ years ago and which has stayed with me ever since. It concerns Verity Poldark, Ross' cousin. In the television series she's played by Norma Streader (right). Verity's unmarried and pushing thirty, which in those days often meant certain spinsterhood. She had hoped to marry Captain James Blamey, a man with a violent past yet who has reformed and truly loves and cares for her. Their budding romance is derailed, however, by Verity's father, Charles, and brother, Francis. They view Captain Blamey as dangerous and an unsuitable match for Verity. Ross, to his credit, isn't so sure and has been quietly allowing the couple to meet on his property. Charles and Francis catch wind of these meetings and intervene. The resulting confrontation isn't pretty. Anyway, in the excerpt that I share a little bit further down in this post, Verity has returned with her father and brother to Trenwith, the Poldark ancestral home. She goes to her room and bleakly contemplates her future.

I think the reason this particular passage made such an impression on me as a teenager was that although I'd sensed for a while I was different, I was now beginning to have a clear sense that moving into young adulthood was bringing this differentness to the fore. Things, it seemed, were only going to get more troubling and difficult. For one thing, I was beginning to register the possibility that this sense of differentness might be related to my sexual orientation, a term which was completely foreign to me at the time. Still, I knew what drew my eye and what stirred a certain queasiness deep within me. It was a discomfort that came, in part, from the knowledge that the male forms and figures I found myself drawn to and, yes, turned-on by, were things to which neither of my two brothers nor any of my male school friends were drawn.

Above: A photo of me taken around the time I first began reading
Winston Graham's Poldark novels in the late 1970s.

Accordingly, I had to keep my attractions, thoughts and fantasies closely guarded secrets. As a result, I was, like Verity, though for very different reasons, beginning to feel like a stranger amidst my own family. I too was shrinking inside myself and recognizing a "core of isolation." I also began to fear, in some vague way, a future life marked by a "perpetual ache of loss and loneliness." It was an experience that I explore in greater detail here, here, here and here. I should note, however, that for Verity Poldark and for myself, life did not turn out to be the bleak and lonely ordeal we feared it would be! Perhaps more about Verity's story in a later post.

Here and now, though, is the master storyteller Winston Graham doing what he does best: evoking a powerful sense of time, place, character, and mood. Despite the rather bleak context I hope you'll appreciate and enjoy – if that's the right word – the following excerpt from Graham's very first "novel of Cornwall," Ross Poldark.

And Verity had gone to her room. . . .

She felt herself detached from this household of which she had been a part for twenty-five years. She was among strangers. More than that, they were hostile strangers. They had drawn away from her, and she from them, for lack of understanding. In an afternoon she had shrunk inside herself; there would grow up a core of unfriendlessness and isolation.

She pushed the bolt across the door and sat abruptly in the first chair. Her romance was over; even though she rebelled against the fact, she knew that it was so. She felt faint and sick, and desperately tired of being alive. If death could come quietly and peacefully she would accept it, would sink into it as one sank into a bed wanting only sleep and self-forgetfulness.

Her eyes moved round the room. Every article in it was familiar with the extreme unseeing intimacy of everyday association.

Through the long sash window and the narrow window in the alcove she had looked with the changing eyes of childhood and youth. She had looked out on the herb garden and the yew hedge and the three bent sycamores in all the seasons of the year and in all the moods of her own growth. She had seen frost draw its foliate patterns on the pane, raindrops run down them like tears on old cheeks, the first spring sun shine dustily through them on the turkey rug and the stained oak boards.

The old French clock on the carved chimneypiece, with its painted and gilt figures, like a courtesan from the days of Louis XIV, had been in the room all Verity's life. Its thin metallic bell had been announcing the hours for more than fifty years. When it was made Charles was a thin strip of a boy, not a breathless empurpled old man breaking up his daughter's romance. They had been together, child and clock, girl and clock, woman and clock, through illness and nightmare and fairy stories and daydreams, through all the monotony and the splendour of life.

Her eyes went on, to the glass-top display table with the carved legs, to the two pink satin bedroom chairs, the cane rocking-chair, the stumpy brass candlesticks with the candles rising in steps, the pincushion, the embroidered workbasket, the two-handled washing urn. Even the decorations of the room, the long damask curtains, the flock wallpaper with its faded crimson flowers on an ivory ground, the white plaster roses of the cornice and ceiling, had become peculiarly and completely her own.

She knew that here in the privacy of her own room, where no man except her brother and her father ever came, she could give way, could lie on the bed and weep, could abandon herself to sorrow. But she sat on the chair and didn't move at all.

There were no tears in her eyes. The wound went too deep, or she was not so constituted to give way to it. Hers would be the perpetual ache of loss and loneliness, slowly dulled with time until it became a part of her character, a faint sourness tinged with withered pride.

Andrew would be back in Falmouth by now, back in the lodgings she had heard of but never seen. Through his quiet talk she had seen the bleakness of his life ashore, the two rooms in the lodging house by the quay, the drab woman who looked after him.

She had thought to change all that. They had planned to rent a cottage overlooking the bay, a place with a few trees and a small garden running down to the shingle beach. Though he had scarcely ever spoken of his first marriage, she had understood enough to be certain that much of the fault of the failure lay with her – however inexcusable on his side the end might have been. She had felt that she could make up for that failure. With her busy hands and managing ability and with their mutual love she would have made for him a home such as he had not had before.

Instead this room which had seen her grow to maturity would see her dry up and fade. The gilt mirror in the corner would bear its dispassionate testimony. All these ornaments and furnishings would be her companions through the years to come. And she realized that she would come to hate them, if she didn't already hate them, as one hates the witness of one's humiliation and futility.

She made a halfhearted attempt to shake herself out of this mood. Her father and her brother had acted in good faith, true to their upbringing and principles. If the result she remained at their beck and call until she was old, it was not fair to blame them for the whole. They thought they had "saved her from herself." Her life in Trenwith would be more peaceful, more sheltered than as the wife of a social outcast. She was among relatives and friends. The long summer days were full of interest about the farm: the sowing, the haymaking, the harvesting; butter and cheeses to superintend, syrups and conserves to make. The winter ones were full too. Needlework in the evenings, making curtains and samplers and stockings, spinning wool and flax with Aunt Agatha, brewing simples; playing at quadrille when there were guests, or helping Mr. Odgers to train the choir at Sawle Church, dosing the servants with possets when they were ill.

This winter too there would be a newcomer in the house. If she had gone, Elizabeth would have been doubly lost; Francis would have found the well-run routine of the house suddenly out of joint, Charles would have no one to arrange his cushions or see that his silver tankard was polished before each meal. For these and a hundred other small needs the household depended on her, and if they did not repay her with overt thanks they showed her a tacit affection and friendship she couldn't disregard.

And if she had not found these duties irksome in the past, was it not just the first flush of disappointment which said they must be so in the future?

So she might argue, but Andrew said no. Andrew sitting now with his head in his hands in the dismal lodgings in Falmouth, Andrew next week in the Bay of Biscay, Andrew tramping the streets of Lisbon by night, or next month back in his lodgings, Andrew eating and drinking and sleeping and waking and being, said no. He had taken a place in her heart, or taken a part of her heart, and nothing would be the same again.

Last year she had drifted on a tide of custom and habit. She might have so drifted, without protest, into a contented and unambitious middle age. But this year, from now on, she must swim against the stream, not finding stimulus in the struggle but only bitterness and regret and frustration.

She sat there in the room by herself until darkness came and the shadows of the room closed about her like comforting arms.

– Excerpted from Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787 (1945)
by Winston Graham
pp. 207-211

For previous Poldark-related posts, see:
Passion, Time and Tide
A "Useful Marriage" for Morwenna
A Sea Dragon of an Emotion . . . "Causing Half the Trouble of the World, and Half the Joy"

See also the previous posts:
One of These Boys . . .
A Lesson from Play School
Thanks, Mum!


Anonymous said...

I am past thirty and single, so this passage made me cry a little bit. I've never heard of the Poldark novels before but now I might check them out.

Laura said...

I'm going to order the first Poldark novel. Thanks for sharing your own story, Michael. Very moving.

Mary Kay said...

Thank you for sharing, Michael. Very touching.

Paula said...

I just read about Verity Poldark. Does she run away? Or does she hang around to make simples and jelly and polish her old man's tankard?