Thursday, October 24, 2013

Time and Remembrance in the Poldark Novels

I've always appreciated and enjoyed the way author Winston Graham highlights and celebrates family bonds and history throughout his Poldark series of novels. Written between 1945 and 2002, the twelve novels that comprise this series are set in Cornwall, England, from 1783 to 1820, and are centered on the lives and loves of two generations of the Poldark family.

Now, here's something I experienced when between April and September of this year I re-read all twelve Poldark novels back-to-back: Because such a long time period is covered, I found that when a character in one of the later books recalled a past event I often experienced a strong sense of kinship with both the character and the event being remembered. After all, I was remembering with them an event – often a pivotal, emotionally-charged event – which, in a sense, I had lived through too when it first took place, perhaps eleven novels previously. And in the world of the Poldark novels, that could mean a quarter-of-a-century ago! Time and remembrance, indeed! A good example of what I mean can be found in the previous Poldark-related Wild Reed post, A Sea Dragon of An Emotion.

The excerpt I share today doesn't quite have the same punch, simply because it's taken from the first Poldark novel. Its focus is on Ross Poldark's thoughts while attending the funeral of his uncle Charles. Although readers of this novel would not have the same degree of shared history with Charles as they would later have with, say, Ross or his wife Demelza in the later novels, they nevertheless would have become familiar enough with Charles's character so as to relate to Ross's musings. And even if you haven't read this particular novel, I'm thinking you've probably had certain experiences that will enable you to relate to the situation in which Ross finds himself; a situation that Winston Graham masterfully, and humorously, conveys.

September of that year [1787] was clouded by the death of Charles. The old man had grunted miserably on all through the summer, and the doctor had given him up a half-dozen times. Then one day, perversely, he collapsed just after Choake had made his most favourable report of the year, and died before he could be re-summoned.

Ross went to the funeral, but neither Elizabeth nor Verity was there, both being ill. The funeral attracted a big attendance both of village and mining people and of the local gentry, for Charles had been looked on as the senior personage of the district and had been generally liked within the limits of his acquaintance.

Cousin William-Alfred took the service and, himself affected by the bereavement, preached a sermon which was widely agreed to be of outstanding quality. Its theme was 'A Man of God.' What did the phrase mean, he asked? It meant to nourish those attributes in which Christ himself had been so conspicuous: truth and honesty, purity of heart, humility, grace and love. How many of us had such qualities? Could we look into our own hearts and see there the qualities necessary to make us men and women of God? A time such as this, when we mourned the passing of a great and good man, was a time for self-inspection and a renewed dedication. It was true to say that in the loss of our dear friend Charles Poldark we marked the passing of a man of God. His way had been upright; he had never spoken an ill word. From him you grew to expect kindness and the courtesy of the true gentleman who knew no evil and looked for none in others. The steady unselfish leadership of a man whose existence was an example to us all.

After William-Alfred had been talking in this vein for five minutes Ross heard a sniff in the pew beside him and saw Mrs Henshawe dabbing unashamedly at her nose. Captain Henshawe too was blinking his blue eyes, and several others wee weeping quietly. Yes, it was a 'beautiful' sermon, tugging at the emotions and conjuring up pictures of greatness and peace. But were they talking about the decent peppery ordinary old man he knew, or had the subject strayed to the story of some saint of the past? Or were there two men being buried under the same name? One perhaps had shown himself to such as Ross, while the other had been reserved for the view of men of deep insight like William-Alfred. Ross tried to remember Charles before he was ill, Charles with his love of cockfighting and his hearty appetite, with his perpetual flatulence and passion for gin, with his occasional generosities and meannesses and faults and virtues, like most men. There was some mistake somewhere. Oh well, this was a special occasion . . . But Charles himself would surely have been amused. Or would he have shed a tear with the rest for the manner of man who had passed away?

– Excerpted from Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787 (1945)
by Winston Graham
pp. 361-362

For previous Poldark-related posts, see:
Passion, Time and Tide
A "Useful Marriage" for Morwenna
"Hers Would Be the Perpetual Ache of Loss and Loneliness"
Demelza Takes a Chance (Part 1)
Demelza Takes a Chance (Part 2)
Captain Blamey Comes A-Calling
Rendezvous in Truro
A Sea Dragon of an Emotion . . . "Causing Half the Trouble of the World, and Half the Joy"
Into the Greenwood
"I Want You to Become a Part of Me – Each to Become a Part of the Other"

Related Off-site Links:
Winston Graham's Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall – Kate Sherrod (Kate of Mind, April 15, 2013).
Teaching Graham’s Ross Poldark: The Pleasures and Uses of Popular Historical Fiction and Romance – Ellen Moody (Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, April 19, 2011).
The Official Winston Graham and Poldark Website

Opening Image: Four of the twelve Poldark novels atop my mantel piece! – Ross Poldark, Demelza, The Stranger from the Sea, and The Miller's Dance. (Photo: Michael J. Bayly)

1 comment:

Paula said...

Well, it is charming, Michael. A couple of little twists there in Ross's reflection take it out of the ordinary. Are you starting over again?