Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cornwall's – and Winston Graham's – Angry Tide


The gale was becoming a little less violent
with the onset of dusk. That was not saying much;
[His horse] staggered under the constant buffeting,
and even here, two hundred feet above the sea,
puffs of foam drifted like ghosts,
dodging and dipping in the wind.

– Excerpted from The Angry Tide:
A Novel of Cornwall, 1798-1799
by Winston Graham
pp. 418

Last weekend saw a massive windstorm sweep across Northwestern Europe.

The storm was given different names in different regions. In southern England it was referred to as the St. Jude Storm; in Sweden, Cyclone Simone. In other parts of continental Europe it was called Cyclone Christian. Regardless of its name it was a severe meteorological occurrence, one that caused the death of at least seventeen people and, in Denmark, the strongest wind gust ever to be recorded in the country's history.

One of the areas of southwest England hardest hit was Cornwall, which is both a county and a peninsula bordered to the north and west by the Celtic Sea, to the south by the English Channel, and to the east by the county of Devon, over the River Tamar. Anyone remotely familiar with this blog would know that I'm a great admirer of Winston Graham's Poldark novels, which are set in Cornwall at the turn of the nineteenth century.

The twelve novels that comprise the Poldark saga exemplify historical/romantic fiction at its best. Drawing on the insights of Helen Hughes’ book The Historical Romance, critic Ellen Moody notes the following about the first Poldark novel and, in turn, I would argue, much of the entire series:

What historical romance . . . [does] is highlight and dramatize versions of fear and hope we experience today – in Ross Poldark [there is] war, class and gender inferiority, money. The time of revolution, the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, has been a favorite period for dramatizing dislocation and political themes – for criticizing the way the political arrangements of present society through a mirroring technique.

We are invited to spend our time with the aristocratic world and with a hero who is charismatic and exemplifies qualities we are to admire . . . [T]here are also romantic heroines, in this case I’ll add Elizabeth Chynoweth. Graham shows Elizabeth making bad decisions which leave her in the power of the bullying, crude, amoral, and resentful George Warleggan.

And everyone does suffer a lot in these dramas. . . .

Indeed, there is much passion in the Poldark novels – along with, of course, lots of adventure and history. And, yes, people do suffer as a result of certain actions undertaken when in the grip of intense emotional and sexual feelings.

Graham's seventh Poldark novel, The Angry Tide, sees a number of key characters tormented to varying degrees with emotions of jealousy, suspicion, desperation, and rage – all of which are grounded in a single previous act of passion, an act that puts into question the parentage of Valentine Warleggan, the four-year-old son of George and Elizabeth. They are emotions that have largely been repressed for years, but they come surging to the surface in unison with a great gale, one which actually took place in December 1799, just off the coast of Cornwall where Graham sets the lives of his characters.

The gale of December the ninth, 1799, was little worse than a half dozen others that might occur most years; but it was distinguished by the great seas it brought in. The worst of the storms had been far out in the Atlantic, and the coast suffered the effects. Nine ships of varying sizes were wrecked, mainly along the south coast, and particularly in the area of the Manacles, but a few came to grief along the north coast.

. . . [Continuing his journey home from London, Ross] had caught the new express coach that left Torpoint at seven-thirty and was due in Truro soon after midday. The gale delayed the coach, and two o'clock had gone when, after a brief and early dinner at the Royal, he mounted his hired horse for the last stage.

. . . His arrival [at Nampara on the north coast] was unannounced and unexpected. The first person who saw him was a thin, long-legged eight-year-old boy staggering across the garden carrying a ball of twine. His scream was lost in the scream of the wind, but soon he was in his father's arms and soon there was all confusion. . . . In the midst of it Ross asked where his wife was and was told that Mama had gone off with Uncle Drake early this morning and had said she would not be back to dinner.

"Daddy!" Jeremy shouted, above the chatter of his sister and the welcome of the servants. "Daddy, come and look at the sea!"

So they all went to look, at least as far as the stile leading down to the beach; further it was unsafe to go. Where the beach would have been at any time except the highest of tides, was a battlefield of giant waves. The sea was washing away the lower sandhills and the roots of marram grass. As they stood there a wave came rushing up over the rough stony ground and licked at the foot of the stile, leaving a trail of froth to overflow and smear their boots. Surf in the ordinary sense progresses from deep water to shallow, losing height as it comes. Today waves were hitting the rocks below Wheal Leisure with such weight that they generated a new surf running at right angles to the flow of the sea, with geysers of water spouting high from the collisions. A new and irrational surf broke against the gentler rocks below the Long Field. Mountains of spume collected wherever the sea drew breath, and then blew like bursting shells across the land. The sea was so high there was no horizon and the clouds so low that they sagged into the sea.

– Excerpted from The Angry Tide: A Novel of Cornwall, 1798-1799 (1977)
by Winston Graham
pp. 414-416

Above: "A Group of Figures in a Storm" (1799-1800)
by Joseph Mallord William Turner (medium graphite on paper, Tate Gallery).

The second excerpt I share from The Angry Tide gives a sense of the surge of human emotion that painfully and destructively sweeps through Winston Graham's seventh Poldark novel. As noted above, this emotional turmoil stems from the bitter enmity and suspicion about the parentage of George and Elizabeth Warleggan's son, Valentine.

In this excerpt, for example, there's a reference to a comment made by Geoffrey Charles, the adolescent son of Elizabeth and her first husband Francis Poldark, killed tragically in a mining accident when Geoffrey Charles was just a boy. Home one summer from school, Geoffrey Charles had flippantly remarked that his young half-brother was "the spot and living image of [Uncle] Ross,” i.e. Ross Poldark, the main character in the saga . . . and Elizabeth's first love before even Francis.

Also mentioned in the excerpt below is Agatha Poldark, Francis' and Ross' great aunt. A spinster well into her nineties, Agatha continued to live at Trenwith House, the Poldark ancestral home, after Elizabeth's marriage to George Warleggan in 1793.

Trenwith, now owned by George, has become the Warleggan's country retreat. It was here that Aunt Agatha died in 1795, four years prior to the events of The Angry Tide. It is also at Trenwith that the following exchange between George and Elizabeth takes place on the stormy evening of December 9, 1799.

George found Elizabeth in her bedroom, whence she had gone after quieting Valentine and talking to him and admiring his painting. George moved around the bedroom for a few moments, picking up one or two things and looking at them and setting them down.

He said casually: "It is good to be in this house again. Having been absent so long one forgets its virtues."

Elizabeth did not reply, but examined a tiny blemish on her face.

George said: "A disagreeable ride and a disagreeable welcome. I fear I lost my temper downstairs."

"There was nothing disagreeable until you made it so."

He turned his head slowly, viewing her with quiet hostility.

"You feel perfectly content that your cousin should be marrying that insolent down-at-heel Methodist?"

"Not happy, no," said Elizabeth. "But before this we attempted to guide her, and perhaps we guided her wrong. Now there is nothing to be done. She is a woman—no longer a girl—and a widow, without ties, except those that her mother-in-law has accepted. We cannot control her, and it is stupid not to admit the fact."

"Stupid," he said. "I see. And is it not stupid of you to have invited her here?"

"I hardly expected you to arrive today."

"And that excuses it?"

"I don't consider any excuse necessary," she said quietly.

"Ah, so that is it."

"Yes . . . that is it."

George recognized the steely sound in Elizabeth's voice which meant that she was willing for once to do battle. He realized that at this moment her anger was greater than his own. His had reached its peak downstairs when he had turned Morwenna out of the house, and was evaporating into a sardonic ill-humor.

. . . He said with a dry laugh: "I have ridden here especially to see you, and we quarrel over two trivial people who concern us very little at all."

"There is one who does concern us both."

"Who is that?"


. . . Elizabeth was sitting at her dressing table in a long flowing robe which hid the child she was bearing, and her slim shoulders and straight back seemed almost girlish as when he had first seen them twenty years ago. The usual mixed emotions struggled within him when he looked at her. She was the only human being who could disturb him in this way.

"I have been—busy—scarce time to eat. I came here to rest. Valentine's prattle—annoys me."

"It is only the prattle of a normal boy. He was vastly upset tonight at being so dismissed."

George did not speak.

"Have you been in to see him since?" Elizabeth asked.


"Then you should."

George's neck stiffened all over again. Another reprimand. Ever since he came in this room everything she said had been a reprimand. As if she were the master. As if hers were the money, the mines, the bank, the properties, the membership of the House, the business connections. It was insufferable! He could have struck her. He could have squeezed her neck between his fingers and silenced her in half a minute.

She turned and half smiled at him. "You should, George."

His feelings broke then, like a wave against the immutable rocks. And the immutability lay in his concern for this woman and what she thought of him.

"Elizabeth," he said harshly. "You know at times I am in torment."

"Because of the thoughtless words of another child?" She was bringing the issue into the open.

"Possibly. Partly. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings . . ."

"So you think Geoffrey Charles in idleness points the truth, while all I have sworn to you before is false?"

He lowered his head like a goaded bull. "One does not always see these things in such precise terms. Let us say at times I have been in torment; and then—then I speak my mind without concern for the courtesies of polite conversation. Then, no doubt, you reflect on the hazards of having married a blacksmith's son."

"I did not say that."

"You said as good as that."

"No, I did not. And if you are in torment, George, how do you think I feel when you come into this house and ride roughshod over everyone and are violent to my cousin and cruel to our son? Our son, George! Our son! No, I do not think I have married a blacksmith's son, I think I have married a man who still carries a terrible weight upon his shoulders, a terrible evil weight of jealousy and suspicion that nothing and nobody can remove! Not anything I say! Not anything I have sworn! Not anything I may do! You will carry this black load for evermore and ruin the rest of our married life with it! . . . If there is to be more to our married life? . . ."

George looked into the darkness of his own soul and knew that she spoke the truth. He collected his temper, struggled with it, strove to put it aside. "Yes, well; we have had all this out before."

"So I had thought."

"It is not a pretty subject. Old Agatha laid a curse upon our marriage, I believe, and—"

"Agatha?" She turned swiftly. "Aunt Agatha? What has she to do with this?"

He brooded a moment."I had not intended ever to tell you . . ."

"I think it is time you told me, whatever there is to tell."

He still hesitated, plucking at his lip. "No matter now."

"Tell me!"

"Well, the night she died she—when I went up to tell her she was only ninety-eight and not a centenarian as she pretended—she turned on me—I believe it was out of spite, out of revenge . . ."

"What did she say?"

"She said that Valentine was not my child."

Elizabeth stared at him, her face bitter.

"So that was where it all came from . . ."

"Yes. Most of it. All of it, I suppose."

"And you believed her? You believed a half-demented old woman?

"She said you had not been married long enough to me to bear the child to its full term."

"Valentine was premature. I fell on the stairs!"

"So you said . . ."

"So I said! You still think, then, in spite of everything I've told you, that I have been living a deliberate lie ever since Valentine was born? That I never fell down the stairs, that I made it all up, to pass off Valentine as your child when he was not! Did Aunt Agatha tell you all that too?"

"No. But that was clearly what she meant. And why should she say anything of the sort?—"

"Because she hated you, George, that is why. She hated you just as much as you hated her! And how could she hate anyone more than you, when you had just ruined her precious birthday celebrations! She would say anything, anything that came into her head to damage you before she died."

"I thought you were fond of her."

"Of course I was!"

"Then why should she say something that might spoil your life just as much as mine?"

"Because hurting you was more important to her than anything else at that moment. It must have been. It was a vile trick of yours to ruin everything for her—"

"No trick! It was the truth!"

"Which no one need have known but for you! If you had come to see me first I would have besought you to say nothing about it. The celebration would have gone off, and everyone would have been happy, and in a few months Aunt Agatha would have passed peaceably away, content with her great triumph. But no! You had to go up and see her and tell her—you had to exact your cheap and petty revenge on her! So she tried to fight back, to hit you back with any weapon she had. And she could see you were happy in your child; this was your great pride, that you had a son, a son to follow you and succeed to all your processions. So she had to try and destroy that. I don't suppose it ever entered her head to consider me—or Valentine. Her one aim was to revenge herself on you! . . . And she did, didn't she? She succeeded!" Elizabeth laughed harshly. "She succeeded more than she could ever have imagined! Ever since then the venom has been working in your veins, and it will go on working till the day you die! What a revenge, George, what a revenge she scored on you, all because of your mean triumph! Every day you've lived since then has been destroyed for you by Aunt Agatha!"

The sweat was standing out on his face. "God damn you, how dare you say anything like that to me! Mean and petty, you call me. Cheap and petty. I'll not suffer such insults!" He turned as if to walk out of the room. "I sought to set things to rights about her age, that was all. Trust a Poldark to be cheating—"

"She didn't know it!"

"I suspect she did." At the door he turned again, came back to the dressing table. "And what you have said to me tonight, Elizabeth—apart from such unforgivable insults—is totally untrue! It is not true that Agatha has poisoned my life ever since she died. Elizabeth, stop laughing!"

Elizabeth had her knuckles to her mouth, trying to control her laughter, the hysteria. She hiccuped, and coughed and laughed again, then retched.

"Are you ill?"

"I think," she said, "I'm going to faint." . . .

– Excerpted from The Angry Tide: A Novel of Cornwall, 1798-1799 (1977)
by Winston Graham
pp. 428-434

UPDATE: Poldark Returns!

Poldark, a new BBC adaptation of Winston Graham's acclaimed novels, premiered March 8, 2015 on BBC One. It has since been broadcast in many other countries. This new adaptation is written by Debbie Horsfield and features (above, from left) Jack Farthing as George Warleggan, Heida Reed as Elizabeth Poldark Warleggan (née Chynoweth), Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark, Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza Poldark (née Carne), Luke Norris as Dr Dwight Enys, Gabriella Wilde as Caroline Penvenen, and (at right) Caroline Blakiston as Agatha Poldark.

For more about the new Poldark, see The Wild Reed posts:
Return of the (Cornish) Native
Poldark: Unfurling in Perfect Form
Thoughts on the PBS Premiere of Poldark
The Renegade Returns
He's Back!

Related Off-site Links:
Graham’s The Angry Tide (Part 1): A Murder Brings a Reprieve – Ellen Moody (Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, December 5, 2010).
Graham’s The Angry Tide (Part 2): Failure in London; Elizabeth’s Death – Ellen Moody (Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, December 6, 2010).
Winston Graham’s Memoirs of a Private Man: “An Instinctive Feminist” – Ellen Moody (Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, November 7, 2010).
Literary Cornwall: Winston Graham and the Poldark NovelsOliver's Cornwall (2013).
Cornwall Hit by Storms, Downpours and Hail as Summer 2013 Comes to a Sudden End – C.M. Josh Barrie (The Cornishman, September 7, 2013).
Precautions as Storm Set to Hit CornwallCornish Guardian (October 27, 2013).
Britain Awaits Worst Storm in Five Years – Sam Jones (The Guardian, October 27, 2013).
Hurricane-Force Winds Batter Britain – Gregory Katz(The Huffington Post, October 28, 2013).

See also the previous Poldark-related Wild Reed posts:
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"
"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
Into the Greenwood
"I Want You to Become a Part of Me – Each to Become a Part of the Other"
Time and Remembrance in the Poldark Novels

Image 1: Towering waves crash on to the cliff at Sennen, Cornwall. (Photographer unknown)
Image 2: Waves crash on the harbour at Porthleven, Cornwall, Sunday, October 27, 2013. (Photographer unknown)
Image 3: Storm waves sweep Plymouth, Devon, Sunday, October 27, 2013. (Photo: Plymouth Herald)
Image 4: Waves crash onto the cliffs surrounding Porthleven, Cornwall, Sunday, October 27, 2013. (Photo: Ben Birchall/AP)
Images from the 1975-77 BBC Poldark television series: Eileen May as Aunt Agatha, Ralph Bates as George, and Jill Townsend as Elizabeth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am beginning to suspect that the 1970s version of "POLDARK" has never done the Elizabeth Poldark Warleggan character much justice. I do not blame Jill Townsend. I thought she did an excellent job with the material she was given. I blame the writers. I only hope that Debbie Horsefield will not make the same mistake.