The Poldark Effect
Thoughts inspired by the TV series …
In the mid 70s we used to smile indulgently about my mum’s addiction to Poldark on TV. It ran to 29 episodes between 1975 and 1977. It’s what old people watched. Like The Forsythe Saga it was advertised as a “saga” though not a Viking was in sight. We bought her some of the Winston Graham Poldark novels as presents; there are twelve of them in several batches. The first four classics were written between 1945 and 1953. The TV series inspired another run from 1973-1984 (starting before the TV series, but it was in planning), then two more trickled out to the world in 1990 and 2002. They’re chronological and run from 1783 to 1820.
Poldark: 1975 series, or rather “saga”
It’s 2015, and we’re older now than my mum was then. We don’t watch much broadcast TV, but find the Sunday night “new” Poldark (2015 Series) slot undemanding and pleasant comfort viewing. The hard disk recorder is set to series record, and we’re not committed to the extent of always watching it live, but we’ll catch it up during the week if we miss it. Aidan Turner (as Ross Poldark) finds himself all over the tabloids, and just as with the TV Pride & Prejudice (with Colin Firth as Mr Darcy) an episode with “shirt off” was trumpeted in the newspapers days before broadcast. Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza is also filling the column inches. Incidentally, it’s a given of the genre to invent female names.
Get your shirt off!
It has set me wondering about the huge appeal of England in the 1750 to 1850 period for historical fiction. It’s a genre I’m wary of for reasons which will become clear. While TV has milked Jane Austen as much as possible, the genre really owes more to the Brontes. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are the templates. Jane Eyre has the essential class distinction, with poor girl / rich bloke. Wuthering Heights reverses it. If I was awarding an international Booker Prize encompassing the entire 19th Century, Wuthering Heights would get it, with Jane Eyre in third place. (Huckleberry Finn gets second). Even so, I had never truly appreciated Wuthering Heights until I did a graded reader version of it for foreign learners last year (linked). Emily Bronte was not only a superb storyteller but a dialogue writer of the highest order.
Graded ELT version of Wuthering Heights
The genre has spawned thousands of novels. Maybe tens of thousands of novels, with Poldark being one of the most successful. While we’re on graded readers, that is simplified versions with controlled grammar and vocabulary, I’ll mention part of the appeal. In the late 1970s, we instituted a major extensive reading programme for learners of English at the Anglo-Continental Group. We had a library of hundreds of graded readers, and students were encouraged to borrow them and read widely for pleasure at speed. We were also interested in discovering who borrowed which books. The most popular titles of all were Oxford Alpha Books (a long out of print OUP series). Alpha had done classics, science fiction and … adaptations of Mills & Boone Romances. The Mills & Boone adaptations were the most borrowed of all, so we went further and checked the library cards. Considerably more than half the borrowers were male. They were particularly popular with Arab lads. The realization hit us that they were being read as “light porn.” Very light indeed, but holding hands and kissing was culturally remote and exciting enough.
The teachers researching the borrowing were female and mildly shocked when they reported the analysis to me. I still recall my embarrassment, because It brought back a memory. 1959. Ensbury Park Lending Library in Bournemouth, a converted corner shop. I borrowed three books a week, and still recall the embarrassment when the librarian commented that I was borrowing Jenny by Ada Lewis for the third time. I had only remembered the title this morning, but Google and AbeBooks quickly found the author name and the jacket illustration I remembered. (I ordered the copy). From vague recall, it was indeed a bodice ripper, set in precisely the right era, and there were particularly lively scenes in a hayloft which I found strangely moving.
(ADDITION): The copy has just arrived. Jenny, like Demelza, is “a beguiling redhead- modest, frank, warm-hearted.’ Which is as it should be. The first line is promising:
Today, as I came out of Mr. Currie’s glove shop, I saw a harlot being whipped through the street at the tail of a wagon.
In retrospect, OUP were crazy to put those Mills & Boone adaptations out of print, which they did, and pretty fast too.
How important is the costume in the appeal? From Colin Firth to Aidan Turner, putting blokes in skin tight trousers, long boots, ruffled shirts with somewhat rakish hair seems to appeal strongly to women, who comprise the majority of the writers of this stuff, and I assume, the readers too. The women need plunging bosoms set off by a touch of lace. In drama lessons (at least in the late 60s), the girls had to do considerable skirt work, wearing floor length black nylon practice skirts a lot of the time. Even the boys had to do an hour or two and learn to do curtseys in practice skirts, so maybe the teachers foresaw the revival of “authentic practices” all-male Shakespeare productions. The girls also had to do skirt work with layers of petticoats, bustles and hoops. As the teacher used to say, no director will have patience for you stumbling about, tripping on your own skirt and saying “I’m not used to this.” 19th century costumes are close to Disney Princess dresses, and “Princess for a day” traditional wedding dresses too. The costumes set me wondering if rich women really trailed their skirt bottoms in the mud and cowpats, or like the peasantry, wore them above the ankle, or at least held them up much more often than they do on TV. I know an antique shop in North Dorset which earned its living sourcing scraps of genuine 18th and 19th century cloth, which they then sold to film and TV companies who could have them copied and made into dresses.
Coming up to the present day, historical fiction is a genre I’ve avoided. I don’t think George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, of which I have a complete set, counts as historical fiction. Hilary Mantel is such a fine writer that I’d exclude her too.
In recent years I’ve encountered a lot of historical fiction in authors meetings. I went to an excellent seminar on self-publishing, and the speaker had done a series (they’re always a series) set in Pembrokeshire in the early 19th century, which he had sold very well by promoting it himself. Actually, the Pembrokeshire coastline looks like Cornwall, and I’d guess they’re very much a Welsh Poldark. In Poldark, characters spend an awful lot of time on picturesque clifftops staring at the sea. You can do that in Pembrokeshire.
I have had recent nasty experiences with historical fiction, which has led me to be circumspect about authors groups. OK, I’ve published lots of books, including fiction (as graded readers), so people press manuscripts and finished self-published novels on me. They are invariably set in the early 19th century. They all involve heaving bosoms. They all include the phrase ‘heaving bosoms’ and the cruel but handsome squires will have their way. Often in far too explicit detail. They have noted that from Emily Bronte to Winston Graham, the peasantry speak in dialect, and they ladle it on with ever more unusual ways of spelling, peppered with archaisms. You’m be a rait comely lassie, wit’ a spurklin’ oye, woy dun’ ye perambulate o’er yonder field, and ha’ a lookie behind yon braw haystack wit I? indeed, and most of the peasants can do bits of dialect from all over the British Isles in one sentence.
I still wonder why that era holds such a strong appeal. The 16th century comes next, boosted by Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies recently, but novels in that era ends in extreme violence as a default setting. The late 18th and early 19th century is civilised, and pre-dates stiff “Victorian values.” The genuine Georgian buildings are still standing. You can find enough streets which can be made to look right with a bit of dirt over the yellow “no parking” lines.
I suspect Poldark will run beyond the current series, which is based on Winston Graham’s first two novels. No bosom will remain unheaved. I can see the Poldark tea towels in Cornish gift shops in my mind’s eye already. Come to Cornwall for the Poldark Experience.