I’ll admit it: I’ve been bitten by the Poldark bug. Hailed as the next Downton Abbey by critics and audiences across the pond, the BBC series has established its own cult following this side of the Atlantic. The show is so popular in fact that the principle cast members have been signed for five seasons (no more Matthew Crawley kill-offs) with the third series rushing to film for a spring premiere in England. Much of the show’s success is attributed to the good looks of lead actor Aidan Turner, but don’t let the bodice-ripping crowd fool you. The Poldark series is unlike most romantic stories you’ll encounter nowadays, mostly due to the fact that it was authored by a man, Winston Graham.
Unfortunately, we have been acculturated to hear romance in a woman’s tone of voice. While no huge subscriber to the genre, I have read plenty of period romances in my time. I’m not talking about the pulp whose pages are so easily manipulated that you can tell where the sex scenes are located based on the cracks in the spine of used copies, but classic romances. Austen will always hold a special place in my heart along with L.M. Montgomery (if you’ve never, you must read The Blue Castle now—quickly! I’ll wait) and even the Bronte sisters. Dickens, whom I adore, was never handled properly by high school English teachers. Through Graham’s Ross Poldark I began to see the infamous British writer in a new light: His, too, were romance novels, but we miss that because they are written from a man’s point of view.
All of the earmarks of a classic woman-written romance were absent from Poldark’s text: We do not know any female character intimately. Demelza Carne is no Elizabeth Bennet to befriend and adore. Although she is a “kitchen wench” she is far from the pitiable Jane Eyre in whom every woman finds a companion for her most melancholy moments. Demelza, Poldark’s eventual love interest, is as much a mystery to the reader as she is to Poldark.
Graham also fails to include endless contemplative soliloquies about relationships and the mysteries of the opposite sex. Ross Poldark roams mentally all at once before succumbing to an undefined set of passionate emotions. Having given in to such “passions” he returns to his logical state the next day and determines a practical outcome. There’s no petal-picking, “loves me, loves me not” here. Graham’s character is, to borrow a contemporary analogy, the perfect mashup of Kirk and Spock. Poldark is passionate, emotional beyond even his own comprehension, but also painfully logical to the point of being a cynic about society, class and even his own internal hypocrisies.
It is a rich novel with a round and full character who reminds us that even the quietest of men possess passionate, deeply held convictions. Through Poldark we also learn that men, contrary to popular depiction, are the first to recognize and criticize their own faults and failings. Simply put, Poldark is a refreshing break from the typical story line that has come to rule pop culture: Smart girl can’t wrap her head around dumb boy so she gives him her heart, but he doesn’t know what to do with it. On the subject of love, Poldark gives us a much-needed peek into a man’s psyche and we begin to see that he is all at once carnal and emotional, restrained by convention and governed by conviction. In other words, he is as human as the woman herself.
Women need to set aside the meandering longings and repetitive fantasies of other women. We know what we think and how we feel. It’s what men think and what men feel that has always captured our real, true and undying interest. Pardon my seemingly masculine-like logic here, but who better to inform us of these things than a man?