SAD LOVE STORY
IN REVOLUTIONARY TIMES
AIDAN TURNER — POLDARK — COMPLETE COLLECTION — 2015–2019
A Review by Jacques COULARDEAU
The main interest of this series is the treatment of history and in this case rather old history, the war of Independence of the United States of America, from the English point of view, and then the French Revolution, with the Terror and Napoleon. This complete collection is quite explicit on these events, but it looks at them from one particular and rather biased post of observation.
First, we are in Cornwall, far away from London, and this Cornish reality is always present in its original characteristics, accent on top. This society is aristocratic but at the same time, there seem to be three types of social elite, maybe even four. At the top, the rich aristocratic families who have enormous and ancient halls, chateaus, mansions or castles, with servants and regular incomes from their land or other economic activities carried out on their estates. They do not work per se, I mean they do not have any sort of employment or salaried activities. They only manage the work of others, and some are members of the House of Lords, hereditary members.
The second layer is more local, more traditional. They do not really have titles and aristocratic links. They are just and mostly gentlemen from old families with old respected and revered old names. They do have activities and they own land, at times some nice mansions on that land. They also have mines and they exploit them. That’s the basic pair of cousins at the beginning. Ross Poldark is the poor branch of the family and he has to work very hard to get an income and become someone recognized and respected in society. In fact, he is so marginal in this second tier of aristocracy that he is unable to really integrate social norms and manners. He goes as far as marrying his own kitchen maid, which is a sign of social senility for the establishment. The second cousin in this pair is Francis Poldark, the rich branch of the family. The young man married Ross’s beloved Elizabeth while he was gone to fight in the American Revolution, meaning against it, but apart from good manners and a lot of vanity, he is unable to earn a decent living, he is gambling his own fortune away, he is unfaithful to the utmost. Elizabeth Chynoweth is the prize that will always stand between the two and when Francis dies by drowning because he had never learned how to swim, Ross is married to Demelza and Elizabeth is looking for a businesslike marriage and she finds it in the representative of the financial aristocracy, George Warleggan, a nearly self-made banker whose father was a miner or a smith of some sort.
And that’s the third elite that targets to become aristocrats and accumulate power in their own hands, clean power or dirty power, economic, political, or simply shadowy power, and George Warleggan has only one objective in life: making money by buying everyone else out of business, only following his immediate short-term interest, hence rejecting everyone who cannot serve his interests, particularly the poor ragged miners or farmhands or servants. He never has one single thought about them and can fire them in a minute without any pangs of conscience, since he has no conscience anyway, causing the misery of hundreds of families.
The fourth elite is represented by the “professions” that are so important in England. Military and Navy officers, clergy, physician or doctors, lawyers were the main professions to which we could add University professors, dons and deans. In this case, they are all represented, plus one traditional and more ancient banker who is trying to practice honest banking as opposed to the speculative banking George Warleggan practices.
The rest of society is in rags, unheard of, unlistened to, rejected, looked down upon. This English society at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries was extremely selfish and feudal, still. It is the fight and struggle of the lower title-less aristocracy and the decent members of the professions who fight for an improvement of this society that little by little actually manage to get improvement, especially when the French Revolution is giving nightmares to the top aristocracy and to the King, the monarchy as a whole.
The main question that is shown and discussed or illustrated in this series is the role and position of women in this male-dominated society. All types of abusive men, husbands or not, are shown and described. All types of women trying to get some dignity, some freedom, some say in a society that does not recognize them as even human, are at times pathetic and poignant. Demelza Poldark is one. And she is really doing that, day after day. Caroline Penvenen-Enys is another one from the top aristocracy who marries a local doctor out of love and tries to impose a certain power of hers in difficult political and social situations. But you could name quite a few more, including among the servants, though not that many after all. The most interesting case is Kitty Despard, an ex-slave married to an English colonial politician who mixes his fight against slavery and his personal glory or vanity which brings him to the hanging gallows.
The last point of interest is how this English society is shifting from an old feudal hierarchical architecture to a more open construction and progressive change, though the impatience and brusque and brisk language of some only bring blockades against this change and the strengthening of the corrupt speculators who manipulate the monarchy and the aristocracy through money and luxury.
I regret though that the third season is too skimpy on the French project of invading England from the South West. It sounds really amateurish on the French side, and totally reckless on the side of the rich speculators involved in the slave trade and other practices that were at the time already vastly rejected by the English society, particularly the scholarly and aristocratic elites. The French general Jules Toussaint is absolutely unprofessional though he is supposed to have had some professional experience in the American War of Independence. I guess Napoleon sent him on this mission to get rid of him. I must also say that to bring 2,000 soldiers to Cornwall would not have been invisible though 2,000 soldiers would have been rather light to march onto London and take it. It is true Ross’s operation in Quimper to liberate Doctor Dwight Enys from a revolutionary prison was also very sketchy and the French soldiers there were not very swift. This downplaying the French is slightly unrealistic. The blockade of the French Republic actually played in the hands, right and left, of Napoleon since it justified the emergence of a real military leader capable of reopening the European territory to the French.
So, this complete collection ends up with a few opening moments and promises for further episodes, but so far none is announced, at least to my knowledge. It is true it might become slightly repetitive with Napoleon, the very slow dismissing of feudalism in England, the fight of women who are still one century before the suffragettes, and the rejection of what is shown rather clearly in this society: you could be elected to the House of Commons with twenty-seven votes, and a rich banker could buy a borough and the MP position attached to this borough. England was very far from anything really close to democracy at the time. The French were in the process of conquering universal ballot — true enough only for men — but that was a lot more than what they had in England at the time.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU