When the going gets rough, the tough turn to romance . . . at least, that’s what I do. Usually, it’s a romance novel, but since life’s been unusually tough lately, I've found myself scrolling through Netflix, jonesing for a hit of sweeping, swashbuckling, toss-me-over-your-shoulder-and-carry-me-away to-a-magical-world-of-happily-ever-after romance in film or television. Imagine my delight when I discovered, under New Direct-to-TV Releases, Season 1 of Poldark.
For those of you scratching your head and wondering Pol-what?, in 1975, the BBC’s Masterpiece Theater released a series based on the novels by Winston Graham. It tells the story of Ross Poldark, a veteran of the Wars in the Colonies (aka the American Revolution) who returns to his native Cornwall to find his father dead, his inheritance—the estate of Nampara and a copper mine, Wheal Leisure—in shambles, and the girl of his dreams, Elizabeth, betrothed to his cousin Francis. (If that’s not bad enough, a family of ambitious bankers, the Warleggans, is determined to acquire Ross’ property by whatever means possible.)
I don’t think it’s necessary to cry “spoiler” for something run in 1975, but just in case . . . Spoiler alert!
As Ross struggles to rebuild, he crosses paths with Demelza—a young woman who is as different from the elegant and refined Elizabeth as a woman can be. Demelza is the daughter of a drunken miner, and when Ross first encounters her, she’s dressed as a boy and stealing meat pies from a country fair. He saves her from a beating and brings her home to work as a maid at Nampara. Of course, the two fall in love and the course is anything but smooth.
I remember being obsessed with the series as a kid, counting the days until Sunday, when the next hourly episode would air. (Masterpiece Theater once was to American television as HBO is to primetime networks.) But that was over thirty years ago and I admit, I was worried the series wouldn’t hold up. I shouldn’t have—with the exception of the melodramatic theme music, the production, filmed on site in Cornwall, is still utterly captivating. (I’m almost embarrassed to admit I started watching in the late afternoon and had to force myself to stop sometime around 5:30 the next morning . . .)
So what is it that makes this series so enthralling? Robin Ellis, the actor who plays Ross Poldark, is far from movie-star handsome. But he is man who becomes increasingly sexy as you watch, through sheer force of character. His Ross Poldark is a man of honor, a gentleman by birth, whose loyalties, nevertheless are with the working people of Cornwall who struggle to make a living on the rugged coast as best they can—be it by mining, poaching, or “wrecking” ships, or smuggling French brandy. His divided loyalties are embodied by the women he loves—the genteel blond Elizabeth, who is accustomed—and expects—to be taken care of by men, and the fiery red-haired Demelza, who is determined to take care of herself.
In one of my favorite scenes, Demelza asks Ross to “take her.” What makes this scene so lovely and so romantic, is that despite the language and the drama of the moment and the implication of the words, he isn’t really taking her. Demelza is making the choice to give herself to the man, who, as she says, she loves so much it hurts. She enters into the relationship with her eyes open—aware that Ross is still in love with Elizabeth. Demelza is a risk-taker, a woman who lives and loves whole-heartedly.
Throughout the ups and downs of their relationship (and there are many), Demelza is often more in love with Ross than he is with her, and yet she is never subservient to him. She is always his equal. Indeed, in a defining moment when Ross betrays her with Elizabeth, Demelza considers then rejects the option of cuckolding him. As she later explains, “I stopped him and I stopped myself, but you did not stop her and you couldn’t stop yourself, so I’m better than you are and you can’t stand it and neither can I.” Demelza will only stay with Ross on her terms—equal terms.
By contrast, Elizabeth holds herself back from life, relying on men for advice and direction—be it Frances, her husband, Ross, or George Warleggan, her second husband. She always chooses the path that appears safest or most secure, regardless of whether the cost is love or honor. As a gentlewoman, Elizabeth believes honor is her birthright. As for love, in another of my favorite moments, as Elizabeth’s husband Francis reassures Demelza , she has nothing to fear from Elizabeth, because as he promises her, “that Elizabeth has never loved, nor will ever love anyone as much as herself.”
Perhaps this is what I find so appealing about the Poldark series—not just the passionate romance between Ross and Demelza, but the romance in the notion that despite hardship, setbacks, and betrayal (and evil bankers), honor, honesty and hard work will prevail.
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.