Coming home from war is hard. Coming home from war to learn that the woman you love is marrying your cousin, your father has just died, your servants are drunken slatterns, and that you have a lot of work ahead of you to turn around the estate’s fortunes is exponentially harder. It’s little wonder that Ross, of Winston Graham’s 1945 novel Ross Poldark, wrestles with anger for most of the novel. With a set up like that and with such a protagonist, I was expecting a much more brooding novel. I was surprised over and over again at how funny this book is.
As the novel opens, Ross has returned to his family estate in Cornwall. He is a veteran of the American Revolution and bears the scars of battle. Like many veterans, before and since, settling back into civilian life is hard. I suspect, however, that Ross’s personality would have made it hard for him to fit in with the socially stratified community. He belongs by birth to the gentry, but has little time for their manners and amusements. His fastidiousness keeps him from fully joining the commoners. As the novel progresses, it’s clear that the commoners have Ross’s loyalty.
Ross Poldark is a meandering tale of the four years after Ross’s return in 1783 and the point of view often shifts to take in Ross’s family members, servants, and friends. We learn much about the economy of the area and more than I ever wanted to know about the tin and copper mines. We see Ross at his best and his worst. There are moments of high drama and suspense as well as scenes that share much with Austen’s ballrooms. Here and there, Graham will insert a comment about one of the secondary characters that had me snorting with laughter. For example, at a ballroom assembly, one character is described as “Whitworth, a swaggering beau who was doing nothing at Oxford with a view to entering the Church” (70*).
I can’t say I fully came to know Ross in this book. I bonded much more closely with Demelza, spending a lot more time in her thoughts, but the main arc of this book is watching Ross learn to let go of his expectations and anger. Mostly through his relationship with Demelza, who he rescued at age 13 from a group of rough boys, Ross eventually finds happiness with his life as it is—not as he thought he wanted it to be.
Ross Poldark is just the beginning for this character. The novel ends on an incomplete note and readers are supposed to pick up the next volumes in the series to learn everyone’s fates. The end of the book is not a cliffhanger; it’s more an intermission than anything else.
* Quote is from 2015 Sourcebooks’ kindle edition.