The Lamentable End of the Poldarks

Well, I finished the Poldark books.  All twelve of them, starting with Ross Poldark and ending with Bella Poldark (his youngest daughter.)


          And despite what people say about the books in a series never being as good as the first one, I have  thoroughly enjoyed them all. Winston Graham -- my god, that man could plot a plot. And give life to a character.

          Not everyone agrees, of course. There's an ape in the last book. One of the characters, Valentine Warleggan, rescues it from maltreatment and then proceeds to maltreat it himself, teaching it to drink (smuggled) brandy and smoke cigars, in order to entertain his friends.

          He gives it a name, Butto, but we're never told exactly what Butto is. Warleggen calls it 'a monkey' but it obviously isn't. He either doesn't know or, more likely, can't be bothered, with the difference between a monkey and an ape.

          But what kind of ape? Its description could fit either a chimpanzee or a young gorilla, but Graham never says which. From its behaviour in the book, and its quickness at learning tricks, I inclined to chimpanzee. From curiosity, I did a quick search on-line, to see if I could find anything about Graham's thinking when he created Butto.

          I happened on a Goodreads discussion, where most people thought, like me, that Butto could only be a chimp -- but also came on some harsh criticism of the book. It wasn't any good, it seems, and a disappointment after the others in the series. The episodes about the man 'keeping a monkey' were 'ridiculous' and Bella Poldark's career in the theatre was boring...


It's always good to be reminded how differently other people think. Far from being 'ridiculous', I thought Valentine's keeping of Butto was an excellent reflection of the age Graham describes. His research into his chosen period and his sympathy with it is always remarkable. It isn't at all difficult to find many examples of rich and selfish young men of the early 19th Century keeping apes, bears, zebras, lions and other unsuitable creatures as pets.


          Indeed, Valentine's step-mother, the horsey, fox-hunting Lady Harriet Warleggen, annoys her husband by keeping not only two enormous 'boar-hounds' (Great Danes) and giving them free range of his house, but also a small 'galago' which he finds creepy and disturbing. Despite a lifetime of David Attenborough, I'd never heard of a galago and had to look it up. It's what we usually call a bushbaby. There were no animal welfare laws in the early 19th Century -- none of that woke nanny-state stuff.



As for Bella Poldark's adventures in the theatre, I found them fascinating -- well-researched, lively and engaging.


          I could say the same about her older brother's experiments in the engineering of steam engines in an earlier book. It gradually dawned on me that the other engineers he collaborates with were not invented characters, but real historical personages, when Trevithick turned up, to advise Jeremy that his steam-driven horseless carriage was a bad idea, as it was too heavy to do anything but sink into the mud of unpaved Cornish roads. I then looked up some of the other steam fanatics Jeremy hobnobbed with and found that they were real people too. One, the wonderfully named Goldsworthy Gurney, was a medical doctor, born in Padstow, who not only invented a steam-driven road vehicle but also the limelight that lit theatres for decades.

          With some audacity, Graham has his invented Jeremy Poldark supplying Gurney with his best ideas.

          He also has Jeremy fall in love with and elope with the sister of a man who's building a fake medieval castle, which he can't afford, and trying to finance it by gambling on horses and cards. Naturally, it all ends in disaster. But it was quite late in the book that the penny dropped and I searched for the name of the castle on-line.



It was a real place -- in fact, I dimly remember going to it or, at least, seeing it, during one of our family holidays in Cornwall when I was a child. It was, just as Graham describes, built by a fool who beggared himself with this over-ambitious project and gambling, and then ran away to live abroad, to escape his debtors. But I was impressed by Graham's cheek in having his fictional Poldarks marry into the real Bettesworth-Trevanion family.


           But now there are no more Poldark books to read and I feel like I've lost old friends.

          Instead, I'm reading Graham's The Walking Stick, which is set in 1967 and, oddly, seems far more dated than the Poldark books, which span the period from 1799 to 1818.

          The walking stick of the title belongs to the heroine, who had polio in childhood, leaving her with a withered leg. That's one period detail which, sadly, we should be seeing back soon, thanks to the greedy, consciousless gang of thieves we have in 'government'. Plus their pals in the water industry who are merrily polluting our water for profit. (Polio is caught from food or water contaminated by faeces.)

Despite the dated feeling, The Walking Stick is a very engaging read, as I've come to expect from Graham. It's narrated in the first person, by the heroine and if you were told the author was a woman, I think you'd happily accept that, so well does Graham imagine the thoughts and feelings of Deborah Dainton. (Though I think he could have tried a bit harder with that jingly name.)

          Still feeling amazed, though, that it took me so long to discover Winston Graham...