Rescuing Poldark from the tourist gaze

It’s fair to say that Winston Graham’s Poldark saga, the story of a minor gentry family from the 1780s to 1820, has sometimes elicited a love-hate response from Cornish insiders. This is despite the fact that the history Graham included in his books provided, on the whole, a fair picture of the life of those times. Furthermore, in the 1940s, when he began writing his Poldark books, he was way in advance of academic historians in focusing on the social history of the people.

Where’s that bleddy signpost to? I’m sure Trura was this way.

Negative responses stem more from the way the Poldark story has been hi-jacked by the tourist sector and paradoxically become part of a long-term process that has undermined the Cornishness of Cornwall. Moreover, while the books are generally acceptable, this is less true of some of the small screen versions. The TV Poldark reached its embarrassing nadir with the ludicrous final season of the most recent series, where the plot lost all credibility and the Cornish context was relegated to wallpaper.

However, next week you have a chance to discover what life was really like in the Cornwall of the Poldark saga. My new bookThe Real World of Poldark – examines the period from 1783 to 1820, restoring the Cornish dimension by adopting an insider view of its society at the time. In it, my aim is not to assess whether Winston Graham was right or wrong in this or that historical detail. This is not a forensic examination of the accuracy of the wrecking episode on Hendrawna beach, or the riot in Truro or the raucous roistering that accompanied an election in Bodmin, all of which appear in his books. Instead, the nature of Cornwall in this period and the lives of its people will move to the foreground. How did they live, work, play and worship? What did they eat? How did they travel?

This was a time of staggering wealth and appalling squalor, of high days and hardship, ingenuity and invention, great power and grasping greed, righteous indignation and riotous outbursts, religious fervour and ferocious feuds, and all to a constant background noise of war and social change. It was fundamentally a time when the world began to turn on its axis and Cornwall for a brief spell found itself at the forefront of new ideas and a new world. It deserves to be remembered not just as a setting for entertaining historical novels but as Cornwall’s second golden age.