Winston Graham - Extract from Poldark's Cornwall.
ISBN 0 370 30678 3
First published 1983
"When my parents moved to Cornwall I was, as I have already indicated, greatly taken with the scene. But I understood nothing about the Cornish. They were a closed Celtic book whose pages did not open easily to the outsider, the importation. It was a mutual barrier. There is - or was in those days, and I don't think it has altogether gone - a tinge of superiority felt by people holidaying or just making their homes in the county for the first time. Coming from other parts of England, they feel themselves more sophisticated, more up-to-date. However inexcusable that was - and is - it was and is detectable in conversation, in behaviour, in attitudes. The words of the Cornish Floral Dance are as good an illustration as any. 'That quaint old Cornish Town.' It's so damned patronizing. There is nothing fundamentally more quaint about Helston than there is, say, about Honiton, and not as much as about Hastings, which is an extraordinary place. It is a pseudo-romantic, pixies-and-elves approach, of which as a youth I was probably as guilty as the rest, and it took some years for me to throw of this ridiculous attitude and to get to know the Cornish. I do not think I made any special effort to do this. Perhaps it was more successful because it came naturally - by little and by little. Living among them I came to know them, understand them a bit, and to like them. I think they liked me. A certain empathy developed.
My early novels - and Heaven help me, they were all published - were modern thrillers, and except for one Cornish one - which like most of the others I have mercifully been able to suppress - were set in other parts of the country: London, Yorkshire, Wales, the Wye Valley, etc.
By the time Poldark came to be written, it was not only the scenery of Cornwall that had got into my blood. I had never written a historical novel before - that is, if one excepts The Forgotten Story, a novel of Cornwall in 1898 (of which a television serial has recently been made).
Perhaps inevitably to begin with Poldark was derivative; but presently it took off on tracks of its own and I think has been pursuing them ever since. I certainly had no idea then when or how far the tracks would lead. It was to be one novel. But the stream broadened so much in the writing that there was no way of containing it in a single volume. The story of Ross and Demelza and George and Elizabeth could have been so contained: indeed, if pressed, one could write the elements of their story on a postcard. But as I wrote about them what happened to them came to be part of the warp and woof of eighteenth-century life, in which Jud and Prudie Paynter, Jim and Jenny Carter, Mark and Keren Daniel and a half dozen others emerged to claim a substantial share. And this has gone on, more characters emerging as others have faded out.
I do not know how near to the truth of life in the eighteenth century these novels are; all I know is that they are as near to the truth as I can make them.
Of course there are historians of repute - and critics - who consider that the historical novel, in anyone's hands, is a spurious form of art per se because it imposes the writer's possibly ignorant, possibly warped, possibly over-romantic view upon a past time, that it colours history in a - to them - unrealistic or unhistorical way. But much of this is true of any novel, either modern or historical. Any writer, any good writer, takes a set of events and imposes his own view upon them. If there is no personal view there is no art. As Cézanne said of his paintings: 'I have not tried to reproduce Nature, I have represented it'. And that is what any good writer does. And if he is good enough he creates a world of his own which the reader comes to inhabit and finds it comparable with life rather than identical with it.
And if one is to downgrade the historical novel, what is one to do with such trivia as War and Peace, Vanity Fair and Wuthering Heights, all historical novels in their time ?
Of course historical novels as such divide easily into 3 classes. First there are those which use actual historical personages as the chief characters of the books. Such are Robert Graves's I Claudius, and Helen Waddell's Peter Abelard. Second is the class in which historical personages are substantial figures in the story but have as their main characters fictitious persons - very often, as it were, standing beside the historical characters. Such are Rose Macauley's They Were Defeated and, on a more personal note, The Grove of Eagles. Thirdly there are those which use entirely, or almost entirely, fictitious characters set in re-created historical time. Such are Stevenson's The Black Arrow, or H. F. M. Prescott's Man on a Donkey, or - again to be personal - the Poldarks.
There has been a tendency in critical circles over the last half-century to rate these categories in descending importance, i.e. the novel dealing solely with historical characters is rated higher than the novels in which historical characters play only a part; and the novel in which historical characters play a part is rated higher than that in which all the characters are fictional.
This is pretentious rubbish. Every type and quality of historical novel from fine to awful has been reduced in all three categories. In any case you only have to consider the first three novels mentioned above and consider in what category they belong.
But in all three classes of novel one has to have a degree of historical truth as well as a truth to human nature. Man has not changed but his reaction to certain life patterns has. Unless the writer can understand these and transmit his understanding to the reader, his characters are simply modern people in fancy dress. Similarly there must be a geographical truth. Cornwall has particularly suffered from the writers who has spent a few months living here and have decided to write an epic set in the county; in fact it could just as well be set in Kent, Yorkshire or Cumberland for all it matters, but Cornwall, they think, is more romantic.
Finally it is most important in the third category - most important just because it is not so necessary - to deal as much as possible in historical fact. Indeed, I take off my hat to historical fact, for without it I could never have written the Poldarks. I have an inventive brain and a good imagination, but I could never have devised all the events which fill those pages. It would be tedious to enumerate all the sources - indeed for me it would mean long hours of research in reverse, tracing the origins of this event and that, back from the novel to the manuscript, the old newspaper, the map, the out-of-print book, the contemporary travel book, the parochial history, the mining manual, the autobiography.
As a selection: Jim Carter's arrest for poaching, his imprisonment in Launceston Gaol; fever, and blood incompetently let by a fellow prisoner, Jim's subsequent death. From a single line in Wesley's Journal.
Description of Launceston Gaol. From Howard's State of the Prisons, 1784 edition.
Ross's attempt to start a copper smelting company in Cornwall to compete against the companies of South Wales which used to send the coal and take the copper away by sea; and the failure of the attempt. Not precise as to detail, but accurate in general terms about such an attempt which was made at that time.
The two wrecks at the end of Demelza and the rioting miners on the beach. Taken from a report on such a double wreck on Perranporth beach in 1778.
The voting procedure at Bodmin for the election of two members of Parliament in 1790. Factual.
The occasion when a rich young woman, Caroline Penvennen, calls in Dr. Dwight Enys, and when he gets there asks him to attend to her dog. The further occasion when he is called into the same young lady because it is believed she has the morbid sore throat, and what he finds. Both are related by Dr. James Fordyce in his book on fevers which had a limited circulation in 1789.
The smuggling in Warleggan. Most details are factual; also the way in which Ross, apparently trapped, escapes detection.
Conditions in the French prisoner-of-war camp at Quimper are chiefly taken from accounts given by Lady Ann Fitzroy who for a time was imprisoned there.
The struggle for power in Truro and the quarrel between Lord Falmouth and the Burgesses supported by Sir Francis Basset. It almost all derived from the contents of a single letter written by Mr. Henry Rosewarne, the MP newly elected in defiance of the Boscawen interest, addressed to Lord Falmouth, explaining the reasons for the Corporation's defiance and defending his own actions. Corroborative information came of course from Cornelius Cardew and others.
The riots in Camborne, Sir Francis Basset's suppression of them, the death penalty for three of the rioters, two reprieved, one Peter Hoskin, hanged; all factual.
The character of Monk Adderley was based on a character in the original William Hickey Diaries. Details of the duel between Adderley and Ross came largely from the life of John Wilkes.
The run on Pascoe's Bank in Truro, the pressure by the other banks, the anonymous letters deliberately circulated to create a panic. All factual, except not exactly as to date.
Dwight Enys saving the injured miner by giving him what is now called the 'kiss of life'. From a case related in John Knyveton's Surgeon's Mate.
So in the case of the Penzance lifeboat.
So in the case of the stage-coach.
And so on in many smaller details.
* * *
Of course there is the opposite risk, that of becoming too preoccupied with history. One can so easily detect the midnight oil, the desire to instruct. But novels are about life. Text books by the thousand exist if the reader wishes to pursue a particular subject. An author is naturally reluctant, once he has discovered something at great trouble to himself, not to make the most of it. But the temptation should be resisted. It is a recurring discipline which should be exercised by every novelist who does research, whether the research is into the Peninsular War or into modern techniques of assassination. What is not relevant is irrelevant."
"Perfection is a full stop .... Ever the climbing but never the attaining Of the mountain top." W.G.