Book Review: The World of Poldark
by Emma Marriott
St. Martin’s Press, 2016
Even the most die-hard fan of the 1975 BBC adaption of Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, even the most taut-jawed refusnik of the new 2015 adaptation of the same novels, must grudgingly concede the sheer cinematic beauty of the latter, from the breathtaking Cornish landscapes to the wanton voluptuosity of the series leading man, Dublin gutter rat actor Aidan Turner, who does more picturesque pouting throughout the new adaptation than a debutante at a rained-out garden party. Those skeptical fans of the original show will look at a picture book like The World of Poldark and sneer; on the strength of many similar books, they’ll rightly expect it to be an opportunistic collection of production stills, studio shills, and publicity frills.
The most pleasing thing about The World of Poldark is the sheer amount of substance author Emma Marriott imports into what could easily have been just another vapid merchandising gimmick. It’s true that a good deal of the book is taken up with the actors of the 2015 Poldark praising each other with the usual patently insincere emphasis – so-and-so is a thrill to work with, what’s-his-name has always been one of my acting heroes, etc. – but there’s much more to this book, beautifully produced as it is.
Centerpiece of the tribute volume, just as with the Graham originals, is the brooding, sternly beautiful setting:
Cornwall is at the very heart of Poldark, its rugged beauty and wild landscape a constant, powerful presence. In the 1780s, Cornwall is a sparsely populated, far-flung region of Britain jutting dangerously out into the Atlantic Ocean, very much on its own. Its landscape is of wild open moorland, savage cliffs tumbling into angry sea and weather that can in an instant change from swirling seas mists and squally gales to (just occasionally) brilliantly clear skies. Out of this robust and dangerously beautiful terrain emerges our hero Ross Poldark, a character who seemingly embodies the tempestuous nature of Cornwall.
The World of Poldark contains ample full-color photos of the extremely photogenic cast cavorting amidst that dangerously beautiful terrain on foot and on horseback, but the book quickly goes far beyond servile talk about the boot-camp equestrian training sessions these soft young thespian X-Box addicts had to endure. Marriott does a very smooth job wedding her many historical digressions to passages and characters and concepts in Graham’s books; a reader who’d never seen either TV production and just wanted an engaging companion to the novels (all recently re-issued with Aidan Turner’s smoldering puss plastered across their covers) could scarcely do better than this book.
Most of the time, that is. Occasionally, even so practiced a hack as Marriott can slip up and allow a brutally dull passage to ooze through. Blocks of exposition like this one wouldn’t be interesting if you were sitting knee-to-knee with Turner while he recited them to you in the bathtub:
Smelting is the process of taking copper ore and passing it through a series of furnaces in order to separate it from impurities such as sulphur. The smelting companies bought the ore at auction by means of a ‘ticketing’ system. Agents would inspect ‘doles’ of copper at the mines and would then meet at an inn where they would hand in sealed bids or tickets. The chairman would open the bids and the highest bidder won.
But such lapses are mercifully rare; for most of its length, The World of Poldark is a downright pleasant surprise, a detailed and engaging look at book, show, and history where it could easily have gotten away with merely being a detailed look at fuzzy pectorals. And as for the vexing question of which production is superior? Well, the first has the bludgeoning brilliance of Mary Wimbush, and the second has the final performance of the great Warren Clarke. The debate will likely be ongoing.