The series comprises 12 novels: the first seven are set in the 18th century, concluding in Christmas 1799; the remaining five are concerned with the early years of the 19th century and the lives of the descendants of the previous novels' main characters. Graham wrote the first four Poldark books during the 1940s and 1950s. Following a long hiatus, he decided to resume the series and published The Black Moon in 1973.
The main character, Ross Poldark, is a British Army officer who returns to his home in Cornwall from the American War of Independence only to find that his fiancée Elizabeth Chynoweth believed him dead and is about to marry his cousin Francis Poldark. Ross attempts to restore his own fortunes by reopening one of the family's derelict copper mines. After several years, Ross marries Demelza Carne, an urchin he has taken in as a servant. Although gradually reconciled to the loss of Elizabeth's love, it takes Ross some time to realise his love for Demelza.
Ross Poldark is the protagonist of the series. In his autobiography, Graham states that Ross's character was, in part, based upon a fighter pilot he met on a train during World War II.
In the first novel in the series, Ross Poldark, Ross learns upon his return home from the American War of Independence that his fiancée, Elizabeth, has given him up for dead and promised to marry his cousin, Francis, instead. Life becomes bleak for Ross.
A brooding and introspective character, Ross assumes his late father's estate, which includes a failing copper mine.
Having lost Elizabeth to Francis, Ross marries Demelza, a girl he had originally hired as his scullery maid, and they soon have a baby called Julia. Over the next 20 years, four more children follow: Jeremy; Clowance; Isabella-Rose; and Henry (called Harry).
Demelza Poldark, née Carne
Taken home from Redruth Fair by Ross, miner's daughter Demelza and her dog Garrick have an unpromising start. However, she soon develops into a charming, amusing, lovely young woman, eventually winning Ross's affection. Dark and earthy, she is the total opposite of the fragile Elizabeth. The two women are wary but polite towards each other. Demelza shows courage and fierce loyalty to Ross but is somewhat impulsive, causing trouble for both of them. She has six brothers.
A young doctor who arrives in Cornwall after training in London. He strikes up a firm friendship with Ross which proves strong and enduring. He is conscientious and generous, often not charging his poorest patients for his services. He becomes involved with a young miner's wife with tragic results. After his rescue from a French prison camp, he eventually marries a young heiress, Caroline Penvenen.
Caroline Enys, née Penvenen
Caroline is an orphan, taken in and raised by her rich uncle, Ray. Strong-willed and independent, she begins a romance with Dwight Enys against her uncle's wishes, culminating in a disastrous plan to elope. They eventually marry after Dwight's rescue from a prison camp in France. Caroline and Dwight's first daughter, Sarah, has a congenital heart defect and dies in infancy. Two more daughters, Sophie and Meliora, follow.
Elizabeth Poldark (née Chynoweth) now Warleggan
She was Ross Poldark's very first love and he hers, but thinking him dead in America she marries Ross's cousin Francis. The marriage is a failure. After Francis's death Elizabeth struggles with poverty and loneliness, eventually accepting George Warleggan as her husband. She has 2 sons, one with Francis (Geoffrey Charles) and the other supposedly with George (Valentine). She has a daughter with George called Ursula, but Elizabeth dies in childbirth. Between her betrothal to George and the wedding, Ross pays her a visit and rapes her. It was established in The Angry Tide that Valentine was Ross's son:
"Though Elizabeth had been constitutionally strong enough, perhaps some exhaustion in the ancient Chynoweth strain was to be the cause of this virtual obliteration of her personal appearance in any of her children, and the dominance of the three fathers. Geoffrey Charles was already like Francis. Valentine would grow ever more like the man who had just left the house. And little Ursula would become sturdy and strong and thick-necked and as determined as a blacksmith."
Graham, Winston. The Angry Tide: A Novel of Cornwall 1798-1799 (Poldark Book 7) (p. 602). Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
Ross's arch-enemy is of a new class of industrialists and bankers. Although regarded as an upstart by the aristocracy, through ruthlessness and cunning he becomes increasingly powerful. Always impeccably dressed and elegantly behaved, he constantly schemes to increase his own wealth at the expense of others, including the Poldarks. He becomes enamoured of Elizabeth, eventually marrying her after she is widowed.
Ross's cousin Francis has a tendency to be flippant but his feelings are strong and he can be very obstinate. The two cousins were friends as boys but their relationship is tested severely when Francis marries Elizabeth, with lasting repercussions for them all. He has one son with Elizabeth.
Verity Blamey, née Poldark
Francis's sister and Ross's cousin Verity is described as plain, with fluffy hair and a mobile mouth. She has been a dutiful, unmarried daughter who looks after the affairs of her father, Charles Poldark, and his estate. She meets and falls in love with Andrew Blamey, a sea captain. Unfortunately he has a terrible secret that is soon revealed, and she seems to lose her chance of happiness.
The Reverend Osborne Whitworth
Osborne Whitworth appears briefly in the first Poldark series of novels, but comes to feature prominently in the second series when he marries Morwenna Chynoweth, Elizabeth's cousin, who is in love with Drake Carne, Demelza's brother. Whitworth's main preoccupations are money and women. He is loud and arrogant, delivering sermons which intimidate his parishioners more than inspire them. He also sexually abuses his wife; when he is no longer able to force himself upon her during her pregnancy, he begins an affair with her fifteen-year-old sister, Rowella, which proves to be his undoing. He has a son, named John Conan, and two daughters with his first wife.
Television adaptations of the novels
- The BBC adapted the first seven books of the novel sequence as Poldark, a television series first broadcast in 1975 and again in 1977. Robin Ellis portrayed Ross and Angharad Rees was featured as Demelza.
- In 1996, HTV produced a pilot episode of The Stranger from the Sea, written by Robin Mukherjee, which became a controversial adaptation with fans, using a new cast featuring John Bowe as Ross Poldark and Mel Martin as Demelza. Fans protested, and over fifty members of the Poldark Appreciation Society picketed HTV's headquarters in Bristol wearing 18th century costumes. The pilot was unsuccessful, and no further episodes were made.
- The BBC began broadcasting a new adaptation of the novels in 2015, again titled Poldark, with Aidan Turner in the title role and Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza. Like the original 1975 BBC adaptation, this new series has been taken up by the PBS network for broadcast in the United States. The last episode of series 5 was broadcast on 26 August 2019.
People who inspired the characters
- Graham mentions in his autobiography Memoirs of a Private Man that the character of Demelza is based on his own wife Jean, at least in part.
- Graham states in Poldark's Cornwall that the Bodmin Moor hamlet of Demelza was the inspiration for his character's first name.
- In Poldark's Cornwall, Graham reveals that the name "Poldark" is a product of his imagination. He initially named the character after his friend, a chemist named Polgreen. However, Polgreen did not sound strong or mysterious enough for the character, so Graham changed Polgreen to Poldark.
- Ross Poldark's physical characteristics are based upon those of an injured flying officer whom Graham met on a train during the Second World War.
- The Carne brothers (Sam and Drake) could be based on the pioneers of Methodism John and Charles Wesley.
Allusions to historical events and real places
In his autobiography "Memoirs of a Private Man", Graham explains that some of the stories and plots in the book draw from actual people and events from Cornish history.. According to Graham the names of the original people and places (and sometimes the dates) have been adapted or changed, but essentially the material facts remain the same. Some examples that Winston Graham used are:
- The story of the physician (Dr. Enys) who was called out to attend a young girl's (Caroline Penvenen) dog.
- The incident with the fishbone where (Caroline) believes she has the putrid throat, and eventually Dr Enys is called out to her, removing a fishbone in order to cure her.
- The fifth Poldark novel, Black Moon, is set between 1794 and 1795. A total lunar eclipse visible from the UK occurred on 14 February 1794 and is the inspiration for the title. The "black moon" occurs on the day of Valentine Warleggan's birth and he is named after the 14th of February, Valentine's Day. The ending of the lunar eclipse is erroneously depicted. Astronomically, the earth's shadow is concave towards the dark portion of the moon's surface, throughout the eclipse. In the "Black moon" episode, as the eclipse ends, the earth's shadow is concave towards the light portion of the moon's surface.
- Hendrawna is his name for Perranporth.
- Graham's source material for his description of Launceston Gaol was taken from John Howard's "The State of Prisons in England and Wales" published initially in 1777. Graham used the reissued 1784 edition.
- The first novel Ross Poldark, was published in the UK in 1945. Upon re-publication in the US in 1951, it was retitled The Renegade, and significantly shortened by approximately 12%, with most editions since then using the shorter, revised text.
- The second novel, Demelza, was published in the UK in 1946. Upon re-publication in the US in 1953, it was also significantly shortened, by approximately 14%, with most editions since then using the shorter text.
- Graham also states that the first real-life child named Demelza (after his character) was the daughter of British writer Denys Val Baker.
- Graham attributes Dr George Fordyce as providing the idea for this. Fordyce worked on the subject, of fevers, throughout his career, but it was not until 1794 that the first of five books on fevers appeared.
- Ella Westland (1997). Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place. Patten Press. p. 130. ISBN 978-1-872229-27-0.
- Sarah Crompton (26 April 2015). "Is Poldark faithful to its literary origins?". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 July 2019.
- "Poldark Novels". Cornwall Calling.
- Jack Adrian Obituary: Winston Graham,The Independent, 11 July 2003
- "Obituary: Winston Graham". Daily Telegraph. 11 July 2003.
- Graham, Winston (2003). Memoirs of a Private Man. London: Macmillan. pp. 221–225. ISBN 0-330-41959-5.
- "BBC One announces Aidan Turner to star as Poldark in new series". BBC Media Centre. 28 February 2014.
- Graham, Winston (1 October 2004). Memoirs of a Private Man. Macmillan UK (first published 1 September 2003). ISBN 9781405033749.
- Graham, Winston (2015). Poldark's Cornwall. Macmillan. p. 190. ISBN 978-1447299974.
- "BBC — Tom York is Sam Carne — Media Centre". www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 15 June 2017.
- "BBC — Harry Richardson is Drake Carne — Media Centre". www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 15 June 2017.
- Graham, Winston (2003). "Chapter Eight". Memoirs of a Private Man. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-330-41959-5.
- Coley, Noel G (2001). "George Fordyce M.D., F.R.S. (1736-1802): Physician-Chemist and Eccentric". Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. JSTOR. 55 (3): 395–409. doi:10.1098/rsnr.2001.0154. JSTOR 531949. PMID 11713784.
- "Total Lunar Eclipse of 14 Feb, 1794 AD". moonblink.info. Retrieved 12 June 2017.
- Graham, Winston (2003). Memoirs of a Private Man. London: Macmillan. p. 49. ISBN 0-330-41959-5.
- Howard, John (1784). The State of prisons in England and Wales. Warrington: William Eyres. pp. 382–383.
- "In Profile ~ A Winston Graham Reader". Yolasite.com.
- "In Profile ~ A Winston Graham Reader". Yolasite.com.
- The Poldark Cookery Book; by Jean M. Graham. Triad / Granada, 1981
- --do.-- London: Macmillan, 2017