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Love, lust, sex and marriage are at the heart of Winston Graham’s Poldark series, both in his original pages and in on-screen adaptation. Everywhere we look, matches are being made and hearts are being stolen and broken – from Elizabeth, Ross and Demelza’s plot-defining, complex passions to the more recent relationships unfolding between Caroline and Dwight, Elizabeth and George, Morwenna and Drake, Morwenna and Ossie, Ossie and Rowella, and Demelza and Hugh.
Of course, Winston Graham wasn’t the first nor the last novelist to have looked to the late 1700s and early 1800s for high romance. Between 1921 and 1972, Georgette Heyer wrote more than 30 romances set in Georgian England (alongside many other contemporary novels), citing Jane Austen has her inspiration. PD James also couldn’t resist, indulging her own love of the period with her Austen-inspired crime/fiction mash-up, Death Comes to Pemberley. And among these big literary names are innumerable other authors who keep the flames of ‘Regency romance’ burning. How much, though, of the love and intrigue we find in Poldark is timeless and how much speaks to the particularities of the 18th century?
Graham’s central fictitious relationship, between the gentlemanly Ross Poldark and Demelza Carne, an illiterate young kitchen maid, is certainly one that would be hard to retrieve from contemporary records as it contravened most social and cultural norms of the day. Yet, though rare, such matches are not completely absent from the archives. In the 1770s, the Town and Country Magazine, a purveyor of society scandal, claimed that the wife of Hugh Boscawen, 2nd Viscount Falmouth, was a low-born milliner’s apprentice and a minor when they married. Hugh Boscawen was a notorious rake and, once married, left his inappropriate wife behind in Cornwall while he lived it up with his mistresses in London. He died with no legitimate heir (although plenty of illegitimate ones, allegedly) and he was succeeded by his nephew, George Boscawen, who is featured as a political powerbroker in the Poldark novels.
Marriage and mistresses
A number of aristocratic men ended up in second (or third or fourth) marriages to mistresses of a wildly different social rank. For instance, somewhat hastily after his wife died the Duke of Bolton married actress Lavinia Fenton, who had been his lover for 20 years. Leader of the political opposition Charles James Fox married his long-term mistress, the courtesan Elizabeth Armistead, in 1795 (some 15 or 20 years after the start of their relationship). As Fox’s first and only wife, theirs was a rare match where romance clearly trumped social expectation and convention.
In contrast, the story of Dorothy Jordan is sorry indeed. An actress, she had been the ‘live-in lover’ of King George III’s son, the Duke of Clarence, for two decades and had borne him ten children. But they never wed (prevented from doing so by laws restricting royal marriages). When the royal family belatedly realised that, among the eight sons borne by George III, there was a constitutionally threatening scarcity of legitimate heirs, the fifty-something Duke of Clarence was required to pitch himself onto the European marriage market, leaving Dorothy high and dry. Her children taken from her, the debt-ridden Dorothy was forced to flee the country and died in poverty in France in 1816. The Duke of Clarence, meanwhile, took the 25-year-old German Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen as a bride, and in 1830 succeeded his brother, George IV, as monarch, becoming William IV.
What, though, of marriages like that portrayed by Winston Graham between Ossie and Morwenna, where a woman found herself hitched to a terrifying brute? Marital rape was not a crime in the 18th century (nor would it be defined as such until 1991).
Divorce could only be achieved by an expensive private act of parliament, and only by a man on the grounds of his wife’s adultery. The outlook for women in abusive relationships was unquestionably bleak. If a woman could prove her husband was inflicting life-threatening cruelty, then the church courts (which oversaw social crimes) might arbitrate and agree to sanction a separation but not a formal divorce. For most women, only death brought release from a miserable marriage, and the majority of incidents of domestic violence, marital rape and other forms of abuse will never have appeared on any formal parish or legal record. By including the darker as well as the brighter stories of marriage, Winston Graham’s novels remind us of aspects of the past that might otherwise remain in the shadows.
Hannah Greig is author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013) and is a historical advisor on the BBC One drama series Poldark.