The real history behind 'Poldark' series three: episode seven
In the seventh instalment of a new series for History Extra, historian Hannah Greig takes a look at how the high drama of the characters' lives can be traced back to real 18th-century experiences and explores the challenges of balancing historical "facts" with "fiction"
Did you miss the history behind episode six? Read it here.
Series three is galloping along cliff edges as fast as Ross’ horse (played so sure-footedly by the handsome Seamus). We’ve had births, deaths and marriages, new loves and losses, romance and hope, pain and illness. This week we mourn the death of Aunt Agatha, fear for the safety of Morwenna and watch Hugh Armitage watch Demelza. Meanwhile, the doctor Dwight Enys once more displays his modern medical skill by treating young Valentine’s rickets with a dose of Vitamin D, while George sets his sights on securing one of the 44 seats in Westminster filled by Cornish MPs, an opportunity which was dismissed by Ross.
On both the page and screen, the storylines move swiftly as the characters are relentlessly buffeted by life-changing events, some associated with human emotion and individual agency and others shaped by broader economic, social and political currents. The pace of change may often leave viewers and readers wondering: are any of these experiences 18th-century experiences, or is such high drama the stuff of fiction alone?
As an academic historian of 18th-century British history and the consultant to Poldark since series one, I’ve come to appreciate the many and varied links that Graham made between original historical research and the fictions that unfold in his novels.
Indeed, much of what Graham’s Poldark characters encounter is – perhaps surprisingly – inspired by ‘true stories’ the author uncovered in 18th-century newspapers, personal letters, diaries and autobiographies. I have often found myself retracing Graham’s steps through various historical documents (either by accident or design) when checking, confirming or suggesting alterations to points of detail in the adaptation. Some aspects of the stories – such as the relationship between local and national political representation and George’s quest to become an MP – are perhaps most obviously rooted in historical precedent, with Graham drawing on 18th-century elections of Cornish MPs as the blueprint for elections that unfold in the novels.
We might be more surprised, however, to learn of other storylines which were inspired by lived experiences from the past. For example, when Dwight first met Caroline in series two, he was initially summoned to treat her dog. He soon returned, called this time to check Caroline herself for what she feared were the symptoms of putrid throat but turned out be caused by a fishbone. From here a complex romance unfolds, but Graham later revealed that this starting point was drawn from a story he found in an 18th-century medical tract. Events both large and small, and encounters both remarkable and mundane, were sourced by Graham from original 18th-century documents and then tightly woven into his fictitious characters’ lives.
The relationship between fact and fiction
Hilary Mantel’s recent Reith lectures on the relationship between fact and fiction in historical fiction has sparked fresh debate on where a boundary can or should be drawn between the two. With twelve Poldark novels completed, Winston Graham also set out his stall: “In all classes of [historical novels] 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… It is important to deal as much as possible in historical fact. Indeed, I take my hat off to historical fact, for without it I could never have written the Poldarks.”
Trying to disentangle ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’ within any form of historical drama – whether or screen or page – can be an impossible task. Of course you shouldn’t believe everything that you read or watch – but then you shouldn’t disbelieve it either. Nor should we presume that some forms of historical fiction are necessarily more or less true than others. A novel that ostensibly deals with ‘real’ historical characters acting imagined parts in an imagined past is not automatically more ‘true’ than one that deals with fictional characters; both are novels.
For Winston Graham, understanding the 18th-century world in which his characters moved was an essential part of his work as a writer. “I do not know how near the truth of life in the 18th century these novels are,” he reflected. “All I know is that they are as near the truth as I can make them.”
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.
Want to find out more? Hannah Greig and historian Greg Jenner discuss the question of historical accuracy in period drama in a 2016 podcast episode, available here.