“Is there no forgiveness?”: Marriage, Adultery, and Forgiveness in Winston Graham’s “Poldark” Series

“There’s no paradise in love! It’s – you’re thinking in the wrong way. (…) Tis all wrong to speak of paradise. It is a terrible mistake to pretend it is something quite different.”
The Four Swans, Winston Graham

Poldark is a buzz word these days, with the insanely popular BBC show wrapping up its second season. I’d never heard of the author Winston Graham or his incredible twelve book series before I saw the show. Although I do enjoy the brooding Aidan Turner as Ross, the novels are, as usual, so much better. In fact, I would call the Poldark saga the best series I have ever read. It consists of twelve novels published between 1940 and 2002 by British author Graham. Unlike so many series, Poldark actually gets better as it goes on, peaking around the tenth novel. The series is set in a post-Revolutionary War England, following the Cornish family of the Poldarks through the Napoleonic wars, from obscurity to bankruptcy to knighthood.

Many stories end at the start of a marriage or begin at the end of one. Somehow falling in and out of love seems more appealing than the grueling years that happen in between. Poldark is the story of a marriage. The marriages in Poldark are some of the most complex and realistic that I’ve seen in literature because we get to see the full scope of the relationships. Ross and Demelza (the main characters) wed in the first novel and by the last they are grandparents. Following characters for over thirty years of their life is a rare treat. The time period in which Poldark is set also gives us an interesting look at marriage. In the early 19th century, love matches, matches of convenience, and arranged marriages were all perfectly acceptable. The series is not the story of just one romance, but of marriage as an institution. Marriage – good or bad, loving or hostile – is the foundation of the families who create the story.

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Cast of the BBC series.

A good marriage in Ross Poldark’s world means a fruitful life – two people becoming one, and then so much more though children. This quote of Demelza’s, after over twenty years of marriage, sums that up. “They were all hers, that was what Demelza at times found so overpowering. Hers and Ross’s, products of their blood, their union, their love. (…) a quartet of disparate yet related human beings carrying on the blood and the name. It was the strangest miracle” (The Loving Cup 53). Marriage in this era was not based on love but on family and responsibility, so in a society where divorce was uncommon, the long years together could become complicated. Commitment meant something different. Couples who did not have a strong love lived together and raised children together, but slept with whoever they wanted (or no one at all). There could be a foundation in companionship, a commitment to mutual success, but no love or sex. Graham tries to show how romance is not necessary as a means to an end, but rather as a soother in hard times, a backbone. Love is a reason to choose to forgive.

Winston Graham’s all-bets-are-off couples are complex and gritty. Through this, Graham displays for us what the marriages of Jane Austen’s time really looked like behind closed doors. Graham uses sex so well; never to be tantalizing, but to show the scope of marriage in a time when good sex in (and out of) marriage was not to be taken for granted. Early 19th century Britain is an era and a society we are all familiar with, but Graham displays it in a way we’re not used to seeing. Choosing to forgive and choosing to begin again is the only way that Graham’s character’s maintain love in their marriages. This choice to forgive is hard. Sometimes forgiveness is even foolishly given, but it is essential for the success of a marriage in his world. Instead of focusing on the tumultuous relationship of Ross and Demelza, I will look at four other complex relationships and their decisions to forgive – or not forgive – each other.

My favorite love story is Dwight and Caroline Enys’. If you watch the show and absolutely don’t want to be spoiled, now is a good time to stop reading. In Jeremy, the third novel of the series, Caroline is introduced as a rich and flighty young woman of twenty. Dwight is a highly intelligent doctor who turns down a London career to help the mining families on the north coast of Cornwall. Their romance begins as a forbidden fling and turns into a clash of personalities. Once Caroline’s old uncle no longer stands in the way of their marriage, they find it was more than a selfish relative working against them. It’s also their personalities. Dwight and Caroline Enys have a marriage built on great love, but not much else. Forgiveness in their marriage is not just a choice but a mode of survival. Love is never quite enough. Early in their relationship Dwight asks, “‘Caroline, look at me. I love you. Does that mean anything to you?’” (Warleggan 186). Caroline answers with, “‘Oh yes, quite a certain amount, I assure you’” (186). In the early years of their relationship Dwight is shipwrecked by the French on a mission for the Navy during the Reign of Terror. He almost dies in prison there, and his health suffers for years after. Caroline enters into a cycle of anger and forgiveness over his bullheadedness, which resurfaces often in their marriage. Dwight is constantly risking his life and health (needlessly, to Caroline) for his patients, as well their reputation in their community. Instead of finding compromise they act first, ask for forgiveness later.

The most difficult years of their marriage occur around the birth and death of their first daughter, Sarah. Caroline, who resists children as long as she can, finds herself pregnant with a child she does not really want. Once she actually has her daughter, “behind the defensive flippancy, she seemed happy in her motherhood” (The Angry Tide 83). The baby was born with heart defect that Dwight identifies quickly. Dwight, unable to tell his wife the truth after Caroline has grown so fond of the child, keeps it from her until infant Sarah is in her last days of life. “‘My husband clearly wishes me to become a troper’” Caroline tells Ross on the day of Sarah’s death (184). Unable to forgive her husband for wallowing in sorrow when he had hid the truth from her, she leaves him instead. Not permanently, just to clear her head. “‘We had a compromise,’” Caroline says. “‘And Sarah cemented that compromise… Now she is gone. (…) I think we both need breathing space. And I think you too will be… the better for it.’” Dwight asks, “and you wish to go – right away?’” Caroline answers, “‘Quite soon… Forgive me. Quite soon’” (194).

Instead of confronting Dwight, she chooses to separate herself from him, asking for forgiveness but not permission. “I feel I have failed you, have failed myself’” she says before leaving (192). Their four years of marriage had been rocky, but they had found a compromise in their child – a foundation for their married life. But Sarah was lost. With time (about four hundred pages, to be exact), they come back together. A few years later, they have two more daughters. Despite periods of separation and her “irksome” (194) vetoes to aspects of Dwight’s medical practice, they are never unfaithful to each other. In the world of Poldark, this is a bit of a surprise. During their separation she talks to Ross about infidelity “She said abruptly [to Ross]: ‘Dwight and I, (…) do you realize how moral we are by the standards of today?’” (519). She and Ross find themselves in a situation where they could sleep together, but don’t. Caroline’s honesty shows how strong her feelings are for Dwight, despite their current situation. “‘Dwight is the only man I have ever wanted to marry… though perhaps not the only man I have wanted to bed. (…) I have the instinct of a wanton but the emotions of a wife. I have too much love for Dwight’” (520). In this passage, while she and Ross talk each other off a ledge, Graham speaks of “a small core of real marriages existing among the rest” and we are to believe that Caroline and Dwight fall into that core (520). They have an odd marriage for the time period with all money and status laid on the wife, which results in a quiet power struggle between them. But they love, so they forgive and forget and choose to keep to their own bed.

Elizabeth and George Warleggan come together under quite different circumstances. Elizabeth is Ross’ cousin by marriage and his childhood sweetheart. George is our villain – a wealthy banker with low origins, a social climber. They wed in a rush after the death of Elizabeth’s first husband (book 4, Warleggan), due to financial troubles on Elizabeth’s side. George adores Elizabeth but never quite allows himself to show it. He spends his married life eaten up with jealousy. George suspects that Elizabeth had a brief affair with Ross right before their marriage. He suspects correctly. Their marriage is a cold war, even after Elizabeth swears on a Bible that she did not sleep with Ross. George can never quite believe her, therefore he has nothing to forgive – only rumor and speculation to brood on. There are whispers that his son, Valentine, is actually Ross’. Five years into their stormy relationship, Elizabeth gives birth to a daughter, Ursula. George is finally convinced Elizabeth was telling the truth all along; he says to her, ‘“Perhaps now – from now on… some of the unhappiness can be forgiven… the disagreeable times forgot’” (The Angry Tide 576). But it’s too late. Elizabeth dies from postpartum complications. This moment is particularly ironic because George is asking Elizabeth for forgiveness, thinking his jealousy has blinded him all these years and that she was actually in the right. In fact it should be him forgiving her – since she spent her entire marriage lying to him. She dies unrepentant.

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1980s editions.

Years later George re-marries, a marriage of convenience. Harriet is highly placed in society and a widow. She is the first woman who interests him since Elizabeth’s death, so in a typical George manner, he decides he needs her. However, their marriage does not go exactly as planned. “She took liberties in her manner of talking to him sometimes, he had to remind himself that she was after all the sister of a duke” (The Miller’s Dance 280). Despite the fact that George brought all the money into the relationship, Harriet has the breeding that George will never have. “Her very presence was a constant challenge to his pride and his manhood. (…) Harriet was anything but gentle” (282). George begins to romanticize his first wife, idealizing her in contrast to Harriet’s brashness. Harriet is completely her own woman and has very little patience with old history. She befriends Ross and his children, exhausted by the family feud she has no stake in. Within the first year of marriage it is clear there is to be very little love between George and Harriet, although there is “wild, passionate sex” (282).

In some ways they have a functional marriage, but George constantly feels himself to be on the losing side. Because of his pride he sees his marriage as a power struggle. Harriet simply does as she pleases, assuming George to be tolerant. It usually does not come to an impasse. However on some occasions, tolerance is not an option. In The Twisted Sword Harriet has befriended Clowance (Ross and Demelza’s daughter) and her husband Stephen. George wants to bankrupt the young couple who banks with the Warleggans, because he believes Stephen stole from him. Much like the lingering fight with Elizabeth, he has no proof, only suspicion. Like his lingering fight with Elizabeth, Stephen actually did commit the crime in question. But Harriet is close to the couple and puts her foot down. “‘I have an obligation towards Clowance. You must do this for me. (…) You must humor me’” she says (The Twisted Sword 283). Poor George had “never been asked such a thing before” (283). Harriet ends the fight by announcing she’s pregnant, leaving George helpless. “He has lost his last wife in childbirth. It shouldn’t happen so this time. Let Harriet have her way” (332). Once again George finds himself unable to fight back, unable to even have the fight he wants. Though Harriet herself did not do anything wrong, he is as angry at her for her ultimatum as he is angry at Stephen. But with no proof and no approval he can not act. In both the question of Elizabeth’s infidelity and Stephen’s thievery (both persons being related to Poldarks by marriage) George never has an opportunity to know the truth. And in both his marriage to Elizabeth and to Harriet he is never quite able to gain control. With Elizabeth he is unable to find resolution before her death, so with Harriet George is more merciful. In spite of hurt pride and angry, for the sake of his future children, this time he… if not forgives… at least tries to forget.

Clowance Poldark and Stephen Carrington have their own tumultuous marriage. By the time Clowance was born, her parents’ darker days had passed, so Clowance was raised with a belief that marriage could be good and full of love – even easy. She falls for the mysterious Stephen in the eighth book, The Stranger from the Sea. Despite his murky past and their significant age difference, Ross and Demelza agree to the marriage. Clowance was previously being courted by a Sir Edward (titled, wealthy, incredibly kind) but she turns him down for Stephen, much to Caroline Enys’ horror. During their long engagement, there is no end to the loud arguments and dramatic reconciliations. Stephen also lies to her – a lot. After Stephen beats up a childhood friend in a fit of irrational jealousy, Clowance decides it’s time to call the wedding off. “‘I feel I am in a world where meanings are never so clear any longer’” says Clowance, after realizing all the little lies and blunders Stephen had made (The Miller’s Dance 335). The separation isn’t easy, though. “Her love for him, which had often warred with her cooler judgements, was now turned inside out” (373).

About a year later, Stephen has a near-death experience (book 10, The Loving Cup) and Clowance, along with Dwight Enys, rushes to his side. Even as she goes, she say to her mother, Demelza, “‘I am such a fool. (..) Thank you for being so good about it’” (291). During convalescence they fall back together and agree to finally marry. “‘Twill not be easy. There’s still things not quite straight between us’” Stephen warns her (306). But Clowance brushes his faults away, preemptively forgiving his unknown past. ‘“You must think me an impossible daughter’” she says to Ross, after admitting to a hesitant father the renewed marriage plans. Ross consents and Clowance marries Stephen and moves to the southern coast of Cornwall. The first few years go by relatively smoothly, and even when George Warleggan attempts to break them, Harriet ends the trouble before it goes too far. But then a young man shows up, claiming to be Stephen’s son. Instead of truly apologizing, Stephen tries to explain his lie. “‘If I told you that I had been married before, I might well have lost you again’” (The Twisted Sword 32). He explains that his wife died, and the son was kept with the grandparents. Though she is angry, Clowance’s love for Stephen is too strong. In keeping with their relationship thus far, she forgives him recklessly. Then Stephen injures himself in a mysterious riding accident with Harriet, and all of his lies come to light. While Stephen lay upstairs bleeding internally, his son Jason unwittingly told Clowance the truth. Jason’s mother had died only recently. All while Clowance knew Stephen, through their first engagement, through their first year of marriage, he was already taken. “When did your first wife die? she wanted to ask. She wanted harshly, desperately to ask’” (580). He died before she could ask.

Clowance is left with a ghost of a husband she can not forgive. “‘…because you love him you suppose he has all the virtues he does not have. One expects more than one gets’” Clowance tells her aunt, while trying to work through her feeling (624). His undiscovered act of adultery found him out too late and her memory of him is ruined. If she had been able to talk it through with Stephen and hear the smooth justifications he was so good at, maybe she could have forgiven even a secret of that size. “Bitter disillusionment had come to be a part of her grief” (Bella Poldark 15). While trying to keep Stephen’s business afloat and handle his estate, she was constantly reminded that she “had never been legally married” (15). But through the “bitter taste of Stephen’s bigamy” Clowance still misses him, desperately (15). After three years as a window she begins to reemerge. She re-meets Edwards at a party in London and he proposes to her. “‘It is a big decision for you to make, I know. You are not drawn to me by a magnetic sense of love, as you were to Stephen. …I beseech you to give it the long and serious consideration of your loving heart” (335). This time she says yes. In the end it is a better marriage with a less passionate love but a stronger and healthier love. Is it, perhaps, in Caroline Enys’ “core of real marriages.” Edward asks Clowance, after she agrees to marriage, “To have and to hold, to love and to cherish?’” “‘I’m out of my depth’” she replies. ‘“I’m out of my depth too’” (472). ‘“My wish’” Edward tells her, ‘“is to always be with you’” (461).

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Original miniseries from 1975.

But not all couples have their happy ending. Winston Graham is never a preachy author, but the saga of Poldark comes to fruition with Valentine and Selina Warleggan, and the reminder: adultery is bad. Valentine is the son of Elizabeth and George. Unloved most of his childhood, motherless and ostracized by his father, he grew up to be a very dark boy. “‘All my childhood I lived under this dark cloud. I feared and hated him’” says Valentine about George (The Twisted Sword 530). At only eighteen, Valentine is all set up to marry Cubby, a penniless girl from a good family. It’s an arranged marriage – neither bride or groom is told till a date has been set. Valentine is angry at his father and confident in his chances, so he secretly marries a pretty young widow from town, Selina, who inherits a nice sum from her dead husband. George disowns Valentine (book 10, The Loving Cup). The marriage between young Valentine and Selina begins well. In fact their relationship had begun back when Selina was still married. It was a relationship that began as adultery, with Valentine slipping in at night when Selina had already retired to her separate chamber. Valentine already had a long history of “lascivious habits,” but now he was ready to settle (413).

Not long into their marriage Valentine begins sleeping with other women again. It is in his nature, and he tries to explain it to Selina. “‘I married you for yourself – and for the ground you walk on. (..) If there is cynicism in me Selina, you must bear with it… just as you will bear my love. Just as you will bear my infidelities’” (499). Although her relationship with her husband began in infidelity, she had hoped he could stay faithful to her. They do not discuss it further, do not try to reach a compromise. Their marriage as it was ends that day he confesses his affairs to her. “She thought: I shall never forgive him for the cynicism and brutality of what he has just said” (502). They have a child and live together for some time longer, until one of Valentine’s affairs is exposed and Selina can not bear the scandal.

She leaves with the baby and goes to her father-in-law, George Warleggan, who decides to take her in, despite having broken all ties with Valentine (book 12, Bella Poldark). Valentine tries to bring her home, but George sides with Selina. The chasm between the two deepens when Valentine “kidnaps” his son from his wife. There is never any resolution for the two of them. When Selina swears to herself to never forgive him for his behavior, their romance dies. They continue to have sex, but eventually even physical attraction is not enough. Both believing to be in the right, and both unwilling to talk about it, their relationship had no room to grow. By the end of the last novel Valentine is a drunk and deeply in debt, in trouble with the law, and heartbroken. He dies at 26. The worst part is we never really know if Valentine is Ross’ son. It would almost be better if we knew for sure – then at least George’s actions would be justifiable. As it stands, if Valentine actually was George’s then he was grossly mistreated his whole life and his pitiable end completely preventable. If George knew, maybe he could have forgiven Elizabeth. (Probably not, but maybe.) It was the question that drove everyone mad, then led both Ross and George to distance themselves from Valentine.

It might seem like an elementary message for a twelve novel series, but Poldark is the story of not just marriage – but the consequences of adultery. The repercussions of Ross’s infidelity does not affect his own life in this case, but rather the life (and death) of Valentine. There is a reason why Caroline and Dwight are in “that small core of real marriages” despite other marital problems (The Angry Tide 520). Their ability to stay faithful and forgive each other, even throughout a separation, anger and loss, redeems the dark moments of their marriage. Likewise, Clowance and Stephan had a marriage filled with love, perhaps strong in its own way, but spoiled by the selfishness on one side. If Stephen had lived longer and Clowance had time to process and forgive, maybe their marriage too would have been “real.” As it stands, she settled for a second best, who in the end gave her more than Stephen could have. Graham does not give the perfect recipe for a “real marriage.” But he gives us characters who are realer to me than real people, and relationships that have already shaped my own. These relationship are just the tip of the iceberg within the series – there are dozens of other intricately built and intertwined storylines I’m leaving out. But I can’t tell all of Graham’s stories. For the rest of them you should just read the books. They’re all on Kindle now. No excuses.

One of my favorite lines comes at the end of the sixth novel, The Four Swans.

“‘Forgiving… But forgetting? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a mistake to forget. All I know is that I love you’” (581).

Winston Graham himself was married for 53 years, till his wife’s death. If anything in the series is his recipe for a real marriage, it’s this line. Forgive, but don’t forget. And love.


  • Graham, Winston. Bella Poldark. 2002. Pan Books, 2008.
  • Graham, Winston. Jeremy. 1950. Pan Books, 2008.
  • Graham, Winston. The Angry Tide. 1977. Pan Books, 2008.
  • Graham, Winston. The Black Moon. 1973. Pan Books, 2008.
  • Graham, Winston. The Four Swans. 1976. Pan Books, 2008.
  • Graham, Winston. The Loving Cup. 1984. Pan Books, 2008.
  • Graham, Winston. The Miller’s Dance. 1882. Pan Books, 2008.
  • Graham, Winston. The Stranger from the Sea. 1981. Pan Books, 2008.
  • Graham, Winston. The Twister Sword. 1990. Pan Books, 2008.
  • Graham, Winston. Warleggan. 1953. Pan Books, 2008.

Sarah V Diehl

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3 thoughts on ““Is there no forgiveness?”: Marriage, Adultery, and Forgiveness in Winston Graham’s “Poldark” Series

  1. Nicole says:

    I absolutely love the BBC show. How faithful is it to the books? I stopped reading your post because I didn’t want to learn any spoilers, but it has made me curious to pick up the books too. If only I had more time for all the books I want to read. 🙂

    Like

    • thewordafter says:

      The show is decently faithful. However I do not think that the show will finish the story of the novels, because there is a gap of eleven years between books 7 and 8. The spoilers in my essay are really all post book 8, storylines that I don’t know if the show will ever touch on. I really liked the back half of the series better, which is why I focused on them in the essay. – Sarah

      Like

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