An Ungovernable People or Friends of Liberty? Poldark and 18th Century Social History by Justin Champion

The autumn is upon us. And Poldark is back! The images of the beautiful Cornish coast around Treen, Porthcurno, and St Michael’s Mount are a welcome visitor to the screen as the grimy dark nights draw in. The television series, reborn from the novels of Winston Graham and the earlier screen adaptations of the mid-1970s, continues to attract considerable attention from the general public and historians alike.

Recent posts on this blog from Sarah Crook and Graham Smith have raised some very interesting questions about gendered perceptions of public history, both in popular books and on television. Following on from this commentary, I’d like to consider the ways in which historical writing and research have inflected the production and reception of BBC’s very successful fictional history of eighteenth century Cornwall.

Hannah Greig, historical advisor on Poldark, and Greg Jenner, of Horrible Histories fame, have already offered some very insightful views regarding the role of the historical advisor in contributing to the ‘accuracy’ of fictional representations of the past. For both Hannah and Greig, the priority of a television drama is precisely that – dramatic structures must take priority: ‘drama is there to entertain us. Dramatists are there to spellbind us, to make us laugh and cry and fear for our favourite characters’. Hannah confirms and explains ‘the most important thing is to have great story. That has to be the priority. A historical adviser can help to drive that story forward, informed by what we know about the past’. Historians are thus not invited to ‘determine what that story is’, but to inform the ‘look’ and conduct of the action. And yet I feel we should at least consider the idea that complementing the programmes with further historical context might make the drama all the more compelling and resonant.

v2-ross-poldark
Aidan Turner in BBC’s Poldark

The historical preparation for the portrayal of mid- to late-eighteenth century rural, coastal and town life on Poldark has been meticulous: attention to the details of dress, commerce, urban sociability and gentry etiquette have been scrutinised by the learned and the expert. Whether a pasty contained rabbit or deer might depend on the local ecology or the skill of the poachers, and the details of costume, deportment or the pistols and rigging are useful markers of historical ‘accuracy’, if not necessarily carriers of truth. In strictly dramatic terms, the narratives in Poldark are compelling, blending the personal, the emotional and the political in a very challenging and provocative way. Over the course of successive Sunday evenings the heroes and villains, the scoundrels and the indigent, encounter each other in a variety of social, institutional, cultural and legal settings. These encounters also expose the deeper seams of eighteenth century life: the rule and administration of law by local elites, the impact of commerce on the routines of customary economic practises and the complexity of popular and parliamentary politics. Yet while much has been made of the visual reconstruction and the marvellous acting, the more profound themes of gender inequality, class war, the ‘old corruption’ of public politics before the days of the secret ballot, and the abject poverty of rural labour have not been teased out in the reviews, although they are, in effect, the sinews of the power of the narrative which keep us engaged.

As those familiar with the early-modern social history of ideas and crime may have realised, the narrative of Poldark conveys very powerfully one of the key insights of Edward Thompson’s work: that although the rule of law in the eighteenth century was contrived to protect property, it was also bound by its own authority. The role of the jury in freeing Ross Poldark from the noose, for example, represents the significance of the tradition of trial by jury in the administration of justice enshrined in the birthrights of freeborn men and women. The radical John Wilkes’ freedoms were preserved by this process in his defence of liberty in the 1760s when Middlesex juries repeatedly protected him from conviction. The current episodes of Poldark engage with the histories of the complex processes of social mobility which drove, and were driven by, the marriage market; the crises of familial relationships that shaped reputation and authority; the dangers of gambling and the financial markets, and the hard grind of the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Although the original novels were written in the immediate post-war contexts of the mid and later 1940s, they have been made more directly historically interesting by the growth of social history in the 1970s. The ages of Walpole, and then the Pitts, elder and younger, were not simply made up of stories of meticulously landscaped county houses, glittering society balls and the routines of polite culture: they were times of revolution and turbulent class struggle. The American wars of Independence saw a great diffusion of radical commonwealth ideas across the Atlantic. At home the popular resistance manifest in the campaigns of John Wilkes for the liberties of the freeborn English, and later in the French revolution, offered radical opportunities for protest and freedom in Europe, including in Ireland during the bloody United Irish rebellion of 1798, and for the ‘Black Jacobins’ of Haiti (see C.L. R. James’ powerful study of Toussaint L’Overture). In Britain, ‘riots’ prompted by political ideology or economic desperation reflected the increasing dominance of ‘King Property’, and the progressively rapid destruction of what the great historian Edward Thompson called ‘customs in common’. Labourers, artisans and skilled workers – both men and women – saw the traditional means of regulating their working hours, and providing for their families, constrained and disrupted by the demands of the market and the ever powerful coercive legal code which led to Douglas Hay referred to as ‘Albion’s fatal tree’. Smuggling, poaching, and wrecking were all subjected to criminal codes of brutal savagery.

Poldark addresses many of these themes in the social history of crime and society explored in the great and formative works of historians like Edward Thompson (Whig and Hunters, 1975), and the collection of essays exploring the lives and deaths of labourers and city workers (Albion’s Fatal Tree, 1975). Markus Rediker wrote a wonderful book on the Atlantic world of pirates and seamen some thirty years ago (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, 1987), while Peter Linebaugh’s London Hanged (1991) explores the lives of those that were victims of Tyburn in the struggle between rich and poor. The criminalisation of what were regarded as customary rights, in the name of defending property and order, is the backcloth to the struggle of Poldark and his friends. Commerce and maritime innovation may have brought new commodities to the banqueting tables of the gentry, but they also destroyed the system of regular employment which enabled the poor and labouring to survive by helping themselves to reasonable benefits of their labour (known then as perquisites, or in our modern world ‘perks’). Exploring these histories will make the viewing of the series even more exciting.

For those interested in the histories of smuggling, poaching and the highwayman there is an alternative fictional series which seems to have been forgotten. The ‘Dr Syn’ novels of Russell Thorndyke, written during and after the First World War, and set in the smuggling culture of Romney Marsh in Kent and Sussex, combined smuggling, piracy and politics. Thorndyke’s novels travel widely, involving Caribbean characters, pirates and American revolutionaries: this might provide a much more diverse palette for the modern viewer. These novels have been serialised on the radio (read by none other than Rufus Sewell who recently starred in Victoria), and indeed were turned into a series of graphic novels and reasonably gentle Disney films. There was a ‘Carry-on’ version in the 1970s, the great Led Zeppelin recorded a song, ‘No Quarter’, drawn from the stories, while ‘The Day of Syn’ is a festival held in the town of Dymchurch to fund-raise for local community activity. A modern script-writer might work with the novels, but also explore them alongside the new Atlantic history inspired by the landmark histories of Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, whose work, The Many Headed Hydra: The hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic (2000) explores the communities of slaves, commoners and sailors who resisted economic and social oppression from elites and mercantile interests from the West Indies, Africa and North America. Weaving those ‘real’ narratives into a fictional narrative would be a great challenge but it would also produce a very attractive and diverse series that allowed different voices and characters to perform in mainstream viewing. Perhaps and enterprising commissioner at the BBC or Channel 4, will explore the possibilities of creating a further series? Let’s hope so.

 

Justin Champion is President of the Historical Association and Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London. His publications include The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken. the Church of England and its enemies, 1660-1730, now in a second edition (University of Cambridge, 2014).

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