Our guest this month, author Noel O’Reilly, on the ‘Poldark effect’ and why fiction set in Cornwall doesn’t have to be corny.
The fourth series of the Poldark TV drama is currently being aired. With 6.1 million viewers watching the final episode of the previous series, inevitably publishers of historical fiction set in Cornwall are casting their nets to catch fans of everyone’s favourite renegade 18th century Cornish nobleman.
For evidence, look at the marketing of the Penhale Trilogy by Crosbie Garstin, originally published in the 1920s. The front covers now include a sticker shouting ‘Like Poldark? You’ll love Penhale’. Cornish author Gloria Cook’s Pengarron family saga began in 1993, but her 2016 novel A Cornish Girl is currently being boosted by the line ‘Perfect for fans of Poldark’ above the author’s name. And here I must put my own cards on the table: the press release for my debut novel Wrecker describes it as ‘Poldark meets Daphne Du Maurier’.
Publishers are clearly cashing in on the TV version of Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, but are they simply trying their luck or responding to evidence of growing reader enthusiasm for historical fiction set in Cornwall? Plenty of historical novels are being published this year with a Cornish setting. The Historical Novel Society’s 2018 list of forthcoming novels lists four, but an Amazon search reveals dozens more.
In fact, Poldark is riding the crest of a wave that has been gathering power for decades. Cornish author Rosamunde Pilcher has sold more than 60 million copies of her romances and family sagas published between 1949 and 2000. A quarter of a million Germans come to Cornwall every year to visit the locations shown in German TV adaptations of her work. Susan Howatch’s Penmarric (1971) series set in the 19th and early 20th centuries has strong Poldarkian overtones. And the popularity of historical romances set in Cornwall continues to this day. Kate Riordan’s The Stranger, about a land girl in Cornwall during World War II, was published this year.
Cornwall has also attracted novelists of a ‘literary’ persuasion, among them Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf who both set novels in the region. Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1936) and Frenchman’s Creek (1941) helped to create the perception of historic Cornwall as a lawless, haunted, gothic land. More recently, Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness (1994) is a fictionalised account of writer DH Lawrence’s experiences in Cornwall during World War I. Another Dunmore novel, The Lie (2014), is set in 1920 and is about an ex-serviceman returning to his native Cornish village.
We cannot be certain that all this literary activity has generated public interest in Cornish history. However, the county did see a record number of visitors to heritage sites in 2016, with Tintagel Castle experiencing a 19 per cent increase after a revamp, according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions.
This growing interest is welcome as until recently Cornish history seems to have been marginalised. Philip Payton in Cornwall, A History (2004) points out that the Cornish economy was one of the first in the world to industrialise, yet this factor is left out of many historical accounts of the industrial revolution. An example of Cornwall being overlooked is the way that George Stephenson is often credited as the inventor of the railway locomotive, rather than Cornishman Richard Trevithick.
Are historical novels educating readers about Cornish history or pandering to readers by presenting stereotypes with little basis in reality? The Poldark TV series does both. It exploits the idealised version of Cornwall as a sunny, unspoilt romantic backdrop, complete with anachronistic hairstyles, but it also reveals the economic and socio-political impact of the rise and fall of tin mining. The new series shows Poldark championing the poor at a time of social unrest.
Wrecker also aims to put the desperate actions of the poor into perspective and show them in the context of the times. In the novel a rich ‘Sugar Baron’ with slave plantations in Jamaica offers a reward to capture the wretch who chewed off his wife’s ear lobes as she lay dead on the beach after a shipwreck. The motive was to steal her earrings. This was a period when the desperate crimes of wreckers who plundered dutiable goods were punished harshly, but those who profited from the global atrocity of slavery were rewarded with titles, favourable tariffs and vast fortunes.
While much historical fiction focuses on the ruling elite with the poor cast in a supporting role, novelists can also ‘write back’ about the past and put the stories of marginalised people and communities in the foreground, as discussed by Jerome de Groot in The Historical Novel – The New Critical Idiom (2009). Poldark is male and from the ruling elite, but the heroine of Wrecker is a poor ‘country woman’, the lowest of the low. Mary Blight scavenges at shipwrecks, pilfering jewellery and clothing from the corpses that wash ashore, all the while imagining the liberties and luxuries enjoyed by the ‘bettermost’ before they met their watery end.
Wrecker is told from Mary’s point of view throughout. While the story is grounded in authentic historical detail, Mary perceives a spirit world at one remove from reality and her experiences are filtered through a consciousness cloaked in the mists of pagan superstition.
I resisted reinforcing wrecking myths that are widely taken as authentic but have no basis in historical fact. Heinous acts such as the use of ‘false lights’ to lure ships onto the rocks and the drowning of survivors by wreckers have featured in previous fiction, notably Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. However, there is there no documentary evidence for such practices, as Cathryn Pearce finds in her thoroughly researched study Cornish Wrecking 1700-1860 (2010). Perhaps Du Maurier herself doubted the authenticity of these traditions, but she didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
As for the cannibalised ear lobes, there is a historical source for the incident: it happened on the Scilly Isles around the time the novel is set. In fact, most of the outrageous incidents that occur in Wrecker happened sometime, somewhere in Cornwall.
Noel O’Reilly’s novel Wrecker is about a young woman in a remote Cornish village in the early nineteenth century and her obsession with a Methodist preacher who washes ashore in her cove, strapped to a barrel. It is out now, published in hardback by HQ (Harper Collins).
- Poldark © BBC
- Mousehole harbour circa 1900 © Gibsons of Scilly/BNPS
- Cornwall coast © Noel O’Reilly
- Cornish wreck © Noel O’Reilly