The following contains spoilers for Poldark Season 2.
Elizabeth Chynoweth has never been in an advantageous position with readers. In the first instance, when the protagonist Ross Poldark returns to his home in Cornwall after the American Revolutionary War, where his friends and family assumed he had perished, he finds his first love Elizabeth engaged to his cousin Francis. When Ross marries his kitchen-maid Demelza, readers are posited to support the unlikely heroine, whose charm and earthiness captures their imagination. Therefore when Ross is unable to shake his obsession with Elizabeth, rather than Ross bearing the responsibility for Demelza’s unhappiness, readers might blame Elizabeth for ‘interfering’, or at least existing. When Francis is lost, a character who has redeemed himself beyond belief, it feels like a double betrayal when a desperate Elizabeth accepts the villainous George Warleggan’s proposal. So by the time Ross Poldark breaks into Elizabeth’s house and rapes her, the reader might be inclined to take Ross’s version of events, that Elizabeth acquiesced and eventually gave in to her own desires.
The author of the Poldark series, Winston Graham, treated his female characters with the same, if not more, empathy that he treated his male characters. He loathed the coarse and promiscuous stereotype of Demelza depicted in the 1970’s adaptation of Poldark; likely not in any small part because Demelza was based on his beloved wife.
Obviously there have been borrowings, chiefly from my wife. I took her sturdy common sense and judgement, her courage, her earthy ability to go at once to the root of a problem and point the answer; her intense interest and pleasure in small things; and particularly I have used her gamine sense of humour. As for the rest, most of it seemed to come from within. A romantic man’s perception of an ideal woman? That was maybe how it began… 1
Elizabeth fared little better in the early years of the original adaptation, a shallow and one-dimensional character, showing none of her unwavering loyalty to her husband when she plans to elope with Ross. One proposed scene saw Elizabeth threatening to divorce Francis because of his infidelities, until Winston Graham pointed out that until the Act of 1857, divorce could only be achieved by Act of Parliament, usually took two years and cost about £10,000.2 The scene was grudgingly altered. Heida Reed’s Elizabeth has been portrayed in a far more flattering manner, emphasising her loyalty to Francis and her friendships with Verity and Demelza, and her deep maternal love for Geoffrey Charles. Television viewers are arguably in a far better position to empathise with Elizabeth than readers are.
Earlier in the year it was announced that the producers of the current adaptation of Poldark were cutting the scene where Ross rapes Elizabeth. The incident happened in the fourth book in the Poldark series, Warleggan, and should have been accepted, without question, as a violent assault on Elizabeth. Fans felt that altering the scene was problematic, betraying Winston Graham’s depiction of Ross as a deeply flawed character. Yet, for television purposes, it is not surprising that producers were unwilling to depict the main ‘hero’ of the story raping one of the heroines. The BBC assured viewers the rape scene would be cut, and that the incident would be consensual.
The scene was, in fact, deeply problematic on more than one level. What the BBC aired was not consensual sex. Ross Poldark, as depicted in the novel, broke into Elizabeth’s house, went uninvited into her bedroom, refused to leave and then forced himself upon her. Observe Ross digging his thumbs into Elizabeth’s face in the scene:
Hardly a scenario “born of long-term love and longing”, as Winston Graham’s son attempted to describe it, even if it showed Elizabeth finally ‘giving in’ to her passions. Claiming authority over the issue, Winston’s son Andrew Graham said that: “In the novel, Warleggan, the relevant scene is indeed consistent with the potential for rape but what then actually happens is not described and is left entirely to ones imagination. The only way to judge what my father intended is to read the novels as a whole. In doing so, it becomes clear from earlier scenes and from Elizabeth’s immediate reactions, that what finally happens was consensual sex of long-term love and longing.” Reading the novels as a whole, in fact, presents the opposite scenario.
The scene in Warleggan plays out as such:
He caught her again, and this time began to kiss her with intense passion to which anger had given an extra relish, before anger was lost. Her, hair began to fall in plaited tangles. She got her hand up to his mouth, but he brushed it away. Then she smacked his face, so he pinioned her arm.
She suddenly found herself, for a brief second nearly free. ‘You treat me – like a slut-‘
‘It’s time you were so treated-‘
‘Let me go, Ross ! You’re hateful, horrible! If George-‘
‘Shall you marry him?’
‘Don’t! I’ll scream! Oh, God, Ross…. Please….’
‘Whatever you say, I don’t think I can believe you now. Isn’t that so?’
‘There’s no tomorrow,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t come. Life is an illusion. Didn’t you know? Let us make the most of the shadows.’
‘Ross, you can’t intend … Stop! Stop, I tell you.’
But he took no further notice of the words she spoke. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed.3
To describe this scene as ambiguous is faintly ridiculous. The novel does not end at this point, it is revealed that Ross forced himself on Elizabeth. Yet writer Debbie Horsefield told Radio Times that she never wrote the scene as a rape, claiming that:
“It’s interesting that people are getting outraged about the ‘dot…dot…dot’ moment, because what happens next isn’t actually described. It’s up to the individual reader to decide what the dots mean in that moment. There is a degree of ambiguity if you just read that chapter, though it is clear, subsequently, that when Elizabeth remembers the incident, she thinks of Ross’s ‘caresses’ and talks about not wanting to go from one man’s caresses to another’s.”
Horsefield claims that calling Ross touching her a ‘caress’ somehow implies consent. Elizabeth struck Ross in the face, begged him to leave the room, to leave her alone, to wait until tomorrow to talk and kept shouting “stop”; using the word ‘caress’ changes nothing that happened in that scene.
Some readers have also clung to Ross’s own reasoning, a little later in the novel:
“He was not proud of his adventure then, nor ever a man given to passing off his own behaviour with an easy excuse; but after the initial resistance that night there had been no particular indication that she hated him. Her attitude towards him during a number of years, and particularly the last two, was more than anything else responsible for what had happened, and she must have known it. Her behaviour that night had shown that she knew it.”4
Again, this cancels nothing out. This is merely Ross’s mulling over his own guilt and trying to justify his actions to himself. For the one rather alarming result of Ross’s rape of Elizabeth that after years of obsessive love she is suddenly out of his system. For Ross did not have consensual sex with Elizabeth, he went to her house to wreak revenge upon her for marrying his cousin and then agreeing to marry his enemy. And so he did. After raping Elizabeth, Ross had finally defeated her, thus he no longer needed her.
The following contains text from later Poldark books (no major spoilers):
Despite the claims that “what happens next isn’t actually described”, the three main protagonists of the series do describe it. Horsefield’s claims of proof of consent are taken from the following passage, where an unbiased reading suggests Elizabeth is feeling violated and does not want to enter into an intimate relationship with George so soon after the rape:
“Her impulse to postpone had been overwhelming. Whatever else, she was not a liar and a wanton. To go from one man’s bed to another – in the course of a few, days however disgracefully she had been taken advantage of. Still less could she go from Ross’s caresses to George’s. Perhaps that was at the root of her feelings.” Elizabeth – Warleggan
“A sudden wicked climbing in at windows, an incursion on her privacy, a violent taking of what was not rightly his. ” Elizabeth – Warleggan
“God, I am in a cage! Lost for ever! Why did Ross have to come? How I hate him for coming! And despise him. There’ll never be any friendship between us again! Only enmity. I shall be George’s heart and soul, his faithful wife and faithful friend! Anything I can do against Ross. Why did he have to come? God, I am in a cage. Lost for ever.” Elizabeth – Warleggan
Demelza understands what has happened but tries to put it delicately.
“You came upon her, I suppose, in surprise. I should not be astonished if at first she tried to be faithful to her new promise.” Demelza- Warleggan
When Ross and Elizabeth finally confront each other in The Four Swans Ross again attempts to maintain the illusion that Elizabeth consented:
‘I came through no door as you know.’
‘Like the devil,’ said Elizabeth. `With the face and look of the devil.’
‘Yet you did not treat me so after the first shock.’ He had not intended to say it but she had provoked him into it:
‘Thank you, Ross. That’s the sort of taunt I should have learned to expect.’
‘Possibly. Possibly. But this meeting between us after these years. I can’t see the beginning or end of it
The end of it’s now. Go on your way.” Ross – The Four Swans
It is, in fact, after this meeting that Ross begins to realise how Elizabeth felt about the matter. He tries to reason that he felt betrayed, but he also claims that he did not regret it until that point. Ross later shows he still thinks women are objects for the taking. Talking with an adult Jeremy, Demelza tells him:
“What your father suggests. You cannot just “help yourself” to a woman. Even your father …’ Demelza paused, aware that Ross in fact had once done just that. ” Demelza – The Loving Cup
If the word of the victim and her so-called rival are not enough, perhaps Ross’s own admission should be convincing. (my italics)
“…in the very bedroom where he had taken Elizabeth against her will twenty-seven or more years ago, and so had started all this trouble, which had gone on so relentlessly and for so long.” Ross – Bella Poldark
Ross’s rape of Elizabeth has dire consequences, as readers of the books will know. Consequences that not only affect Elizabeth, Ross and Demelza’s lives, but consequences that resound through the next generation. Ross eventually comes to this realisation, but only after a terrible tragedy. At this point claiming the incident between Elizabeth and Ross was consensual may not alter the overall storyline a great deal, as television writing requires (or at least uses) far less subtlety in storytelling than a novel does. However, the fact remains that the producers of Poldark have tried to present a scenario where non-consensual sex was ‘secretly wanted’, that a woman can beat and scream at a man to leave her be, but that she would then give consent because of ‘long-term love and longing’.
Demelza also endures a violent assault in the same novel. It is obvious that Graham used the scene with Demelza and Captain McNeil as a direct contrast to Elizabeth’s experience. Demelza attended a party without Ross, fully intending to have a one night stand as revenge for Ross’s betrayal. She invites McNeil to her bedroom after the party, yet when he arrives and begins making advances, Demelza changes her mind. While she does have to fight him off, when McNeil (finally) accepts that Demelza wants none of him, he leaves. He is unhappy, he parts with a few stinging words, but he leaves nonetheless and Demelza remains largely unscathed.
The television adaptation of these two scenes is telling. Ross’s masculinity is often emphasised in Poldark, and the scene where he breaks into Elizabeth’s home frames him towering in the doorway, brimming with strength and self-righteousness, rather than breaking in sneakily and climbing through a window as he does in the book. The music after he kicks the door down is silenced. While dramatic music plays during Ross and Elizabeth’s confrontation, it is nothing like the wholly sinister score that accompanies what was a slightly comical scene in the books, where a foppish and drunken McNeil crashes about the room pursuing Demelza, who later climbs out of a window in frustration when even more irrepressible ‘suitors’ attempt to breach her door. McNeil is portrayed as a far greater villain than Ross, yet it is McNeil who eventually leaves when he is told his advances are unwelcome. And when Demelza tells Ross of the incident later and how angry McNeil was Ross exclaims “My God! So I should think!”.
The misogynistic ‘rivalry’ between Elizabeth and Demelza places both characters in a negative light. Demelza’s watching Ross and Elizabeth embrace at Francis’s funeral, for instance, might posit the viewer to think Demelza shouldn’t be envious of Elizabeth needing comfort. The encounters between Elizabeth and Demelza are always tinged with spitefulness. None of these things happened in the novels. There was no sneering at each other in the garden. Demelza certainly made her unhappiness with Ross plain at various times, but there was no relentless malicious remarks and she certainly did not strike him – the sweeping of the breakfast table should have been enough. It is merely material designed to turn the viewer’s sympathy to Ross, while they watch him work hard to earn Demelza’s forgiveness.
Yet Winston Graham never really suggested that readers should forgive Ross. Ross’s attitudes towards women remain largely unchanged as he ages.
As for Elizabeth, who was shown as quite capable in the face of adversity in the first season, her suddenly coming apart at the seams, her waiting for Ross at the expense of Demelza’s happiness and her manipulation at the hands of George Warleggan easily put her in a position to be despised. The heavy-handed reasoning for her to marry Warlegaan is unnecessary. She accepts Warleggan’s proposal because he is wealthy and can provide for her beloved son, and save Geoffrey Charles’s ancestral home from ruin. Why should Elizabeth need any other reason to marry Warleggan? Ross’s reasoning that Elizabeth was a catch and could have any man she wanted is false. There are few who would want to take on a poverty-stricken widow mired in debt, with another man’s son and his crumbling castle to upkeep. As Elizabeth told Ross, she is her own mistress. That she vowed to be loyal to George to spite Ross just shows her depth of feeling at Ross’s betrayal.
Elizabeth Chynoweth has been on trial since 1953. It is time we took her word for what happened between her and Ross that night and accepted her decisions are her own to make.