Monday, September 19, 2016

Poldark and the Dark Side of the Regency Era

Poldark, the series based on Winston Graham’s wonderful novels, returns to Masterpiece Theatre this Sunday for its second season. Poldark follows the saga of Ross Poldark, soldier turned crusader-for-the-poor and the prince of principles. Although the series begins a little earlier than the Regency era (the first scene takes place during the Revolutionary War), the epic novels chronicle a hero’s quest spanning many years and into the Regency period. Even so, the Poldark novels and their Cornish setting bear little resemblance to Jane Austen’s England. They depict a darker, grittier side to this era, which is usually shown with such genteel elegance.

Poldark reveals the plight of the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. Although part of the upper class, Ross has fallen upon hard times. Whatever his father once had is now lost, and it is only by sheer determination and hard work that Ross gets on his feet again. Along the way, he serves the poor in whatever way he can—offering them shelter, employment, and legal aid. And he never backs down in the face of injustice (even if his own life is at stake).

In many ways, the Regency era (1811-1820) belonged to the upper classes—royalty, the nobility, and the landed gentry. Many of these people lived comfortable lives often characterized by frivolity and excess (following in the footsteps of the Prince Regent himself), but just below that glossy surface, there was a darker culture.

In London and other cities, the poor lived in squalid conditions—crowded, unsanitary, and miserable. Prostitution and thievery were rampant. England was in the midst of industrialization, and in some parts of the country, men were being replaced by machinery. Forced into unemployment and starvation, the workers rioted and vandalized.

Even among the wealthy, gambling, womanizing, and excessive drunkenness was common and acceptable. Men of stature sometimes kept courtesans and often competed with one another for the best looking, most popular, and more talented ones. Wives turned a blind eye, accepted it, or perhaps (in some cases) had their own dalliances.

When watching a BBC adaptation of a Jane Austen novel (and I do love watching those), one might think that the Regency Era folks hadn’t a care in the world. But dig a little deeper into the history, and the fallacy of that assumption becomes clear.

As much as we might want to believe it, no time in history was perfect or free from darkness. I’m glad we have a series like Poldark to balance the view. Even Ross, heroic and principled as he is, has a dark side. It makes him believable. It makes him human … like the rest of us. 

Are you a Poldark fan?