‘Poldark’ Celebrates Hard Work, Fidelity, Common Law, And Community

‘Poldark’ Celebrates Hard Work, Fidelity, Common Law, And Community

The PBS series features superb acting, dramatic narrative twists, and, surprisingly, a consistent affirmation of conservative principles.
Casey Chalk
By

PBS will be premiering the third season of its British historical drama “Poldark” this Sunday, October 1. “Poldark” tells the story of a British Revolutionary War veteran and his life in rural, late-18th century England. If the series’ first two seasons are any indication, this new installment should feature more of the same: superb acting, dramatic (if also heart-wrenching) narrative twists, and, surprisingly, a consistent affirmation of conservative principles.

“Poldark” is an old story is more ways than one. It is based on a book series that was made into an earlier PBS Masterpiece Theater series that aired almost 40 years ago. The tale centers on the experiences of Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner of “The Hobbit” fame), who returns to his native Cornwall after fighting the American colonists to find his father dead, his ancestral lands in shambles, and the love of his youth engaged to his cousin.

Over the course of the first two seasons, Poldark rebuilds his life and his inheritance. He reopens mines on his deceased father’s property, and weds a young, attractive country girl named Demelza—whom he originally employed as his “scullery maid.” For the sake of those unfamiliar with the first two seasons, I’ll refrain from divulging too many of the plot’s twists and turns. My goal here is instead to highlight how Poldark serves as an unexpected, inspiring source of conservative ideals.

The Show Affirms Traditional Rites and Customs

The series thus far has evinced a sincere appreciation for English culture’s traditional rites and customs, suggesting to viewers the importance of preserving such traditions from one generation to another. A number of children have been born over the course of the show’s two seasons, and the producers take the time to present the Anglican baptismal rite for these newborns. Moreover, the baptisms are so explicitly portrayed in various episodes that they come across as normal—if also very important—events in the life of a family and community.

Another cultural custom often presented positively on the show is that of common law. Poldark is a man of deep convictions, but also one prone to combat the cultural and institutional powers of 18th century Cornwall for the sake of the common man. This at times leads Poldark into the courtroom, defending marginalized members of the community, or even at times himself. Poldark often appeals to the traditions of British common law as his defense. This is probably most saliently visible in one episode where a British merchant ship crashes off the coast of Poldark’s own land.

Poldark urges the tenants on his land down to the beaches to collect the various goods that wash up on shore, motivated both by a desire to help those under his protection and to enact revenge against the owner of the ship, George Warleggan, the protagonist’s arch-nemesis. Warleggan in turn exhorts British soldiers stationed in the town to march down to the beach, collect his goods, and punish the peasants. Violence ensues. Poldark is ultimately brought to trial on the charge of inciting a riot. When asked to explain his role in his tenant’s collection of shipwrecked goods, Poldark appeals to ancestral Cornish common law, long honored in the county, that allows landlords along the coast to collect any goods that wash up on their shore.

‘Poldark’ Praises Hard Work and Innovation

Poldark’s finances and lands are in a state of disrepair when he returns from the American colonies. It takes many years for him to draw any real wealth from his ancestral legacy. The way he achieves via hard work, innovation, and entrepreneurship signifies a deep respect for personal responsibility.

While other local gentry attend parties, pursue personal hobbies, and engage in fruitless rounds of gossip (all the while becoming indebted to the villainous Warleggan family), Poldark remains acutely focused on rebuilding his estate. Many episodes show him down in the mud, boots and pants covered in dirt, working alongside his tenants in the fields and in the mines. He is a man capable of both gentile sophistication and long, hard labor, with hands as calloused as the poorest peasant.

Poldark is also an entrepreneur and innovator, willing to attempt new business ventures and entertain new business ideas that set him apart from other nobility. Poldark uses the force of his personality and his well-known work ethic to draw investors into his mining operations, opening facilities that had been closed for generations. He also employs men eager to apply new technologies to the mining industry. He refuses charity, instead bent on finding his own means to provide for his growing family.

The Series Is Palpably Pro-Life And Pro-Marriage

My favorite element of the British program is its unusually potent pro-life and pro-marriage sentiments. In one stirring scene in an earlier season, Poldark’s wife Demelza passionately responds to a cynical comment about her pregnancy, saying, “A child is not a thought, but flesh and blood.”

Demelza believes the being in her womb is indeed a child, not a pre-human “fetus” without dignity, unworthy of the right to live and be loved. Again and again throughout the show, various sub-plots affirm to the audience that children are the natural consequence of marriage, beings to be sought after, rejoiced in, and thankful for. In another season, a wealthy woman who communicates her preference for population control among the poor is clearly presented by the producers as holding egotistical beliefs unsympathetic to the common man.

The series’ most powerful paean to marriage is the relationship between Ross and Demelza—one immediately fraught with difficulties given their different social class, as well as lingering concerns that Ross maintains feelings for his old flame, Elizabeth. Spoiler alert: at a particular low point in their marriage, Ross in the second season cheats on Demelza, a woman who has consistently demonstrated amazing levels of diligence, shrewdness, and faithfulness.

Their marriage in shambles, Demelza is tempted to cheat on her wayward spouse. She comes very close, but perseveres in staying true to her wedding vows. She is remarkably loyal, a trait made all the more inspiring by Ross’s frequent failures to see what God has given him. Yet ultimately, as season two ends, Ross seeks forgiveness, Demelza grants it, and both affirm that they have vowed to stay together “for better and for worse.”

The compelling dramatic narrative of Poldark—an ambitious, good-natured Cornish noble seeking to preserve his family name and care for his community and its way of life—is reason enough to tune in for the third season this fall. Its location, filmed along the beautifully wild and rugged coastline of Cornwall on the southeast edge of England, also merits a watch. But most importantly, when so many contemporary programs evince a tangible distrust—if not hatred—of conservative beliefs and practices, “Poldark” is a welcome reprieve.

Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand and a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.
Photo Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner in Poldark (2015)

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