TW/CW: Discussions of sexual assault, rape
Poldark has been a part of my life – personal and academic – for over four decades. I discovered the BBC series about the eponymous hero of eighteenth-century Cornwall when I first watched the 1975-77 adaptation of Winston Graham’s books on Masterpiece Theatre with my mother (the series aired in the US in 1977-78). Looking back, I realize I was too young at the time to process the storylines of rape (there are two: what has since been dubbed Ross’s “bedroom encounter” with Elizabeth, and the ongoing marital rape of Morwenna by her husband, the odious Reverend Ossie Whitworth). Like many viewers – most older than myself at the time – I idealized Ross’s marriage to the working-class Demelza (even planning one day to name my own daughter Demelza, which apparently many parents did do in the 1970s – but which, according to my now teen daughter who is not named Demelza, would have ruined her life!). And like most Poldark fans, I saw the aristocratic Elizabeth as the homewrecker in the scenario in which Ross, driven by jealousy and rage over her impending marriage to his rival George Warleggan, stormed her bedroom at night – forgetting about Demelza at home as he pushed Elizabeth onto her bed, even after she initially said “stop” to his advances; therefore how could what transpired offscreen possibly be rape?
That scene in Poldark was no different from so many other filmed depictions of sex I had witnessed throughout my early years: my mother made us watch Gone With the Wind (1939) every time it aired on TV, so I assumed Rhett carrying a kicking Scarlet up the grand staircase was a romantic gesture. After all, she seemed happy the next morning. Poldark was as much my romantic hero as Rhett Butler was my mother’s. And yet, at age eleven, I also considered myself a budding feminist; my classmates laughed at my championing of Helen Reddy and Gloria Steinem while TV culture kept feeding me mixed messages about romance, sex, and rape. My love of soap operas in the 1980s (again, introduced to me by my mother) just seemed to reaffirm that things like marital rape in Dynasty (1981-89) maybe weren’t that big of a deal and could easily be assuaged with roses the day after. I recall rushing home from school every day to catch the latest episode of General Hospital (1963-): did Luke really rape Laura if she fell in love with and married him afterwards? Unlike my teen daughter, who is not named Demelza and who has come of age in the aftermath of #MeToo, with middle school sex ed classes on consent, it took me a long time to admit to myself that my Captain was indeed a rapist.
When news of another BBC adaptation of Poldark was announced prior to its 2015 airing, I had mixed feelings about how this story would speak to 21st-century audiences. By this time, I was much older and wiser and had revisited the “bedroom encounter” presented in Graham’s books and the 1975 TV version multiple times. I joined message boards and Facebook pages devoted to Poldark and saw how the majority of fans of the first adaptation refused to see their hero as a rapist and made all sorts of excuses for him, largely blaming Elizabeth. I didn’t post myself when I saw how one Facebook member was kicked out of the group for insisting Ross was a rapist. Would the 21st-century TV version clear up the ambiguity around that pivotal moment in Graham’s book? By the end of the first season of the BBC’s new series, audiences had fallen in love with Aidan Turner as Poldark, and newspapers hailed him as the “perfect romantic hero.” On Twitter, however, I noticed a few fans like myself who knew that trouble lay ahead in the second season as this “perfect romantic hero” was about to commit, as one poster noted, “a very bad deed.”
I’m not just a fan of period dramas: I am also a historian of British history (in fact, my love of Poldark steered me to this career path). Unlike some of my academic colleagues (most of whom won’t even admit to watching period TV for fear they won’t be seen as “serious”), I don’t demand authenticity in every period detail recreated on our TV screens. This misses the point of period drama – which does and should speak to its modern audiences’ sensibilities and concerns. So, the debate that centred on whether Demelza’s 18th-century dress would have unlaced from the front or back didn’t interest me. Instead, I wondered if, this time around, Ross would have to rape Elizabeth. If, as Graham’s son said in the media coverage of the 2016 version of the “bedroom encounter,” his father never intended it to be rape, then the BBC writers needed to make that clear. Instead of Elizabeth saying “stop,” instead of Ross grabbing Elizabeth’s face roughly and throwing her onto the bed, let her say “yes” loud and clear. His cowardly ghosting of her afterwards would be reason enough for her to regret that one night with such a man – and the consequences would, of course, be hers to conceal, as they would have been for so many women like Elizabeth.
Instead, as my colleague Kate Byrne and I write about in our book, this latest take on “the bedroom encounter” merely promoted an outdated fantasy of “consensual ravishment”, blurring rape and seduction that audiences in 1975 (including myself) wouldn’t have found offensive, but to our surprise, neither did many viewers in 2016. After being treated so roughly by Ross and pushed onto her bed, a moaning Elizabeth seemed to inform viewers, as one fan posted on Twitter, that “she asked for it.” Thus, Ross remains a hero who merits forgiveness from viewers who’ve been invested in this champion of the downtrodden; a cheating husband he may be – as Demelza accuses him – but not a rapist.
I wasn’t alone in my dismay at the way writers tackled this scene in 2016. Feminists and rape crisis advocates slammed the series in the news the day after it aired. Still, overall, fans were torn, with many on social media blaming Elizabeth – the words “homewrecker” and “slut” were thrown at her. It is only after her death in season 4 that Poldark fans who labelled themselves as “Team Demelza” finally came around to see how she had been a victim of Ross and George’s rivalry – her body fought over like a trophy of war. I now wonder, had she aged beyond 35, what would these men have made of her? In the novels, George is already noticing her dyed hair and lined face as she approaches her thirties. Graham’s feminism was much ahead of his time – and anyone who reads all 12 of the Poldark books will see the influence of second-wave feminism on him. Graham’s Ross frequently reflects on his past actions and comes to understand how he “wronged” Elizabeth, and Demelza warns their own son not to “take” a woman without her permission.
Poldark fueled my youthful fantasies of dark romantic heroes, and I wasn’t immune from doing what many fans do – conflating the hero with the actor portraying them. In 2013, I fulfilled a girlhood dream and met the “original Poldark” at a book signing in my hometown. The once dashing Captain, Robin Ellis, had now become, in his seventies, an author of cookbooks for diabetics, but little did I know then that he’d be starring in Poldark once again, albeit in a more minor role (as Ross’s nemesis, the Rev. Halsey). I mentioned to him I was an academic writing about the 1970s TV series in which he starred but carefully withheld that my focus was on his character’s rape of Elizabeth, but from what we discussed, it was clear to me that he did not interpret Ross’s actions in a negative light.
Likewise, the “new Poldark” Aidan Turner (who sadly I haven’t yet met), in the aftermath of the airing of that bedroom encounter in 2016, insisted in interviews – as did the show’s lead writer, Debbie Horsfield – that his Ross was not a rapist.
Of course, romance has always relied on the rape/seduction trope and heroes redeemed by love. I don’t know if the Captain Poldark portrayed in two TV versions of Graham’s novels is ever truly redeemed. The legacy of his actions lives on in the later novels (there are 12, after all). Graham treats this scene as one with lifelong consequences, not just Elizabeth’s death, but the short and sad life of her and Ross’s illegitimate son whom George refuses to love, and in a middle-aged Demelza’s alcoholism which blunts her disappointment in a man she once idolized. Perhaps that’s why the later books that Graham wrote in which he follows Ross and Demelza into their late middle age – the age I am now – have never been adapted for TV: they feel too real, too sad, too authentic. That “bedroom encounter” – that rape – haunts their marriage and destroys multiple lives, and that’s the message more dramas need to show: that these are not just one-off acts. Indeed, the story isn’t about a hero redeemed but about collective trauma because of a man’s careless actions in his refusal to hear the word “stop.”
It is possible to present a better version of a romantic hero in the adaptation from book to screen: Bridgerton’s (2020-) first season failed miserably in ignoring that consent works both ways, that a wife can indeed rape a husband, as Daphne does to Simon, but I think the writers heard the criticism from post-#MeToo fans so that in the next season, Anthony Bridgerton is now more likeable and sensitive than imagined in Quinn’s books. Written in the early 2000s, the Bridgerton novels feel more connected to Poldark’s world of sexual values than our post-#MeToo world. Thankfully, in the 2022 TV adaptation the Viscount is not stepping on Kate’s hand or bruising her arms, as he does and which seems to excite her, in Quinn’s novel. When he and Kate start to consummate their relationship on our TV screens, he offers to stop, he waits for consent, and we are left with no doubts that the sex was mutually enjoyable.
Period drama doesn’t need rape to be “historically accurate” or feel real, but as we learned in writing our book, just about every period drama on TV seems intent on having at least one rape scene, just as we now expect a corset lacing scene as shorthand for women’s oppression.
I get it, rape happened in the past – just as it does now – but there are other stories to tell or at least different ways in which to tell them. Furthermore, we do not have to forgive the hero who does bad things simply because he is handsome and kind to his employees. I’ve grown up and switched to Team Elizabeth, even if it sometimes feels lonely on my side.
Julie Anne Taddeo is Research Professor of History at the University of Maryland, USA. She is the co-author (with Katherine Byrne) of Rape in Period Drama Television: Consent, Myth, and Fantasy (Lexington 2022), the co-editor of multiple books on British and international period drama television, including Conflicting Masculinities: Men in Period Drama Television (Bloomsbury, 2018) and Diagnosing History: Medicine in Television Period Drama (2022); as well as edited collections on steampunk; reality TV; and the British novelist Catherine Cookson. She also has published a monograph on the biographer Lytton Strachey and articles on golden age mysteries and Victorian and neo-Victorian popular culture. Her current project (with Byrne and Leggott) is about representations of the National Health Service on TV since the 1950s. She watches a lot of period drama television.