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How Winston Graham conceived Poldark’s Demelza Carne and Marnie from his feminist point of view

Winston Graham’s Poldark begins on the BBC this Sunday 8th March, 2015. The author, who wrote the novel Marnie, was interviewed shortly before his death in 2003 by Save Hitchcock.

When questioned on his position about the abjection of women in society, Winston Graham described himself as an instinctive feminist. The roots of his feminism can be traced back to his childhood, early in the 20th Century. Graham was born in Victoria Park, Manchester in 1908, six years before the start of the First World War. He already had a brother, Cecil, who was ten years older. Graham’s mother, Anne Mawdsley, wanted him to be a girl, so she molly coddled him as a child. He wrote in his autobiography, “Many years later it dawned on me, looking back over the evidence, that my mother badly wanted a girl when I was born, and although she mostly disguised her feelings she would dearly have loved to dress me up in buttons and bows.”

Because of the age difference between his brother Cecil and himself, Graham was in effect brought up as an only child. When it turned out that he was ‘delicate’ of health as he was growing up, unlike his older brother, his mother used that as an excuse to channel her mixed feelings on wanting him to be a girl by lavishing him with excessive attention and spoiling him, even to the point of delaying his schooling until he was seven. This may account for Graham’s feminine roots and empathy with the woman’s position. “The image my father liked to present of himself was that of a frail child,” says son Andrew Graham. But the reality was Graham was in relatively good health for most of his life and indeed lived until the age of 95. His son believes that he cleverly used his appearance and claims of fragility so that not only was he spoiled by his mother, but later in life, he often pretended to be weak so women would look after him or conduct chores on his behalf. Graham’s mother Anne, also had the reputation of being delicate. Before she married Graham’s father, her mother told him that they could never have children saying that Anne was too delicate. In reality she lived to the age of 80 and produced two sons, whose longevity exceeded hers.

The Graham family never adopted a scientific approach to medicine and remained fearful of ill health. Just before Graham’s 14th birthday, he became seriously ill with pneumonia and his mother also contracted double pneumonia and nearly died. Graham remembers being sent to the cinema one night when she was gravely ill. When Graham was 16, he contracted pneumonia again, and his own life too was in jeopardy. He also had a weak heart and when enlisting for service, was turned down by the airforce, army and navy for medical reasons. “When it came time for me to register I chose what I thought the least uncivilized of the three services, which was the navy,” remembers Graham. But he failed the medical and was passed from the navy to the army. The army too turned him down, so he applied for the Coastguard Service and was accepted in 1940.

Although Marnie is the product of an overtly religious upbringing at the hands of her mother, Graham’s family was not religious. As he mentions in his memoirs, “Were we God-fearing? Not really. My mother kept steadily, if quietly to her beliefs all her life, but her father was very much a free-thinker and associated with atheists and agnostics.” Graham shied away from overt religion and would only go to church twice a year with his mother. But he used his knowledge to create the character of Mrs. Elmer, Marnie’s zealously religious mother in the novel. The girl Christine, his childrens’ babysitter also believed in her faith. “It came from Christine, because her mother was religious at the time,” said Graham. “I transferred my sympathies to her, and anything religious came from the person that I was writing about.” After Graham’s father died, his mother supported him in his writing career. “When my father died I was nineteen and my mother knew there was only one thing I wanted to do in life, and as she could just afford to support me if I lived at home, she offered to do so,” says Graham. “I never earned a living any other way.” His mother was depicted as being frail and of ill health, but in reality she was a very strong character, a proper Victorian lady, who told him frightening stories as a child. “She loved to make your flesh creep – and God, did she not make mine! It was not of ghosts of which she spoke but of ill-health.” She spoke about her cousin Ernest who contracted pneumonia and was dead within a week, and of other relatives who similarly died young, scaring the young Winston with tales of illness and disease.

Andrew Graham believes that his father’s fear of ill health, compounded by his mother’s, enabled him to write about Marnie’s fear of sex. A grave fear of bad health and dying is therefore equated with a great fear of sex. In the free association scene, when Mark offers the word ‘death’, Marnie’s reply is ‘me’. On the origins of the character Marnie, Andrew Graham says that while Christine the baby sitter, and the other women in the newspaper articles undoubtedly helped his father start the process of creating Marnie, “the ideas that come from them are just the start and not more than that. My father believed passionately that characters have to come alive and live in the author’s imagination if they are to have conviction.  Further, I suspect that my father did not have a huge problem in working on Marnie’s introspection. My father’s elder brother was ten years older and so my father was brought up almost as an only child.  What is more his mother “molly-coddled” him and gave him a fear of ill-health and I think he used this to find his way into Marnie’s fears about sex.”

Graham himself acknowledged, “I’m a novelist and I like to create characters sympathetically, and I don’t really use characters to make a point of my own.” The characters in Marnie were those he identified with, such as Marnie’s view of sex equated with his fear of illness. He was definitely writing from Marnie’s point of view during the rape scene, as he was writing in the first person. “All the time you were seeing Mark more of less through her eyeline,” said Graham. “That’s one of the problems in writing from the first person.” The reader was seeing Mark Rutland from the neurotic stand point of Marnie. And Graham firmly believed that Mark was a straight forward stationer with none of the fetishism and hang ups that Hitchcock gave him.

By 1939, Graham was 31 years old and very eligible for work. When he became successful as a writer, he liked to describe himself as the ‘Most successful unknown author in Britain’. It was a part of an image he liked to project and cultivate, and there was some underlying truth to the role he played. He wrote his first Poldark novel, Ross Poldark, in 1945, which quickly became a Book Society Recommendation. This was followed by Demelza in 1946. Up until 1948, when the Poldark novels became a success, Graham was writing a succession of novels but making little money. Living in Cornwall he would write books to order, for example he wrote Cordelia in 1949 for the book of the month club, and gained good income from its American sales. It sold well in 1949, but until the Poldark series no-one knew who Graham was as an author. Soon three quarters of his income would come from theAmerican sales of his books. Later when Marnie hit the headlines in 1962, Graham remarked to the press, “I was the most successful unknown novelist in England.”

Despite the considerable sales of the Poldark novels, Graham still questioned his success as a literary author. In his mind, he didn’t sell very well; as an author he was neither the intellectual type nor did he write blockbusters. He wrote in his memoirs, “I am, I suppose, what is generally called a popular novelist”. But in Andrew Graham’s estimation, the books on Cornwall are far better than their Daphne du Maurier’s equivalents such as Jamaica Inn (1936) on smuggling. Unlike du Maurier who came from a more upper class background – her father was Gerald du Maurier an actor and theatre manager and her grandfather George du Maurier the cartoonist for Punch magazine – Graham was more middle class. Whereas Daphne du Maurier’s writings are solidly upper middle class, Graham coming from a lower class background was able to write an authentic glimpse of what life must have been really like in the Cornwall of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In his first four Poldark novels he conjures up evocative descriptions of struggling tin miners, half starved labourers and rough squires, all battling for survival in the harsh Cornish environment. It was with this class consciousness that Graham was also able to write Marnie. “I automatically became part of Marnie,” said Winston Graham. “With any luck, I saw she did have a happy ending. I tried to imply at the end of the book that she had now come around and felt about Mark.” Foremost a storyteller, a skill which he developed from childhood, Graham was a novelist rather than an intellectual. He was always putting some of himself in the story. Graham himself described himself as “very young – younger than my years – in spite of having been a professional writer so long; and I was too romantic. My approach to women was too romantic – it still is – but it was by then a part of my nature and was too inbred to be changed.”

Despite Winston Graham’s claims to be a feminist, albeit an instinctive feminist, his son Andrew believes that his father wouldn’t understand what being a genuine feminist was. “He may have been sympathetic to a feminine view of the world. But in terms of his women having rights, few of his characters did apart from Demelza Carne, the servant girl in the Poldark novels, who was feisty,” says Andrew Graham. Also Winston Graham had no view of women running companies, and he was a member of ‘Blacks’, the Gentleman’s club. He didn’t believe that women should go to work, and indeed he didn’t want his wife Jean to go to work. So he really wasn’t a feminist in the true sense of the world. Perhaps that can explain the conflicting interpretations in the Marnie text, and the identification with the Mark Rutland character.

Therefore Graham could never really describe himself as a true feminist because he was never subjected to the pressures of women in patriarchal society. His daughter in law, Peggotty Graham, has read most of his books, and has the opinion that his portrayal of women is unconvincing. “He had a very old fashioned view of women,” said Peggotty. “He was no more of an instinctive feminist for someone of his time. I wouldn’t have thought he understood what feminism was. Maybe outwardly he thought he was an instinctive feminist, but inwardly he wasn’t. I agree with Andrew’s view. He liked to think he was, but he wasn’t. He liked women, but wasn’t a misogynist or anything like that. He didn’t want his wife to work – they did run a bed and breakfast when they first moved to Perranporth.” Winston Graham himself said, “I may be an instinctive feminist, not that I believe in holding banners or anything, because a number of feminists I’ve met have been perfectly awful.”

Read more in Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie, Revised Edition


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