Sunday, May 28, 2017
"Ross Poldark and Noblesse Oblige"
"ROSS POLDARK AND NOBLESSE OBLIGE"
"You are mistaken if you think greed and exploitation are the marks of a gentleman." - Ross Poldark to George Warleggan, "P0LDARK" (2015)
When I first heard Ross Poldark speak those words to his nemesis, George Warleggan in Episode Eight of the current "POLDARK" series, I found myself wondering if Ross might be full of shit. Or perhaps he was either illusional . . . or a class bigot. Regardless, I could not help but roll my eyes at his remark.
I realize that some might wonder how I could accuse Ross Poldark . . . Ross Poldark of class bigotry. This man has been a champion of the working-class in his little part of Cornwall. He has managed to befriend his workers. He has spoken out on behalf of them and other members of their class. And he has been willing to make any effort to come to their aid - especially those who work on his land, even if he sometimes come off as patronizing. He has certainly expressed anger when he believed any of them has needlessly suffered, due to the actions of the upper-class or other wealthy types. Ross had spent days in a state of drunken anger after one of his former employees, Jim Carter had died after spending over a year in prison for poaching. He had also married his kitchen-maid, Demelza Carne, despite the tongue-wagging of his elite neighbors and family members.
Also, one cannot deny that the Warleggans deserved Ross' scorn. George Warleggan's grandfather had been a blacksmith who eventually became a moderately wealthy man. His sons - George's father and uncle Cary - acquired even more wealth, leading the family to become their parish's wealthiest bankers. George was the first in his family to be and his family were a money hungry bunch that resort to grasping ways - legal or illegal - to not only acquire money, but also rise up the social ladder in order to become part of Cornwall's upper-class. They are pretty much an ambitious and venal bunch who do not seemed to give a rat's ass about the suffering of the lower classes. They also seemed willing to inflict suffering upon them for the sake of greater profits and social respectability. And yet . . . the interesting thing about the Warleggans is that they had managed to acquire great wealth on their own - meaning without the help of some aristocrat or member of the landed gentry.
So, why did I have a problem with Ross' words? Were viewers really expected to believe that only noveau riche types like the Warleggans were capable of greed and exploitation? History tells us that the landed gentry and the aristocracy were just as guilty of greed and exploiting not only their workers, but their land, despite occasional moments of taking care of those beneath them when times were tough. And yet, I get the feeling that those moments of compassion stemmed from the idea of "noblesse oblige" - people of noble birth being duty bound to take responsibility for the well being of those under their patronage or employment. However, "noblesse oblige" had not prevented aristocrats and members of the landed gentry from engaging in years of exploiting their land, their tenants and their employees; living greedily from their profits, and doing a poor job of managing their money led to a decrease in their wealth. This was the case for Polarks, the Chynoweths and other upper class families - fictional or not - who found themselves cash poor by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. British landowners had been enclosing their lands - forcing tenant farmers to become agricultural laborers - since the late seventeeth century, at least a century before George Warleggan had enclosed the Trenwith estate, following his marriage to Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark. And they continued to do so well into the nineteenth century.
If Ross regarded himself, his uncle Charles Poldark, his cousin Francis Poldark and other members of the landed gentry like Sir Hugh Bodrugan, the Treneglos, Ray Penvenen and Unwin Trevaunance as "gentlemen", then his comments to George were spoken in error. Most, if not all, of these gentlemen were capable of greed and exploitation. Ross might occasionally criticize the behavior of his fellow members of the upper-class, just as he had did following the death of his former employee, Jim Carter. But he has never expressed antagonism toward them with the same level that he has toward the Warleggans. It is quite obvious that he regarded these men as "gentlemen". He seemed to have no problems with socializing or forming a business enterprise with them. And if this is the case, I cannot help but wonder about the true reason behind Ross' antipathy toward the Warleggans.
Had Ross' antipathy originated with his exposure of the Warleggans' cousin, Matthew Sanson, as a card cheat? I rather doubt it. Ross and some of his other acquaintances had been making snide comments about the Warleggans' rise in wealth since the series began. No matter how many times George tried to befriend Ross throughout most of Series One, the latter would dismiss his effort with a sardonic or nasty comment. Yet, Ross seemed to have no problems with socializing with the likes of the snotty Ruth Teague Treneglos and her ineffectual husband; the money grasping blue-blooded politician Unwin Trevaunance, who sought heiress Caroline Penvenen's hand for her money; or the self-absorbed Sir Hugh Bodrugan, who seemed to have no concern for anyone or anything, aside from his own pleasures - including Demelza Poldark, whom he pursued like some aged satyr. Even Ross is not the epitome of "gentlemanly" sainthood. He seemed so hellbent upon finding a wealthy source of copper or even tin from his mine, Wheal Grace that he failed to consider that he lacked the funds to ensure a safe environment for his workers. This determination to strike a lode without any safety measures led to an accident and the deaths of a few men. And his aggressive, yet adulterous actions against his widowed cousin-in-law (I might as well be frank - his rape of Elzabeth) in the eighth episode of Series Two made it perfectly clear that "gentleman" or not, Ross can be repulsive.
And yet, despite all of this, Ross seemed to regard the Warleggans as an unworthy lot. I am not saying that George and his uncle are a nice bunch. They can be just as repulsive and greedy as their upper-class neighbors. And on several occasions, the Warleggans have made derisive comments about Demelza, who happened to be a miner's daughter. All this tells me is that contrary to Ross' comment to George, the latter's family is no better or worse than the other upper-class characters in the "POLDARK" saga. They are quite capable of being snobs. But what about Ross? Is he a snob? He may be friendly toward his workers and willing to help them out, but his friendly and compassionate regard for them seemed to have a patronizing taint. In fact, his love toward his working-class wife Demelza seemed to have the same taint.
Although his good friend, Dr. Dwight Enys, managed to rise from his working-class background to become a doctor, he did so with the help of upper-class patronage. And Ross provided his own patronage toward Dwight in helping the latter establish a medical practice in their part of Cornwall. Ross even helped Dwight in the latter's romance with the blue-blooded Caroline Penvenen. I cannot help but wonder if the Warleggans had the benefit of "noblesse oblige" - namely an upper-class mentor to guide them in their rise to great wealth, would Ross have been less hostile toward them?
Perhaps it is one thing for Ross Poldark to help the lower classes have a better life - by offering them jobs or homes, providing patronage for someone with potential like Dwight Enys, or marrying his kitchen maid. It is another thing - at least for him - to tolerate people from the lower classes like the Warleggans to rise up in wealth through their own efforts and not via the benefit of the "noblesse oblige". And my gut instinct tells me that the Warleggans’ rise via their own grit, ambition and brains was something that Ross could not stomach.