The real history behind 'Poldark' series three: episode one

As Winston Graham’s Georgian-set drama returns to BBC One for a third season, historian Hannah Greig considers different aspects of the real history behind each episode of Poldark. In the first instalment of a new series for History Extra, Hannah profiles the some of the new characters joining Ross and Demelza, and considers the social status of an 18th-century governess…

Poldark is back. It is 1794 and with Elizabeth’s galloping horse we race headlong into the late 18th-century Cornish saga so evocatively created in Winston Graham’s novels, and now entering a third series for the BBC. We once again meet our lead protagonists with Ross, Demelza, Elizabeth and George locked in their complex ties of love, lust, sex, loyalty, ambition and conflict.

Episode one brings us new characters too, including Demelza’s brothers Drake and Sam Carne, and Elizabeth’s cousin Morwenna Chynoweth. Although Poldark's characters are fictional, Winston Graham drew inspiration for his stories from wide-ranging historical research and these new characters capture yet more facets of everyday 18th-century life and the place of ordinary people whose experiences might otherwise be lost to history.

Geoffrey Charles Poldark and newcomer Morwenna Chynoweth. (IMammoth Screen/BBC)

The position of an 18th-century governess

Morwenna joins Elizabeth’s family as a governess, the only paid employment available to a respectable unmarried woman whose family had fallen on hard times and was unable to support her. The governess occupied an awkward position in 18th-century society and within the household in which she worked. She was socially superior to other domestic servants, closer to the family in rank than to those ‘below stairs’ but nonetheless still a servant herself, dependent on her employer for everything – her income, board and lodging, working conditions, lifestyle and social connections. 

The 18th-century philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) described a governess as someone “shut out from society and debarred [from all] friends – on every side surrounded by unequals”. As Wollstonecraft implied, the fate of the governess, a woman without a clear status in society, was often bleak. Taking on the job was effectively a public statement of destitution and long-term prospects were poor. Once her charge grew up, what was a governess to do? Some families might employ her for a lifetime but not all. Marriage was unlikely. By the time she was 30 years old, she might be unemployed, unmarried and dependent on charity for the rest of her life.

The Warleggan household. (Mammoth Screen/BBC)

So, moving into the household of egotistical and aggressive George and the increasingly cold and unhappy Elizabeth, what will become of Morwenna? 

Hannah Greig is author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013) and is a historical advisor on the BBC One drama series Poldark.

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