Winston Graham Graham, Winston (Mawdsley) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Winston (Mawdsley) Graham 1910–

English novelist.

Graham has written over thirty novels with both historical and modern settings; most are characterized by suspenseful plots. His five novels of eighteenth-century Cornwall were adapted for television as the dramatic series "Poldark"; and Alfred Hitchcock's film Marnie was based on Graham's novel of the same name.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)

Richard Match

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Capt. Ross Poldark, moody Cornish hero of "The Renegade," is the sort of character who might feel at home in a novel by Bronte (Emily or Charlotte). A kind of Heathcliffian Mr. Rochester, Captain Poldark is separated from Cornwallis' defeated army after the Peace of 1783. Returning to England in a marrying mood, he finds his childhood sweetheart wed to another….

As you may have gathered, this melodramatic tale by Winston Graham has a decided nineteenth-century flavor, stylewise, even though its action takes place a century earlier. Victorianism in literature is not entirely a drawback; the nineteenth-century novel sometimes possessed solid virtues. Its leisurely pace allowed an author to examine the foibles of even minor characters. It had solidified social relationships and moral values to write about. And frequently it worked up lofty indignation at the plight of the "lower classes."

All these attributes help make "The Renegade" a different and, in its small way, distinctive historical novel. Most of its historical background is what we call nowadays "social history." Swallowing his romantic disappointment, young Captain Poldark sets out to revive his family's worked-out tin and copper mines. We readers are thereupon given glimpses of the short and simple annals of Cornwall's poor (thickly idiomatic tenant farmers, fishermen and miners) and their children, who went down into the pits at the age of 8 and coughed blood at 11 or 12.

We get a good idea too of how provincial gentry lived in the reign of George III. Cornish society, be it said, reacted most unfavorably when one of its paid-up members—the same Captain Poldark—adopted a ragged 13-year old (female) waif named Demelza Carne. By the time Poldark, Pygmalion-like, has deloused, befriended and educated his ward, four years have elapsed, and Demelza is a big girl now. Poldark is the last to notice this, but he catches on eventually.

Richard Match, "Captain Poldark's Return," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1951 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 9, 1951, p. 29.

W.A.S. Dollard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although "Demelza" is not a masterpiece of historical fiction, both casual readers and those familiar with the eighteenth cen-tury will be interested in its reconstruction of the troubled years of the French Revolution in remote Cornish towns. The French Revolution seems to be a publisher's staple this year, but Mr. Graham's book is both solid and readable. He has obviously done extensive research into the period, and he even reproduces, with some fidelity, English speech of the age….

"Demelza" is more than a collection of romances. It makes us participate in movements which control the destinies of its character. It offers realistic and somber descriptions of Cornish farmers, fishermen and miners pushed to the verge of revolution by unjust laws.

W.A.S. Dollard, "A Lady by Adoption," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1953 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 8, 1953, p. 27.

Rex Lardner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The best [insurance] adjuster, one suspects, would combine civility with cynicism and have the honesty of a poet. In Winston Graham's quietly told, suspenseful novel, "Fortune Is A Woman," Oliver Bramwell qualifies on only one count—he evinces a healthy cynicism. As a member of the venerable firm of Abercrombie & Co. adjusters, Bramwell—who is something of an English Mike Hammer—has notable success. He discovers the real cause of an actor's black eye and avoids payment to his film company; he uncovers phony thefts and phony cases of fire damage; he avoids the clutches of a tall blonde. Then he discovers, by accident, a shocking fact: his firm is being duped by a supposedly well-off friend of his.

That Bramwell is in love with the man's wife makes the situation intolerable. Desperately tracking down clues, he finds further evidence of arson and the forgery of paintings and comes upon a corpse. To protect his friend's wife, despite his suspicion of her duplicity in the series of frauds, Bramwell hides his findings from his company. Blackmail and violence ensue. Mr. Graham, the author of "Night Without Stars," has peopled his book with lifelike men and women and positioned them on an unusual chessboard; a reader could hardly wish for a tenser, more compact psycho-thriller.

Rex Lardner, "An Adjuster's Adventures," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1953 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 20, 1953, p. 26.

Whitney Betts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the years 1790–91 the mining village of Sawie in the County of Cornwall has a peaceful air, but under its quiet surface feelings run high, particularly in the Poldark Family. In "Venture Once More," Winston Graham continues the narrative of this family to whom he has devoted two previous novels. Essentially, this is the story of Ross Poldark, "a small farmer squire with a mining interest" and his wife Demelza, a miner's daughter. Theirs is a story typical of that time and place, one of pride versus poverty, of feuds and reconciliations.

Charged by the Crown with having instigated the plunder of two ships wrecked in the harbor and for the ensuing riot with the excise men, Ross is facing trial at the summer assizes….

From this hamlet, the scene shifts to Bodmin, "a town of 3,000 inhabitants and twenty-nine public houses" where the elections and assizes are held consecutively. Here Mr. Graham displays his skill in describing urban turbulence as well as country tranquillity. Ross is acquitted when Jud Paynter turns the tables with his surprise testimony.

Freed of his public shadow, Ross returns to his personal problems which include dealing with the scurrilous fellow who is trying to gain control of the mines, and preparing for the birth of his son, Jeremy. Spending a while with the Poldarks in Sawie should appeal to those who suffer from the hustle and bustle of today. It is a leisurely novel which transports the reader to its milieu and makes its characters one's friends.

Whitney Betts, "Poldark's Progress," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1954 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1954, p. 26.

Martin Levin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Across the craggy landscape races Ross Poldark—Cornwall's answer to Rhett Butler—with a covey of excisemen in hot pursuit. Musketry crackles, shillelaghs thump, penal servitude looms, and a grim future faces the master of Nampara House. Even should Ross elude the revenue agents, the bankruptcy of his ailing copper mine and the loss of his wife's affections are likely possibilities. Such unpleasant prospects form the framework of "The Last Gamble,"… Winston Graham's third instalment dealing with the Poldarks of eighteenth-century Cornwall.

Well, if you think that Ross's troubles will finally prove too much for him, you just don't know much about the Poldarks, or about historical novels either. It would take more than bad investments to ruin the hero of the Poldark saga. And even though he may lose his head momentarily over his cousin's wife ("Don't, Ross. You're hurting me."), the marriage ties between Ross and his Demelza are strong enough to last several more sequels. Mr. Graham engineers the adventures of the Poldarks in a manner that hangs on to the reader's interest, and he manages to keep about four plots constantly simmering without abandoning a pleasantly leisurely style.

Martin Levin, "The Poldark Saga," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1955 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVIII, No. 11, March 12, 1955, p. 45.

Martin Levin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "The Sleeping Partner"] Winston Graham has written a more than adequate thriller based on a classic situation: the search for a murderer by an innocent suspect. Michael Granville, a young manufacturer of electronic apparatus, is suddenly confronted with a set of unpleasant facts concerning his lovely but inscrutable wife, Lynn. Lynn has disappeared leaving a trail of disturbing clues, assorted lovers, and a petition for divorce. When the lady's remains turn up under run circumstances Granville begins an exhaustive search for the murderer before the police can decide to nab the obvious candidate. Like some of Mr. Graham's other heroes, Granville is a pensive and unhurried customer; he carries on with his work and with a serious love affair while on the prowl for the killer. This versatility adds substance to "The Sleeping Partner," which makes up in credibility what it may lack in suspensefulness.

Martin Levin, "Vanished Wife," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1956 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIX, No. 50, December 15, 1956, p. 34.

Pamela Hansford Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I shan't say that Greek Fire is written with 'professionalism' or 'competence', as this would suggest that I put a premium on amateurishness and incompetence. (Some reviewers might do well to give some thought to antonyms.) This is an unexacting, workmanlike, blood-heat-and-no-more thriller about an American involved in Greek politics, and a bad, beautiful woman with a heart of plutonium. I should not respect it more if it were exacting and unworkmanlike. Mr. Graham knows precisely what he means to do, which is, to produce rather thrilling well-composed stories for xenophiles who would resent sloppy writing. Happier than some novelists, he is able to carry out his intention exactly. Unlike most writers of his kind, he is somewhat casual with his backcloths, assuming too much in the reader's eye. He could really do with a little more of what is called 'atmosphere', a drop more retina, if you like.

Pamela Hansford Johnson, "New Novels: 'Greek Fire'," in New Statesman (© 1958 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LV, No. 1400, January 11, 1958, p. 51.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Greek Fire,] Mr. Graham's interests lie in the spheres of political action and high-powered corruption, his characters, in spite of their private ambition and sophisticated veneer, being continually absorbed in public events. Money and sex, which play a large part in their lives, remain nevertheless marginal interests compared to the overriding fascinations of power in its many forms….

[Greek Fire] delves deeply into local Greek politics, sometimes brilliantly illuminating issues, sometimes merely obscuring. The plot involves the murder of a visiting Spanish cabaret artist by a smooth and cultivated politician wishing to remove evidence of Communist affiliations that are in the Spaniard's possession. An American of Greek descent interests himself in the consequences, gets caught up in the political implications of the murder, and falls in love with the politician's beautiful mistress. Mr. Graham takes his characters through much of Greece, and by means of dinner party conversation enters into spirited and rewarding dissections of its classical ideals, literary, political and aesthetic…. Mr. Graham lets philosophic abstractions and political details loom too large in the foreground, with the result that the emotions of his characters tend to appear unreal and over-simplified when they are eventually suggested.

"Preoccupations in Greece," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1958; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2, January 31, 1958, p. 66.∗

Anthony Boucher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Books by Winston Graham normally fall into the category of straight novels with the discipline of suspense—long, meaty, serious and shrewdly calculated, with strong emphasis on story telling and surprise. Few men handle this have-it-both-ways form more skillfully; and Graham himself has never done it better than in "Marnie."…

This is the first-person life story of one of the most unusual of recent heroines: a young girl who is a cold-blooded professional embezzler, the pretty little office girl who defrauds one company after another in a series of successive identities as carefully worked out as those of a polygamist. It is a tale of crime and pursuit and retribution, but by no means a simple one. With what seems (at least to a male reviewer) a phenomenally successful use of a woman's viewpoint, and with a rare and happy balance of psychoanalytic and novelistic method, Graham makes you know Marnie, even to the ultimate secret (unknown to her own conscious mind) which turned her to crime and away from sex. It's a novel as rewarding as it is suspensefully readable.

Anthony Boucher, "Criminals at Large: 'Marnie'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 8, 1961, p. 50.

Robert Payne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Winston Graham is a good, even an excellent historical novelist—though we are made continually aware that he is as adept at cunning maneuvers and his approximations remain approximations. In his new novel, "The Grove of Eagles," he does not wrestle with the angel; the fire of the past does not burn very brightly. He goes about the task of describing Elizabethan England with a scholar's load of proper mischief. He has soaked himself in local lore, knows his history, his towns, the shape of the vanished land; he has read the account books, and he can follow his people through the daily round, hour by hour and minute by minute.

Something is still missing. We are never completely convinced that it...

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Peter Vansittart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In After the Act] Mr. Graham lays out a serious theme. Does the act of killing change one profoundly? It is timely. Most men over forty encountered at a party have probably killed; have dropped the bomb on a schoolroom, bayoneted a Fascist, tossed a petrol bomb into an old lady's lap, or joined the Bank Holiday roarers on the roads. What do they now feel? Mr. Graham takes a young playwright married to an older woman and now, in the heady moment of success, falling for a very young girl. He disposes of the wife by pushing her over a balcony. But can he, in a brief suspension of morality, carry on as if nothing had happened: or even convince himself that Harriet died accidentally? Can he be, like Richard III, himself alone, in a defeatable world? Here is a real opportunity to chart fears, superstitions, guilts and freedoms latent in most of us. Sadly, however, despite a firm grasp of contemporary living and a dash of Buddhism and progressive Christianity, Mr. Graham tackles far less of human nature than did his nineteenth-century predecessors. Fuller implications seem sacrificed to the needs of a popular, neatly rounded story.

Peter Vansittart, "Landscapes, People," in The Spectator (© 1965 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 215, No. 7150, July 9, 1965, p. 56.∗

Anthony Boucher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Winston Graham attempts his most ambitious novel in "After the Act" …, an examination of a successful murderer which scraps all accepted clichés about remorse and retribution and tries to analyze, completely anew, what his reactions must be. Much though I admire the intent, I am forced to report that this is a moderately tedious book, despite exciting glints of insight. It takes forever to reach its starting point, and then continues to move, at the pace of a snail who has given up all hope of the Olympics, through a fuzzy thicket of imprecise words.

Anthony Boucher, "Criminals at Large: 'After the Act'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 15, 1966, p. 29.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr Graham has been known up to now as a novelist rather than an historian. But his gift for narrative and firm knowledge of his subject combine to make [The Spanish Armadas] an excellent piece of popular historiography. The catchpenny title is misleading, since the real subject of the book is the Elizabethan war with Spain. The war is never described as a whole and the operations in the Caribbean are omitted, together with their vital economic consequences; nor are European operations confined to armadas, since (inevitably) Grenville's fight with a flota is included, as are the Lisbon and Cadiz raids.

Five true armadas are distinguished, the Enterprise of England taking up half of the book. In his account of the events of 1588 Mr Graham makes an illuminating comparison between the evolution of the race-built galleon and that of the twentieth-century Spitfire. He makes good use of Evelyn Hardy's recent book on the events in Ireland to give an exciting account of Cuellar's escape, but he accepts too easily the crescent formation of the Spanish fleet without explaining how the eagle's wings pattern made it so formidable. Also, he does not say anything about the recent discoveries of marine archaeologists among the wrecks…. Mr Graham avoids technicalities in the interests of a fluent narrative and this gives a well balanced if rather over-simplified record of events.

"Spain Torpedoed," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3682, September 29, 1972, p. 1171.

Lucille Crane

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The setting for [The Black Moon, an] historical novel of Cornwall during the late eighteenth century, is near Truro and Falmouth. The span of years is not great, but the events and people crowd a fine tapestry. On the whole the novel is well-organized and well-researched—a bit of European history brought to life by a skilled craftsman, abounding in imaginative reality. (p. 208)

Lucille Crane, "Fiction: 'The Black Moon'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1974, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 34, No. 9, August 1, 1974, pp. 208-09.

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