Three years after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, the Poldark family are enjoying a period of relative stability now that Ross has retired from Parliament but things are never quiet for long at Nampara, and seventeen-year-old Bella announces she wants to study opera singing in London.
Keen to allow their children to pursue their interests, Ross and Demelza make suitable arrangements for their daughter to stay with a family friend but they don’t reckon on Bella’s wilfulness when she decides to run off to Paris with an admirer.
Valentine Warleggan’s behaviour is also causing concern as he’s gone off the rails since his wife, Selina, left him and as much as Ross wants to stay out of it, he can’t help himself. However, Ross’s attempts at rescuing Valentine from financial ruin exacerbate his rift with George Warleggan who is taking Selina’s side for the sake of his grandson, Georgie. As Valentine’s world continues to crumble around him, he becomes overly attached to a rescued monkey whose free reign around the house soon leads to tragedy.
Bella Poldark is the twelfth and final book in the Poldark Saga following the adventures of the Poldark family and their neighbours in Cornwall, and as the title suggests, it follows the adventures of the youngest daughter, Isabella-Rose, affectionately known as Bella. Unfortunately, Bella’s story is not interesting enough to carry the novel and it pales in comparison to the drama surrounding Valentine Warleggan which only serves to highlight the shallowness of Bella’s character. Out of all the Poldark children, Bella is said to be the most like her mother with her wild and free spirit, however she is nowhere near as intriguing as Demelza and appears rather selfish at times.
While appearing as a minor character in the previous books, the seeds for this novel are actually sown in The Twisted Sword when Bella meets Christopher Havergal, a young soldier who falls in love with her. Since Bella is only thirteen when they first meet, Christopher has to wait while she grows up, and when he seeks her out in Bella Poldark, his feelings haven’t changed and he asks permission to marry her. Christopher also wants Bella to go to London to study opera singing and seems to have everything worked out for her, much to Ross and Demelza’s annoyance. The Poldarks have never stood in the way of their children’s dreams, so Bella is allowed to go despite the fact Demelza is reluctant to let another child out of the nest.
Despite the fact Christopher is still waiting in the wings, Bella becomes enchanted with a young Frenchman, Maurice Valery, and she follows him to Rouen where she has an affair with him. The intimate scenes between Bella and Marcel shocked me, not because they are particularly explicit, but more so because they are racier than any of the other love scenes Graham has written throughout the entire series so they seemed more out of place as a result. Since Christopher has already confessed to having had affairs while waiting on Bella, Bella is unapologetic about her affair and feels she has the right to do the same thing before she settles down.
Bella’s rebelliousness in this regard is just one example of how Graham explores the differences between how a woman and a man are expected to behave in this era with an emphasis on how very few rights a woman had in comparison. Graham has actually explored this theme throughout the entire Poldark series, as there have been lots of examples of how a woman is treated like a man’s property and seems to have little value beyond being a wife and mother. While Bella’s situation is more frivolous, the stakes are much higher in regard to Valentine’s custody battle with his wife where we learn Valentine’s parental rights would’ve taken precedence over Selina’s despite his lifestyle. The theme is carried throughout all levels of society as we learn how Caroline of Brunswick has returned to England to reclaim her rightful place as queen and is vilified for having a lover despite the fact her husband has had numerous mistresses.
Another theme explored is the aftereffects of war, particularly in regard to the number of soldiers who are now roaming the countryside as a result of their failure to regain their place in society. The character of Philip Prideaux is introduced as a possible love interest for Clowance but he eventually becomes the lead investigator into a series of brutal murders. The murders seem hardly more than a plot device to give Prideaux something to do when it becomes clear Clowance has little interest in marrying him. I really didn’t like the murder plot because it seemed so out of place in the series and the motivations for it are pretty weak, as are the revelations surrounding the identity of the real culprit. More could’ve been made out of the trauma Prideaux suffered as a result of his time at Waterloo and the subsequent emotional outbursts and blackouts he experiences which would’ve fitted in nicely with the soldier theme.
Since this is the final book in the series, there are a lot of loose threads to be tied up in regard to our leading characters, particularly between Ross and Valentine. While Ross continues to skirt around the question of Valentine’s paternity, it becomes increasingly obvious Ross does believe he is the young man’s father and feels an obligation to help Valentine. Ross makes more than one allusion to the fact he believes Valentine has been psychologically scarred by the persistent rumours and the constant quarrelling that took place between his parents when he was a young child. However, it seems Valentine is beyond redemption as he descends into a life of debauchery and his illegal activities soon catch up with him. When Valentine dies, Ross mourns him just as strongly as he did for Jeremy, however he takes the opportunity to ensure something positive comes out of the situation when he makes arrangements for little Georgie to be raised away from George Warleggan’s influence.
By the end of the book, it seems the Poldark family have finally found peace as Clowance marries her former beau, Edward, and Bella is engaged to Christopher. Despite his disappointment over Clowance’s refusal to marry him, Prideaux is spending a lot of time with Cuby and it seems to be just a matter of time before he realises his growing attachment to her. Graham even introduces Demelza’s niece, Esther Carne, so Ben Carter can have his own happy ending. I was a little disappointed we didn’t get to see more of Geoffrey Charles and his Spanish wife, Amadora, who are now living permanently at Trenwith but I guess that means they get to live in peace too.
So, after twelve books, the Poldark saga finally draws to a close and I will miss Ross and Demelza, even if some of their adventures were less than exemplary.