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Winston Graham


I have posted in the past about Winston Graham, author of the Poldark novels that were so recently ruined by the BBC and PBS. Last week I had run out of novels to read and was rummaging through all the bookshelves in the house to find something. I settled on rereading Graham’s The Grove of Eagles, which I had previously read in the early 1980s.

It seems very sad to me that Graham never got the credit he deserved as a writer. It was said that he once referred to himself as England’s most popular unknown writer. When his books did get attention, he was overshadowed by bigger names (Alfred Hitchcock made a film out of Marnie, and actors and actresses got all the attention from the Poldark productions). The literati looked down on Graham as hopelessly middlebrow. One reviewer said that Graham had a wooden ear — a charge that I vigorously dispute.

In fact Graham is one of the few novelists whose style (to my taste) is worth reading carefully and analyzing. He writes superb, lucid sentences that have a cinematic effect in the mind of the reader — the kind of fiction writing that I love and strive for. He writes very masculine novels, yet he gets involved in the emotional lives of his characters (one reason why it was easy for screenwriters to ruin the 2014 BBC production of Poldark).

The Grove of Eagles, published in 1963, is a coming-of-age story about the bastard son of a leading Cornish family during the time of the Spanish Armada. It is an intricate novel, more demanding on the reader than the Poldark novels. It is well over 200,000 words long. It took Graham three years to draft it — a big time investment for a writer who wrote more than 40 novels. Graham gets involved in the politics of the royal court in the time of Sir Walter Raleigh. Clearly as a historian he also knew quite a lot about the politics of the Spanish royal court as well. The main character of The Grove of Eagles, Maugan Killigrew, is fourteen years old when the story begins. He is abducted during a raid on the Cornish coast and hauled off to Spain. He returns to England and becomes a secretary to Raleigh. Poor Maugan, forever lovesick, half wild and half poet, is horribly tormented by the author, as is any good protagonist.

There may be a cult developing around Graham, who died in 2003 at the age of 95. Jim Dring has assembled a great deal of information in PDF form. One hopes that he will turn it into a biography.

Most of Graham’s novels are out of print, but, thanks to sellers of used books who do business on Amazon, it’s pretty easy to acquire hardback copies of old editions. The next novel I read will be Graham’s The Tumbled House (1959).

It occurs to me that a huge body of literature may be slipping through the cracks in this new era of publishing — excellent novels published during the last 75 years or so of the 20th Century that came out in only one edition and that are unlikely ever to be reprinted or re-released as digital editions. I hope there are bloggers and booksellers in this niche.

P.S. It is still vastly easier to find good novels than to find something fit to watch on TV, even if you have Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu, and all that.


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