Celtic Romanticism: The idealisation of heritage in Poldark and Outlander

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Heritage is a concept that has been redefined in the eyes of the public. At first the cause was romantic literature. Now it seems that with the help of TV and film, this evocative genre has possessed the minds and hearts of millions, and with it, the intrigue to beguile audiences into such passionate fits they feel they must dedicate all their time to sourcing out everything and anything they can about a show’s context. It means looking back at history, at the significance of a culture and understanding the political, economic and social implications of a world/ time period. It’s a smart move, and something noteworthy of all writers: inspiring others to learn more from the immediate text, covertly teaching people who would otherwise turn their noses up at undressing the fibres of history. We see it in children’s books, delicately put to derail their attentions from the fact they’re still yet learning.

But I digress.

When I talk about Celtic romanticism I refer to two particular texts; the first being Winston Graham’s Poldark. Having first been published in 1945, the series has encouraged readers to transfer their interests from the tribulations of modern society towards the history of Cornwall’s mining industry and the poverty that befell Cornish residents in the 18th century. As a novel it hearkens back to the realities of smugglers, pirates and the more fantastical promise of a life full of danger and unpredictable circumstances. Such is reflected in Du Marier’s Frenchman’s Creek (1941) where we find heroin, Dona, escaping from the constraints of 17th century society in pursuit of the scandalous lifestyle offered by French pirate, Jean-Benoit Aubéry. But just as Graham’s book series has broadened public interest in Cornwall’s heritage, so has the introduction of the 2015 TV adaptation.

The dark and brooding Ross Poldark has no doubt brought audiences flocking to learn more about his enigmatic lifestyle and the love interests that follow. Aidan Turner’s casting of the role has only fed this burning furnace of passion. This does unfortunately detract from the purpose of the work, but there is some benefit to come from this. Where audiences take an interest in the characters so do they fall in love with the environment. From there, audiences will search endlessly for information that might bring them closer to the characters, and to identify with the characters you must understand what they experience; the only way to do that, is by looking back at the Cornish heritage with a scrupulous attention to specifics.

A second text to consider is Outlander. Written by Diana Gabaldon, the novel was formerly published as Cross Stitch (1991) and is similarly responsible for restoring public interest in heritage: Scottish heritage. Pulling from the stereotype of the strong Scotsman, the series that follows tugs at the representation of an honourable man with a powerful need to protect others and fight for what he believes in. Gabaldon emphasises the essence of cultural pride, significantly the pursuit of liberty and freedom. It’s quite a primordial aspect of ourselves which is brought out in these situations, as if the role of defender calls to our natural instinct to partner ourselves with the strong of mind and will. Braveheart (1995) casts a light on such a stereotype and from this our hearts burn for the injustice of the Scots’ treatment and the passionate need for their liberation from the pilfering English soldiers. Outlander was first aired in 2014 as a TV series, a media that’s increasingly more promising to non-readers. Just as with Poldark, the series practically cries out that the affairs which afflicted and blessed the lives of thousands, be explored.

But although Celtic romanticism clearly takes the form of the characters relationships, it is also presented through the landscape. In Poldark, the ragged cliffs, blustering seas and nature’s assault on the senses draws on the readers’ ideas of repose and wildness, synonymous with the wild and unpredictable nature of the foregrounded men. It offers a reprieve from the normality of banal routines and stress of technologically infused lifestyles. In Scotland, it’s the rolling glens, highlands and smell of pure, Scottish air. From the music to the clothing, the sense of pride that ensues is enough to make one double over with choked emotion. Yet there is a ruthlessness about the landscape that echoes the haggard cries of war, a constant in the course of Outlander as the plot draws ever nearer to the Battle of Culloden.

Fundamentally, each landscape is characterised, serving as another entity in itself. By simply reading into these texts you have been transported to a history torn up by war, politics, and fights for freedom. In the earth, clasped in gorse bushes are the threads of Celtic myths, rashly murmured through queer tongue. The foreignness of these imprinted histories should be disturbing, but like children we are victims to curiosity and instead we venture further into the undergrowth and deeper into the realms of the unknown.

The dichotomy between romance and hardship is often overshadowed by the idealisation of heritage. Maybe we are too invested in a nostalgia of the past. But then are we only admitting to a want of archetypal masculine roles (Jamie Fraser, Ross Poldark etc.)? Or is it the innocent desire to protect the landscape from exploitation? Then again, perhaps it’s a want of preserving tradition, a part of Celtic history that is fading like its people. Or perhaps we are merely struck with a melancholy hope that love will prevail in a world where the bond between partners grows fainter with each generation.

The decision is up to you.

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Jamie and Claire Fraser, Outlander
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