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OTHER WRITING

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OTHER WRITING – WINSTON AS A WRITER IN MANY GENRES

Winston Graham may be best known for his Poldark novels but he wrote more than thirty other novels, plays, film scripts, short stories, works of history, plus one book that was partly autobiographical and a full autobiography. Many were filmed, the most famous being the psychological suspense novel, Marnie. This was also made into an opera with music by Nico Muhly. The London premiere was performed by the ENO (at the London Coliseum) in 2017 and the New York premiere was held at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2018.

His early books, written in the 1930s and during the war, were thrillers and Winston Graham often described them as ‘deservedly out of print’. However, in 1948, Cordelia, was selected as a dollar book club choice in the USA. Set in the late 19th century against the backdrop of the rising middle classes in the north of England, it was a milieu he knew well from his mother and the stories she told him as a young man. The great success of this novel gave him particular pleasure as the year before he has been based in London for a brief period as a writer of film scripts. He hated writing to order and returned to Cornwall resolved to write a novel that no-one would ever film and Cordelia was the outcome.

The Poldarks were started in the 1940s, but after the war and apart from these he increasingly focused on modern suspense novels. These included Take my Life, Night without Stars, Fortune is a Woman, and The Walking Stick, all of which were filmed.

Other works included a history of The Spanish Armadas, an historical novel The Grove of Eagles, two collections of short stories, The Japanese Girl and The Cornish Farm, the semi-autobiographical work, Poldark’s Cornwall, which contains not only many evocative photos of Cornwall but also insights into Winston Graham’s life, and his autobiography, Memoirs of a Private Man.

Winston was a brilliant storyteller, a great descriptive writer, and had deep insights into people’s characters. His work is also remarkable in the depth and accuracy of his research. Every detail was checked and re-checked against original documents. In the Poldarks, his description of Launceston prison in the 1770s, his knowledge of the fishing, mining, and banking industries, his accounts of the rise of steam power, his awareness of the significance of Methodism, and his understanding of early medicine are all pitch perfect.

His modern novels are to the same outstandingly high standards. The state of the body found under the anthracite in The Sleeping Partner is how the Cornish County pathologist described it in a letter to Winston (now in the Royal Cornwall Museum). His knowledge of boxing in Angell, Pearl and Little God came from attending fights and becoming a good friend of a prominent boxing promoter while the character of Marnie followed many discussions with psychiatrists. And in The Walking Stick he knew about how to break into a safe as he found a good thief who was willing to divulge his secrets – provided Winston didn’t use them all!

Everything was written longhand and until the 1960s with an HB pencil. After that it was in black biro. He owned a typewriter, but that was for letters only - and he spoke of the huge importance of resisting the temptation to start the day with a letter. He had no time for the writer waiting for the ‘creative urge’ - you had to write, write, write, every day. In his diaries which he kept from his early ‘20s into his ‘90s, he typically recorded only three things: the weather, the number of sets of tennis played, and, always, the number of words written.

Despite such an impressive oeuvre of work it was only after the first television series of the Poldarks in the 1970s that Winston Graham felt his name was becoming familiar to the public. Before that he was frequently heard to describe himself, somewhat wryly, as “the most successful unknown author in England”. He would therefore be particularly pleased to think that perhaps now, his name is becoming known to a whole new generation of readers and viewers.

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