There’s no time for wooing or for expressing finer feelings in Poldark, where 18th-century Cornish rural life can be nasty, brutish and short. Characters are killed in copper mining accidents; they die of preventable disease and hunger; they’re hanged for petty theft or transported for smuggling.
Everyone is ruled by their passions and is at the mercy of a restless, roiling sea. So when ink-eyed, brooding hero Ross Poldark made his way into the bedroom of the love of his life, Elizabeth, there was only one way it could end, leaving a nation to gasp, “Ross, how COULD you?”
As Elizabeth moaned with pleasure, her swan neck arched and ready for Ross’s kisses as his hand pulled up her nightie, Poldark fans erupted. What a swine, what a bounder, what about Demelza?
Your wife, left at home with your baby son as you Do It with Elizabeth, a young wet-blanket widow who’s agreed to marry George Warleggan, your black-hearted nemesis.
The scene was the inevitable lancing of a loveboil that’s suppurated since the dawn of time for Ross and Elizabeth, once betrothed but forever sundered when Elizabeth, never a woman to hang about when it comes to marriage, became engaged to Ross’s cousin Francis.
Elizabeth, ostensibly outraged at this intrusion into her bedchamber, is grabbed and kissed by Ross who she yells at for being “hateful, horrible! I detest you!” before she’s pushed on the bed despite her insistence, “You would not dare!” She resists for a little while but not for long.
In the book, Elizabeth accuses Ross of treating her “like a slut” to which he replies, “It is time you were so treated.” Her continued protest – “Ross, you can’t intend… stop! Stop, I tell you” – is ignored, and she’s carried to bed.
Er, just hang on a minute there. A woman surprised in her own home by an intruder, albeit a man she knows, a man who ignores her protests before grabbing her and shoving her down on to her own bed where he has sex with her.
Isn’t that an assault? Surely what we saw on Sunday, though, is a watered-down interpretation of the very troubling passage in Warleggan, the third of Winston Graham’s original Poldark novels, written in 1953?
I read it some time ago, without knowing of the drama to come, and it never occurred to me it was anything other than the overcoming of a woman by a man, by force. I even texted a Poldark-loving friend, wondering, “How on earth can the TV version get around Ross as a rapist?”
After all, it’s not a scene that can be cut or ignored; it has serious, unalterable ramifications far into the future in the books and, presumably, in the TV series, too.
But has pragmatism intervened? This is 2016, Poldark is a huge Sunday-night BBC1 hit with the potential to run for years, and Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) is a heart-throb and an incredibly attractive, flawed hero. We’ll just about accept him – briefly – as a scoundrel who cheats on his wife, but we can’t accept him as a rapist.
He can’t be seen to inflict sex as a punishment, even in a pretend version of the 18th century. That is way, way beyond the pale.
Sexual violence against women has never been higher on the social, legal and political agenda than it is today. Gone are the dark ages when it was thought acceptable that when women say “no”, they really mean “yes”.
These are the days when the public rises to condemn high-profile men accused of rape, even before a trial – football clubs are urged to drop players as social media self-immolates.
Women are encouraged to report sexual assaults (though not nearly enough actually come forward) and the police are anxious to appear sensitive and non-judgemental. So pity the poor scriptwriter who has to deal with a hero at the centre of an, at best, ambiguous sex scene.