What I saw in Elizabeth Poldark: An open thank-you to Heida Reed

By Friday, December 21, 2018 , , ,

Dear Heida,
Like many others, I know about you because of Poldark. I was unfamiliar with Poldark when the show first aired, but the previews caught my eye, so I settled onto my couch one summer evening in 2015 as the first episode ran. I was captivated instantly. From there, I learned how huge Poldark is because of another series made in the 1970s and because of the 12 books that inspired it and the current series. Suffice it to say, I quickly became a fan. I started reading the books after watching the first season of the new TV show and am still gradually working my way through them (just finished the ninth one, The Miller’s Dance, to be precise). Cornwall is now high on my list of dream travel destinations. Winston Graham now ranks among the most talented authors in my estimation. I follow you and your costars on Instagram and smile every time one of you posts a picture of Poldark cast members having fun together. Again, I’m a fan.

But I’m especially a fan of you. That seems odd to say since I don’t actually know you. Sure, you kindly share snapshots of your life online that I enjoy, but we all know that’s filtered. Many of us think we “know” famous people, but I’m sure very few people really know you or other famous actors like you. Still, as much as an actress can be “known” these days through what she shares online and how she carries herself during interviews, I feel like I know you because of how generous you are in those spaces. I enjoy how easily you laugh in behind-the-scenes videos I see on Poldark’s Facebook page, your witty Instagram captions, your beautiful smile, and how you’ve frequently declared your love for pizza on social media. So, thanks for all of that.

But perhaps most of all, thank you for Elizabeth.

Photo Credit: Far Far Away Site

Elizabeth is one of the most contentious and often roundly despised characters in Poldark. She’s regularly described as cold, remote, selfish, manipulative, or weak. For many years, she was just a snob who cared only for money and protecting herself from the consequences of her own bad choices.

Until you came along and stepped into the role of Elizabeth for our present-day audience. Recently, Karen Thrussell said she thinks you brought a "wonderful emotional truth" to Elizabeth. I like to think that you saw that in her when you first signed on for the role even though many people didn't see much more to her than a pretty face. 

Admittedly, I was surprised when Elizabeth and Francis were married in the first episode. Why didn’t Ross do more to win her back, I wondered. When Demelza came into the picture, I saw a new direction quickly forming for the story, and I loved it. But Elizabeth still lingered, and I wasn’t quite sure how to place her. I loved Ross and Demelza and Verity, hated George, but I couldn’t decide where Elizabeth fit. Still, I knew for sure that I didn’t hate her. Not even close.

And, as I continued watching the story and then read the books, Elizabeth actually became one of my favorite characters, and I think you had a lot to do with that, Heida. Past generations of Poldark fans called her a snobby ice queen or cunning shrew, but many have noted how you brought something nuanced and layered to the character. You helped audiences see past the porcelain surface of Elizabeth and into her 18th-century female mind, which I’m now convinced was constantly running at the speed of light. Because of your gentle handling of her, I have enormous sympathy for Elizabeth and the complicated, inconsistent journey she takes throughout the Poldark saga. When I looked at Elizabeth, both as I watched the show and read the books, I never saw a villain or a purposely malicious aristocrat like many people have.

I saw a very young woman caught between her heart and her head, her real desires and the crushing expectations of her society; and she felt she had to follow her head since she’d been taught to be strong and lay personal preference aside in favor of public image.

I saw a new wife and mother who tried hard to support her husband, her son, and the others in her care, but felt crippled by her husband’s passivity and emotional neglect.

I saw a wronged wife, fiercely devoted mother, affectionate sister-in-law, and dignified lady of the house who was trying her best to fulfill everyone’s expectations while she had to watch her husband choke on jealousy and gamble their livelihood away.

I saw a woman constantly wondering what life might have been like if she’d defied people’s demands just once and done what she really wanted rather than what she was supposed to do according to everyone else.

I saw a woman pained by seeing the man she truly loved marry another while her own husband ignored and berated her, even though she was doing everything she’d been taught about being a good wife to him.

I saw a wife grieving for the man she’d originally thought her husband was, for what she knew he was capable of if only he would look outside himself, and for what her marriage could have been if he’d faced life’s challenges like a man.

I saw a woman who grieved even more deeply when that husband died right as he started to turn his life around for the better.

I saw an impoverished widow terrified of what the future held for her son since she had no money or security to give him after his father died and left a mountain of debt and a crumbling estate.

I saw a woman again caught between her head and her heart when an unexpected second marriage offer came, and she once again chose the logical route since she had her son’s future to think of, as well as her own security and that of her ailing relatives and a derelict estate.

I saw a woman forever tainted in her own eyes and constantly carrying a heavy, guilty secret because of the angry, jealous, impassioned actions of the man she’d always loved, but who ended up letting her down appallingly.

I saw a woman worn down by disappointment, betrayal from men she should have been able to trust, and constant fear for her future and that of her children.

I saw the wife of a powerful, influential, ruthless man who she desperately needed to please even as she tried to check the reach of his cruelty towards other people.

I saw a wife who learned to be happy in her second marriage because that husband finally provided the security and care she'd always wanted for herself and her children; yet, she still had to tread carefully since she knew he could be merciless if provoked the wrong way.

I saw a mother crippled by fear of what would happen to her children if her second husband didn’t accept them and provide for them. 

I saw a woman of deep feeling, but who was naturally reserved and often didn't know how to express or react to what she felt, because she'd always been taught to be strong for other people and to keep her emotions in check since showing strong emotion was unfit for a lady like her; overtime, it became more and more difficult for her to keep her mask of composure in place. 

Ultimately, I saw a woman who was highly sought after and loved by three very different men, but ended up caught in the crossfires of their rivalries. All of them loved her selfishly in various ways, never focusing entirely on who she was as a person, but on what she could do for them. Sadly, that eventually led to her suffering an untimely death in an attempt to shield her son from the consequences of all of their jealous actions. To be sure, she made inexcusable choices along the way too, but those three men hastened her tragic end with their envy and manipulation. 

I saw in Elizabeth a heartbreaking example of the choices women could have been forced to make in the 18th century. I saw an intelligent, capable, eager, affectionate woman who became jaded by the many difficult hands life dealt her. I empathized with her and wanted better for her. She deserved better, I’m convinced. 

And I’m convinced because of you, Heida. All that I saw in Elizabeth started with you. You played her with quiet strength, dignity, nuance, restraint, grace, and emotion that I could always see bubbling just beneath the surface of her calm veneer. I felt for her and wanted to tell her how beautiful and worthy she was. So, thank you. Thank you for bringing this complicated woman to brilliant life and for giving me a character I learned to sympathize with in ways I never could have expected when I settled in for that first Poldark episode on that evening in June 2015. It’s been a wonderful journey and I will miss both you and her so much during the final series next year. 

Love from a grateful fan, 

Elizabeth 


Photo Credit: Heida Reed on Instagram

P.S. Maybe the fact that I’m name twins with your Elizabeth also helped me love her :) 

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6 comments

  1. Bravo! I agree. I also love how Elizabeth serves to humanize the villainous George. His love for her is one of the few likeable things about him and shows us that he is capable of being a better man if he chooses.

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    1. Totally agree! She's his one soft spot and she brings out what good there is in him. It's definitely his redeeming quality.

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  2. Wonderfully said! Your comments speak volumes of the role women were forced to take during those times. I remember similar comments about Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. People castigate her character and even Elizabeth sometimes thinks negatively of her, but at the end of the day Mrs Bennet knows she loves her daughters and must secure a future for them as their choices are limited.

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    1. Thank you!! I have seen similar commentary on Mrs. Bennet as well and definitely think there's at least some legitimacy to it. It was not easy for women in the 17-1800s and I think we're often too quick now to judge by 21st century standards. It's important to step back into the shoes of the time period!

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  3. I always felt for Elizabeth. I too feel she was ill-treated by Ross and Francis. There was a Tess of the D'urbervilles sadness and bad timing aspect to her fate. I know that Ross had much to cope with upon his return from war,but she should have been one of his priorities. I think Heida played her part wonderfully.

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    1. I totally agree! I do think most everyone ended up where they were supposed to -- despite how it may sound, I really do love Ross and Demelza together and wouldn't change that -- but Elizabeth's arc was indeed tragic and I wish she and Ross had at least tried to make a clean breast of things right when he came back at the beginning of the story. He definitely should have made it more of a priority to clarify things with her.

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