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The Mystery of Blame In The Death Of Julia Poldark

Worried Ross Poldark looking at a sick Demelza holding sick baby Julia in Nampara bedroom

Now known by the name 'Diphtheria’, on 1st January 1790 Demelza and Julia presented with symptoms of what was then known as the ‘putrid  throat’ disease. Demelza was put to a sick bed. She survived and woke over the worst of it on 4th January when readers were informed that Julia had not survived and had been lost to Demelza and Ross just the night before. 

Julia had been the first child of Ross and Demelza's marriage. As a mere baby at just nineteen months of age it is reasonable to ask why Graham would write this completely innocent character, out of the story so soon and by death. 

A Mystery in Julia's Death 

Julia is one of the nine characters in the whole Poldark saga whose death obviously had a big impact and relevance on the Ross and Demelza love and life story. This post is intended to follow on from the prelude post 'Nine Lives, Nine Deaths'That post considered the idea that an author's decision to write a character's death into their story tends to be due to it being either a 'Literary plot device' designed to move the plot forward, or to exact  ‘Literary poetic justice' on that character. Julia's death might seem straightforward at first glance, however, with further thought there are a few issues that arise from Julia's death and unlike some of the others in the Poldark story there is a layer of mystery to it. This means that before looking at the reasons why she was 'killed off' in the follow up post in on Julia's deaththere should be a foundation of greater understanding about how her death came about and the circumstances that led to it including the mystery around this. 

Naturally the first point of call is to write off Julia's death as being due to Demelza helping at Trenwith, getting infected with the 'putrid throat' disease and then passing this on to Julia. But what if this was not quite the case and Julia's death was not related to Demelza's actions after all?  What if the appearance that it was is somehow crucial to this part of the story in some way? Looking at the whole circumstances of Julia's death it does appear that there may be more to it and as this is intriguing this post will therefore explore the other untapped possibilities. That may then help to provide context to the follow up post  'The Death Of Julia Poldark-A Marital Storm'. That will explore the significance of all this and perhaps a better understanding of what might have been Graham's reasoning in writing Julia's death and the devices he used.

The Blame Game- The Potential To Destroy Love With Death

To be blunt the issue of how exactly Julia became infected with the 'putrid throat' disease is of great significance in her death storyline but more so to the Ross and Demelza love story. This is because the issue of blame is key to plot device and to the 'potential' added strain on Ross and Demelza's marriage. It is such a major issue that it 'could have' broken the love and it 'could have' broken the marriage. As documented in The 'Love in Loss' post, in the end Ross and Demelza's love for each other did rule the day over any underlying bitterness, and this meant that they navigated the experience of loss not just with Julia's death but also later on with Jeremy's death too. 

'Courting infection' at Trenwith? Or 'Catching infection' at Trenwith?

As stated it is an entirely natural presumption to make that Julia came to be infected with the 'putrid throat' disease through Demelza. The presumption is that she must have caught this during her overnight stay helping at Trenwith which she did on 29th December 1789. Demelza and Ross had both reached this conclusion. In the tenth book 'The Loving cup', when hearing about Stephen Carrington catching an infection and being at death's door, Graham wrote that they were both thinking that '...when Francis Poldark and Geoffrey Charles had lain dangerously ill of the morbid sore throat,...Demelza had gone over to help Elizabeth and had caught the infection herself.' Later in that book in a moment of drunken distress Demelza said to Ross 'I believe you blame me, don't you, always have, for going to help Francis and Elizabeth when they had the-the morbid sore throat....,catching it and giving it to Julia.'  It was a sore spot that lingered in their hearts forever, but was there ever clear confirmation from Graham in narrative rather than of their thoughts, that Demelza had actually caught the 'putrid throat' at Trenwith? Not specifically. But outside of this Graham did build a case that the connection of Demelza's visit and Julia's infection and death had the potential to impact on Ross's love and feelings in general towards Demelza. Certainly there was a whiff of this being a snag in their relationship. Graham wrote that after her death Julia's name was hardly even mentioned between them and of Demelza he wrote that 'Sometimes she suspected that Julia was a bar between them, that though he (Ross) tried his utmost not to, the memory of her courting infection to help at Trenwith still rankled.' The important point there is the idea of Ross being 'rankled' by Demelza courting infection and this leading to his daughter's death. A feeling like that against a spouse is a potentially dangerous one if allowed to fester and overpower love.

On reflection it is suspicious that though there is mention of Demelza
'courting infection' at Trenwith and her belief that Ross thought she did actually catch it there too, Graham as narrator never confirmed in narration that this is where she definitely picked it up. It could be easily ignored but 'Courting infection' (at Trenwith) is not essentially a conclusive term to confirm that 'actual infection' did take place there instead of any other source mentioned. But it is an equivalent to the idea that she had 'tempted fate' or  'played with fire' without going on to confirm that she had indeed met her fate there and had indeed played and got burnt there. Without confirmation from Graham it is really for the reader, like Ross to assume that not only did she court infection at Trenwith but this is definitely where she caught it.
However to do so might then be to wrongly dismiss other possibilities of how Demelza and Julia might have otherwise been infected with the 'putrid throat' disease. These are the other possibilities that Graham alluded to in the narrative as well. The irony could then be that Demelza's benevolent act at Trenwith was never the source and cause of hers and Julia's infection in the first place. If so that she would then have been wrongly blamed by Ross as starting the chain of circumstance causing Julia to become ill and then to die, when in fact it had already been in motion irrespective of her visit. In that case her visit could have been a 'red herring' plot device thrown in as a theoretical 'cat amongst the pigeons' in their love and marriage. 

So what were these other possibilities? 

Infection All Around 

Starting with one of the more general possibilities Graham nevertheless did seem to lay seeds leaving room for doubt and other options about the source of Demelza and Julia's infection. Perhaps with history not quite allowing Graham to write a historical mistruth about Cornwall at this time, as narrator he instead told the reader that whilst the 'putrid throat' disease was not quite at epidemic levels, that nevertheless 
'This disease had been hanging round the district for nearly nine had stuck here and there with great rapidity and terrible results. Sometimes a whole family of children was swept off.' Also in order to make the reader aware that the disease was in the immediate local area Graham wrote Dwight saying "Look Ross, there is another case of sore throat at Marasanvose." 
Graham then wrote of Ross bumping into Dr Choake who advised him that he was just coming back from treating Francis for this disease. Incidentally Graham wrote of Dr Choake’s misdiagnosis perhaps of most of the Trenwith household as suffering from the 'ulcerous throat' instead of the putrid throat disease. Then more obviously he wrote of his rather arrogantly made and wildly incorrect diagnosis that Geoffrey Charles just had a "...mild attack of quartan fever." However the report Elizabeth gave to Demelza of Geoffrey Charles's condition and Graham's description of Demelza's own observations showed he had no mild illness and were consistent with the symptoms for 'Diphtheria' aka 'Putrid Throat' diseaseThese are the things Graham inserted into the text that on close examination indicate that as in real life the characters might not have always had full knowledge and occasionally were misled along with the reader who would naturally follow the characters belief. This is unless Graham added clarifying narration to suggest otherwise. In this case it does serve to highlight that 
if a qualified doctor could not diagnose the various throat illnesses correctly as the 'putrid throat' disease, then uneducated and medically lay locals of that time might have done the same and might then have been spreading the infection unknowingly. This is relevant not just in respect of the disease in the area but also regarding the visit of a Christmas choir specifically to Nampara.

That Suspiciously Sick Christmas Choir

Though it can be easily missed, the attendance of a sick and ‘ill-clad’ Christmas choir to Nampara on 24th December 1789 is a matter which Graham seemed to put a spotlight on and might have done for a reason of significance if this was a source of infection. Though it seemed important to Graham, this visit and story point was not covered in the television adaptions of Poldark but Demelza and Julia showed symptoms for 'putrid throat' disease eight days later and there are many mentions of this choir in the books.

In describing this Christmas choir Graham wrote that they were 'ill-clad and undernourished everyone, and only eight in all, for two of the choir were ill with the ulcerous sore throat, and three were sick with influenza...' ('Demelza' -Book four -chapter two). Such was the look of them that Graham in a later book added that Demelza '....had sympathized with them over their ailments' ('Warleggan'). Also of significance is that it so happened that this visit was late evening while Ross was still out and so Demelza was home alone with Julia. Dr Choake's 
misdiagnosis of the 'putrid throat' disease could mean that some of the missing members of the choir did not know they were perhaps suffering from this disease. As stated above Dr Choake had also potentially diagnosed the 'putrid throat' disease wrongly as the 'ulcerous throat' in some at Trenwith just as they might have. In any case, like COVID-19 in today's climate the 'putrid throat' disease was also one with an incubation period so that someone who was infected would not know until symptoms showed and could be infecting others without knowing.
So there was also the possibility that some of the still standing choir members present were infected (such as beforehand by the missing members or some other source), that they did not know this, and innocently spread this on at Nampara.
 What piques curiosity and suspicion is the focus Graham placed on this choir and the mentions he gave to them not just in this second book but on other occasions in later books and specifically in connection with Julia's death.

First Mention Of The Sick Christmas Choir ('Demelza')

Graham reserved a page in his second book 'Demelza' for the visit of the Christmas choir on Christmas Eve. As well as making references to missing members that were ill, he alluded to the remaining members not physically being in their finest form either. Graham wrote that the carol singers came in 'sheepish' and sang with 'depleted voices struggling'. It was enough for Graham to add that Demelza had '..specially wanted to help them this evening, hearing their depleted voices struggling.' He also said that they stayed a while afterwards and that after a performance of two carols 'Demelza nervously gave them all drink and took one herself;....' Even after a serving to them of cakes and canary wine and glasses re-filled '...they crowded out into the misty night....gathered round the lantern and gave her one more carol for luck before filing off up the valley towards Grambler.' 

If this visit by the Christmas choir had been left there then perhaps it might have been insignificant. However Graham did not leave it there as he mentioned this visit by them,  on the two other occasions in two different books written twenty years apart and 
also in connection with Julia's death. On both occasions Graham reminded the reader that Demelza was alone at home with Julia, without Ross.  Of course the fact that Ross lived in the same household and did not get the 'putrid throat' disease even after Demelza and Julia did is intriguing. However it suggests that transmission from person to person was not always a certainty or an exact science. This is the case in the modern age to including with COVID-19. Still, with Ross out at work most of the days, Demelza as Julia's main carer was probably closer and more in contact with to her, thus leaving a bigger window for the opportunity of transmission between the two. Perhaps if the Christmas choir was the source of their infection that might better explain why Demelza and Julia presented with symptoms on the same day. Whereas Julia did not go with Demelza to Trenwith and if Demelza caught it there, having stayed over night, there would likely have been a delay in her then passing this on to Julia. In this case Julia might then have also presented with symptoms some time after Demelza did. But Demelza and Julia showed symptoms together, on the very same night as if from a fictional point of view they had also caught the disease together on the same night. Such as during the visit with the Christmas choir. 

Second Mention Of The Sick Christmas Choir ('Warleggan')

Graham first referred back to this sick Christmas choir two books later in 'Warleggan'. He referenced Demelza seeing the carol singers from Sawle again and reminiscing of 
'...when she was alone here and the same carol singers as tonight- though a much depleted stock...and she asked them in ....not thinking or dreaming that in two weeks more Julia would be dead...' ('Warleggan' Book four- Chapter seven) This is quite a sharp point pointing to the event of Julia dying following this specific visit. Why so sharp and why not have Demelza remember her visit to Trenwith instead and that a week later from that Julia was dead? As seen below why did Graham repeatedly make this event of the choir visit quite a 'landmark memory' in connection with Julia's death?

Whilst the book 'Demelza' was published in 1946, 'Warleggan' was not published until 1953. Winston Graham maintained in interviews that he did not re-read his earlier books when writing the next instalments. He sheepishly admitted that fans had caught him out on errors he then made. For instance with regards to dates for certain events in earlier books and ages of characters which he had clearly not double checked by cross referencing. Yet after a lapse of seven years between books the attendance of the Christmas choir was significant enough in his mind for him to remember and reference again. This adds to the mystery of blame around Julia's death and suspicion about the true source of the cause.

Third Mention of The Sick Christmas Choir ('Black Moon')

Having previously thought that this fourth book of 'Warleggan' was his last in the saga Graham unexpectedly decided to resume the saga with a fifth book 'Black moon' published in 1973. Despite a lapse of twenty seven years since he first mentioned this sick Christmas choir and a lapse of twenty years since he last mentioned them in 'Warleggan', Graham did not forget about them or consider them too insignificant to mention once again for a third time. Instead Graham made yet another reference to them and again in connection to Julia's death in 'Black moon'. In book two-chapter two of 'Black Moon' Graham wrote that 'It was the customary night for the choir of Sawle Church to come carol singing. Demelza remembered when they had come on the Christmas before Julia's death: she had been alone and Ross had returned later.....'. 

The multiple references by Graham to what might have gone unnoticed by the reader but which essentially ties Julia's passing to the event of this Christmas choir visit, is now highly suspicious. The period of time (twenty seven years) over which Graham gave homage to this choir suggests there was some importance that they held in Graham's mind in respect of the story or in respect of the plot device concerning Julia's death. Therefore it might be hard and foolish to dismiss the likelihood that whilst readers assume Demelza contracted the 'putrid throat' disease while just 'courting' infection at Trenwith, that it is also a possibility Graham had it in mind, that she had actually already caught it from another possible source. This could be either in the community where there was almost an epidemic, or in the presence of this sick choir in her own home. If so Graham could have written from the perspective that Demelza had indeed already been infected before she attended at Trenwith but that her visit there muddied the waters and provided a 'distracting smokescreen'. The purpose of this is that this would be to add more of an antagonistic and bitter edge to the death of their child and to potentially frustrate and rock the love story of Ross and Demelza. Of course all this proved very relevant to Ross and Demelza's love story as Graham did refer to Ross's belief that Demelza's actions led to Julia's death and of their 'estrangement' '...that had grown from that day out of Ross's grief, and Elizabeth had made the most of it.' ('Warleggan'  book three- chapter six). This was an important backdrop to their storyline in the third book 'Jeremy Poldark' where they faced a barrage of traumas that they would overcome together.

Finally, to get scientific before concluding here, there is also information on the 'Diphtheria' incubation time frame which confirms that these other possible sources of infection for Demelza and Julia would be quite viable. 

A Time To Catch The Infection 

With Demelza and Julia showing symptoms for the 'putrid throat' disease on New Years Day- 1st January 1790, Demelza either 'courting infection' at Trenwith on 29th December, picking it up in a district rife with the disease, or from the choir on 24th December are all possibilities bearing in mind the incubation timeframe. M
edical references on Diphtheria here on this U.K produced patient info fact sheet suggests that whilst the average incubation for infection was 2-5 days, that this could reach a maximum of 10 days. This same incubation period is also recited here by the U.S based Centre of Disease control and prevention's diphtheria factsheet.

The choir's attendance was eight days before Demelza and Julia presented with symptoms and the Trenwith visit three days before. This mean that infection on either of these days was within the confirmed maximum period for when infection could take place.  So both occasions were a possibility and nether can be ruled out. 

It is also possible that at the time Winston Graham wrote his book in the 1940s he might have understood the maximum incubation period to have been even longer than the ten days it is now known to cover. Without clarity on the medical knowledge of Diphtheria incubation in the 1940s it is noticeable that Graham seemed to write from Ross's perspective of a belief that the maximum incubation period was two weeks.
When Demelza told Ross of her visit to Trenwith, Graham wrote Ross tell her that
 " was a kind and generous act. Perhaps in a fortnight I shall be in a mood to appreciate it."  He wrote that both he and Demelza knew what he was implying when he said this and it is clear Ross thought that this was the timeframe he thought symptoms could show. That could  have been Graham's understanding too. In that case Graham would have been writing a valid expectation by Ross that after a two week period he would then feel relieved that she had not been infected. Whatever the case this does give the impression the short average of the 2-5 days was not taken as a reliable and guaranteed timeframe and instead there was a prevailing belief then that symptoms could show over a longer period. It does seem that Graham was writing from that perspective.

An Ongoing Mystery

All this means that when alert to the details and matters that Graham highlighted in his story, there is then a certain mystery in Julia's death. Nothing is confirmed and clearly as has been raked over here, this mystery relates to whether it was Demelza's benevolent but reckless folly in helping save Geoffrey Charles and his parents that led to Julia's death, or whether it had no bearing at all. Of course one could ask why Graham did not simply provide this confirmation and for instance just explicitly or privately share with the reader that 
unbeknown to themselves the Christmas choir had infected Demelza and Julia with the 'putrid throat' disease. Or that she had just picked up the disease in the community. However, it does seem that Graham did not always like to be explicit. Even on big issues. There are many unsolved mysteries across the saga that Graham did not always 'tie up' explicitly. For instance, the big questions of whether Elizabeth truly did love Ross since he never narrated that she did, whether the night between Elizabeth and Ross on 9th May was consensual or not since he did not narrate this either, or whether and exactly when Elizabeth knew she was carrying Ross's child before/after she married George. Or even whether her slip on the step at Trenwith and her recklessness generally whilst pregnant with Valentine was intentional. These unanswered questions nevertheless lead to healthy speculations that are stimulating and enhance connection and investment in the story.

Also it seems that Graham did not always like the obvious and spoon feeding approach whilst nevertheless still leaving his readers with indications which might on some occasions confirm part of a mystery one way or another. Ultimately another reason as to the mystery of the source of  Demelza and Julia's infection may be that it is not really one that underpins and is a central theme to the love story at large. Does it really matter when looking at the end outcome?

Whatever the case Graham set up his story so that Ross saying that "Demelza saved Geoffrey Charles and gave Julia in his place." was not a statement readers would immediately feel unsettled and frustrated with as an unjust one against Demelza. Or that it would leave readers unsatisfied that this potentially wrong accusation was never resolved and also never made apparent to Ross and Demelza too either. 

The next post focuses on the reason why Graham may have killed Julia off in terms of for plot or poetic justice, why the belief that this was due Demelza's actions was important for the story and also why it essentially was not important in the end. The 'The Death of Julia Poldark-A Marital Storm'  post will also look at Elizabeth's role in the aftermath which may seem to add layers to Graham's reasoning for Julia's death in the context of the whole story. 

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