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Graham, Winston Mawdsley (1908?–2003), novelist, was born at 66 Langdale Road, Victoria Park, Manchester, the younger son of Albert Graham, tea importer, and his wife, Anne, née Mawdsley. He later admitted having had ‘a certain amount of fun in deceiving people’ about his date of birth: ‘In Who's Who I don't give my birth date, and in four other similar publications around the world I have given different dates, all of them wrong’ (Graham, 180). His date of birth was given as 30 June 1908 on his death certificate. His elder brother, Cecil, was ten years older than he was, and his father died after a long illness when Graham was nineteen. His introverted childhood laid the foundations of a dedicated literary career spanning more than seventy years and forty-six books which made him, in his own words, ‘the most successful unknown novelist in England’ (ibid., 117)—and a writer who did not cause surprise by calling his autobiography Memoirs of a Private Man (2003).

Privacy was always precious to Graham, though in his boyhood it was enforced rather than sought. He was expected to go to Manchester grammar school, but had contracted meningitis at the age of seven and, because of continuing ill health, went instead to Longsight grammar school, which was nearer his home. After his father had had a stroke at the age of fifty-four, the family moved to Perranporth, in Cornwall. That county, with its isolation and dark overtones, was to provide the setting and inspiration for much of Graham's writing. His first story was dictated to his mother at the age of five. She, even when widowed, determined to subsidize him until he succeeded: well ahead of his time, he was able to draw strong and determined women who were not prepared to accept a purely passive role.

Graham's first published novel was The House with the Stained Glass Windows (1934), a murder mystery. He made only £29 from it. During the 1930s he also sold stories to monthly publications such as the Windsor Magazine, and then worked for Ward Lock, the publishers of ‘genre novels’ whose writers churned out novels for as little as £30 a book. Some of his first novels he ruthlessly suppressed; or, as he put it, he saw to it that they were allowed to be ‘designedly out of print’ (The Times, 12 July 2003). Having on 18 September 1939 married Jean Mary (d. 1992) (daughter of Samuel Williamson, naval officer), with whom he had a son and a daughter, he served during the Second World War with the auxiliary coastguard service, while continuing to write and publish novels. Some he revised years afterwards, such as Night Journey (1941, revised 1966) and The Merciless Lady (1944, revised 1979). The only one of his early novels he gladly recognized was The Forgotten Story (1945), possibly partly because it became an ITV production in 1983. It was not until 1947, when he worked for J. Arthur Rank on a film script of Take My Life, in which a woman travels to Scotland to prove her husband innocent of murdering a former girlfriend, that wealth began to be more than a dream. Required to work on the script in London, he was given £150 a week, plus a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, a flat, and a secretary. But Graham was too aware of the main danger of scriptwriting—that future novels would read like film scripts—to be seduced by the film world, and returned without reluctance to Cornwall to write Cordelia (1949), a historical novel that sold 560,000 copies in hardback.

It was the series of twelve Poldark novels (each subtitled ‘a novel of Cornwall’) that made Graham internationally famous. He had sketched a few Poldark characters while waiting to be called up at the beginning of the Second World War, but only after the war finished the first complete novel in the series, Ross Poldark: a Novel of Cornwall, 1783–1787 (1945), having rewritten some chapters nine times before he was satisfied. The first Poldark was far from a runaway success, but it did firmly establish the character of Ross Poldark, adventurer and minor Cornish industrialist, who avoids being stamped upon by the ruthless landowner and banker Sir George Warleggan while also coping with his equally spirited wife Demelza, an emancipated female by the standards of 1945, let alone eighteenth-century Cornwall. He claimed that it was after writing Demelza (1946), the second in the series, that he knew that he was a real novelist, not merely a craftsman who could tell a tale. Demelza was followed by Jeremy Poldark (1950), and Warleggan (1953), bringing the story up to 1793. After four Poldark novels Graham continued to think that they were less successful than the suspense novels, and initially decided not to write any more in the series; but television made it unwise to implement this self-denial. The first four Poldark novels were made into a hugely successful BBC television series in 1975–6, and three further novels composed a second series in 1977. The Poldark television series regularly attracted up to 15 million viewers. The Black Moon (1973), the fifth novel in the series, took the Poldark saga into the nineteenth century. Graham thought that the eleventh book in the series, The Twisted Sword (1990), would be the last. This was pessimistic. Instead, he decided to bring the saga to an end with Bella Poldark: a Novel of Cornwall, 1818–1820 (2002), the story of the young Poldark girl who goes to London to become an opera singer.

Several of Graham's suspense novels were made into films, including Marnie (1961), turned into a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1964). Other novels that were filmed included Fortune is a Woman (1953, filmed 1956), The Sleeping Partner (1956, filmed 1958), and The Walking Stick (1967, filmed 1970), the latter a story of a girl polio victim who gets caught up in the criminal machinations of a painter she falls in love with; Graham claimed it to be his most financially successful novel. He won the first Golden Dagger award of the Crime Writers' Association in 1955 and was appointed OBE in 1983.

Graham avoided the publicity machine as best he could, and clung tenaciously to the disappearing notion that a writer should appear on the printed page rather than the public stage (though he was an urbane and witty chairman of the Society of Authors from 1967 to 1969). By the time of his death, on 10 July 2003 (at Abbotswood House nursing home, Buxted, East Sussex, of heart failure), he had produced a host of believable, often off-centre, characters in highly charged emotional and professional situations—while avoiding, he insisted, what he whole-heartedly detested, the so-called ‘bodice-ripper’. He was a real writer of the old school, while drawing on some more contemporary mores, including giving his women an independent strength of character that was far from usual when he began his single-minded career.

Dennis Barker

Sources  

W. Graham, Memoirs of a private man (2003) · Daily Telegraph (11 July 2003) · The Independent (11 July 2003) · The Times (12 July 2003); (18 July 2003) · The Guardian (14 July 2003) · Western Morning News (15 July 2003) · Debrett's People of today · WW (2003) · d. cert.

Archives  

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, party political recording


Likenesses  

photograph, 1962, Popperfoto, Northampton; repro. in The Independent (11 July 2003) · three photographs, 1971–85, Photoshot, London · S. McBride, two photographs, 1994, Rex Features, London · obituary photographs · photographs, repro. in Graham, Memoirs of a private man

Wealth at death  

£1,626,336: probate, 24 June 2004, CGPLA Eng. & Wales