By R.D. Blackmore
RD Blackmore was a prolific and popular writer of novels and poetry during the mid-nineteenth century. Lorna Doone is the only one of his works to survive the test of time.
Lorna Doone is a love story. Yet in choosing its subtitle, A Romance of Exmoor, the author had something other in mind than Romance in its modern sense. The Romantic Movement in literature, as in art, flourished in Britain during the early years of the nineteenth century, encompassing such important writers as Byron, Scott and both Percy and Mary Shelley. In France, Romanticism reached its zenith in the novels of Dumas and Hugo.
‘When I came to myself again, my hands were full of young grass and mould; and a little girl kneeling at my side was rubbing my forehead tenderly with a dock-leaf and a handkerchief.’
By 1869, when Lorna Doone was published, that era was on the wane. Novels, led by writers such as Dickens, Flaubert and James, were moving in other directions. Hence, Blackmore’s story appears to me to be something of an anomaly. At its core a simple boy meets girl plot, it has a few neat if convenient subplots, some irrelevant meanderings and dashes of melodrama.
During the reign of Charles II, the Ridds farm land on the border of Somerset and Devonshire. John Ridd is at school when the Doones, outlaws of noble birth, murder his father. He comes home to help manage the farm. One day, when he is about fourteen, he climbs a waterfall and finds himself in the hidden valley where the Doones have their settlement. There he meets Lorna for the first time. He has been hurt during the climb and she tends to his injuries. John is captivated. [Lorna’s age is not absolutely clear, but based on later dating, she is probably ten years old.]
‘… my heart came to my ribs, and all my blood was in my face, and pride within me fought with shame, and vanity with self-contempt; for though seven years were gone … and she must have forgotten me … I felt I was face to face with fate, weal or woe, in Lorna Doone.’
Several years later, John ventures into the Doone valley again, where he narrowly escapes discovery by Carver Doone, aspiring chief of the clan and possibly his father’s killer. He meets Lorna again and falls in love with her. Though a prisoner in the valley, she can roam freely within it. However, as time goes on, she becomes less free and is watched more and more as Carver sets out to make her his.
‘ “Maning enough, and bad maning too,” the Cornish girl made answer. “Us be shut up in here, and starving, and durstn’t let anybody in upon us. I wish thou wer’t good to ate, young man: I could manage most of thee.” ‘
Under the protection of Sir Ensor Doone, the patriarch of the family, Lorna is safe. However, when Sir Ensor dies, Carver and his henchmen try to starve her into submission during the Great Winter of 1684. John braves the elements to rescue her and she takes refuge at the Ridd farm. We know, or suspect by this point – roughly half-way through the novel – that Lorna is not a Doone at all but has been seized as an infant from her legitimate family.
The furious Doones attack the Ridd farm and are repulsed. However, Lorna’s true identity is revealed and becomes an obstacle to her marriage to John. What John does about it leads to a dramatic conclusion.
‘This great drift was rolling and curdling beneath the violent blast, tufting and combing with rustling swirls, and carved where the grooving chisel of the wind swept round.’
Lorna Doone is a difficult read. Its vocabulary and syntax are unfamiliar. Unlike Dickens or Thackeray, Blackmore does not write in the language of the period in which he lived but, by using John Ridd as narrator, attempts to recreate that of the late seventeenth century. This is no more evident than in the dialogue, which requires real effort to decipher. Moreover, John Ridd is fond of leaving his narrative to overpower us with irrelevant detail. That and his self-deprecating introspection can sometimes be annoying. Nevertheless, Blackmore manages to paint an enduring picture of the West Country and of the era in what can be delightful and romantic (in the old sense) prose. Much of his source material – characters as well as legends, places and events – is authentic.
Other readers must decide for themselves whether this novel is Romance in the old sense or not. For what it’s worth – and call me a Romantic if you like – I think Lorna Doone is a powerful story of rural family life, deception and skulduggery, high adventure and the triumph of true love. I first read it when I was about fifteen or sixteen, as I can tell from the handwritten inscription inside the front cover of my copy. In spite of its author’s denial, the book sits comfortably for me on the same shelf as Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers as historical romance.