Lorna Doone, A Romance of Exmoor

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Read 28/08/2021-01/10/2021

Rating 4 stars

R D Blackmore’s Lorna Doone is a novel I have long meant to read. I bought a well loved copy of the 1900 edition, published not long after Blackmore’s death, from Withnail Books in Penrith.

There was a mystery in the front of this 1900 edition, which I unravel here. It diverted me from starting to read for an hour or so.

The story is narrated by John Ridd, a Somerset yeoman with a smattering of education. I liked the cut of his jib. He seemed a good humoured sort, self-deprecating, solidly reliable. He had some questionable thoughts about women, believing them to be like horses – lacking in, and better without, self-reliance – and also scolds, too prone to thinking themselves better than men. From his descriptions of them, all the women he knew seemed very sensible to me, and he would have got into fewer scrapes if he’d listened to them. But then there wouldn’t have been a story to tell. As that story progresses, it becomes clear that Blackmore is using John to take a rise out of men who think of women as inferior. Each time John has something to say about the inadequacies of the female brain or the female constitution is a time when the women in his life have done or said something sensible or have got John out of what seems to him a tricky situation.

Blackmore’s prose was a definite change in style from Janice Galloway’s in my previous read. He’s a very florid 19th century writer, and his narrator is a 17th century man, writing with a West Country cadence, making the sentences stretch and meander around the point. This isn’t a criticism, but it did involve an adjustment.

John Ridd is a schoolboy at a Devon grammar school. On his twelfth birthday, one of the labourers who works on his father’s farm comes to collect him early from school. They set off back to Somerset, stopping off at hostels along the way, meeting a well-to-do Catholic family at one, before crossing Exmoor and losing their way in the fog, only getting back onto the right track thanks to the body of a robber creaking on a gibbet. They narrowly avoid an encounter with members of the Doone clan, a terrifying family of robbers, before they reach the farm at Oare.

All is not as it should be. John’s beloved father doesn’t greet him and his mother and sisters are crying. It turns out that, on his way back from the market at Porlock, his father and six companions were waylaid by a gang of Doones. John’s father fought back and lost his life for his trouble.

This is the beginning of John’s family’s relations with the Doones. His mother beards their head in his den, and is sent home followed by a pack of lies the like of any told by those who know they can get away with murder, literal or otherwise.

Much of the novel is a personal history of John growing up, becoming a man, testing out his limits. His first encounter with Lorna Doone is the result of John going too far up an unfamiliar river, looking for fish to catch for his mother. It involves some impromptu rock climbing, and then a descent into a secret tunnel, all of which Blackmore describes very effectively, bringing tension to the narrative.

Through this early period of John’s life, we meet his highwayman uncle Tom Faggus and his shopkeeper uncle Reuben Huckaback, both of whom are described in comical ways, in a style that reminded me of Tristram Shandy. Blackmore captures an early style of writing that meanders around a topic, until you almost forget the point that is being made. The scene where Reuben drags John to the court of Baron De Whichehalse in order to sue for a warrant against the Doones has elements of Dickens to it, with the circularity of legal argument and the ridiculous nature of the situation. John has his own experience of the tortuous nature of the English legal system when he is summoned to appear before the King’s Bench in London and is examined by Judge Jeffreys. The situation has even stronger echoes of Jarndyce and Jarndyce from Dickens’s Bleak House. There’s a mystery to be unravelled, too, involving Uncle Reuben, who might not be quite what he seems.

Tom Faggus plays his part in another mystery, that of Lorna’s origins and how she came to be living among the Doones. A pretty necklace of glass beads holds a clue, and makes a connection to the well-to-do Catholic family John encountered on his ride home from school at the start of the book.

John Ridd is a confusion of self-deprecation and self-assurance, a walking humble brag about his own opinions and experiences. His candour, though, is charming when it comes to his telling of the love story between him and Lorna Doone. It was interesting to read a romantic tale from the perspective of a man, describing his feelings for her, rather than the usual way round. John is full of conflict, not wanting to push his case too quickly, but eager to get to know Lorna better. And his mooning over her gains him some teasing from his family and servants, that he has been bitten by a mad dog. When finally he tells Lorna how he feels, she is brilliantly pragmatic, seeing the truth of their situation beyond the rush of feelings experienced by John.

Throughout the novel, I enjoyed the bucolic descriptions of the landscape and the changing seasons. It made me wish that I knew the old names for wildflowers, and had more of a life in touch with nature. I am an urban creature. I have to look plants, trees and birds up more often than not. Blackmore sets the story in a period of unusual weather, with a very harsh winter in 1683. An old shepherd’s recollection of the previous Great Frost of 1625 helps John recognise the signs in nature of the coming bad weather, and another acquaintance of John’s talks about the Gulf Stream and its usefulness in weather forecasting. Unusual weather events were just that, back then, and not the frequent occurrence they have become in the 21st century.

There is plenty of historical context in the novel to categorise it as historical fiction, but in the preface, Blackmore wrote, “… in shaping this old tale, the Writer neither dares, nor desires, to claim for it the dignity, or cumber it with the difficulty of an historic novel.” In the narrative, too, John Ridd tells us, “I have nought to do with great history; and am sorry for those who have to write it; because they are sure to have friends and enemies in it, and cannot act as they would towards them, without damage to their own consciences.” This raises the question of how objective any historian can be, and is a nod to the tensions between the neutral reporting of historical fact and the need to tell a story that inevitably reveals the historian’s personal interest. Blackmore does pretty well in providing context, all the same. It isn’t always necessary to add in precise detail in order to give a sense of the period. Here and there, an actual historical figure, a reference to the recent English Civil War, or reference to the 17th century battle for the monarchy along religious lines, lends enough background to the specifics of John’s love story to enable the reader to grasp the novel’s temporality.

This is a coming of age story, too, as evidenced by John finally becoming man enough, physically and emotionally, to lift his father’s reaping hook from the wall. The sickle is symbolic of the man John’s father was, John’s relationship to him, and the man John has become in the years following his father’s murder. And as his relationship with Lorna progresses, John increasingly puts behind him his youthful ways, damping down his love of adventure for the sake of it, and considering the possible impacts his choices might have for his love.

There’s an interlude during which, with Lorna gone to London for her inheritance to be confirmed, John becomes embroiled in the battle over the succession to the throne following Charles II’s death. John doesn’t fight but, having been sent to bring Tom Faggus back from fighting on the rebel side, is mistaken for a rebel himself and almost loses his life. He’s rescued from his sentence by the King’s Messenger, Jeremy Stickles, the man who took John to London for his appearance at the King’s Bench and who subsequently became a friend and ally. The result of this intervention brings John into contact with George Churchill, later the first Duke of Marlborough. The thing about this encounter that struck me wasn’t the historical figure inserted into the fictional narrative, but a sentence of John’s that made me wonder about a modern phrase I use myself. Because of Churchill’s subsequent elevation and fame, John in later life is too often asked about his meeting with him. Blackmore has him say this about how he would like to deal with these questions, “… if tailors would only print upon waistcoats, I would give double price for a vest bearing this inscription, “No information can be given about the Duke of Marlborough.” ” The modern phrase that I use is, “I must get [X] printed on a t-shirt.” The phrase used by Blackmore made me wonder about what other variations of this idea of wearing a statement to preempt questions have existed in the past. Was Blackmore’s phrase a Victorian one, sent back in time by him to the 17th century? Or was it a phrase that had currency in that earlier period, too. And what about the chosen garment? The t-shirt in my phrase is representative of cheap casual clothing that can have slogans printed on it. I wondered whether a waistcoat in the 17th century was a similarly casual garment, everyday working apparel more frequently replaced than a coat. I’m not an historian of fashion, so did a bit of googling and discovered that Charles II introduced the waistcoat as an element of formal dress in 1666. So not such a casual garment in John’s world, then, but something formal and decorative, intended to be on view. By Blackmore’s era, the waistcoat was more of an undergarment, although still part of formal wear. Gradually, like the t-shirt, which also started as an undergarment, the waistcoat became a working garment for the labouring class, cooler and less restrictive than a coat when working. I couldn’t find reference to this being true at the start of the waistcoat’s existence, thought. And as for printing on a waistcoat, I could only find the line I quote above, from Lorna Doone itself. I think Blackmore’s choice of phrase will have to remain a mystery for me. Unless any fashion historians are reading and can enlighten me.

Blackmore maintains the tension right to the very end, with a couple of twists and turns that threaten to derail our hero’s happiness. It’s a satisfying ending in that regard.

I’d intended to read Lorna Doone for the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge. When I listed it, a couple of people commented that it was a hefty novel and a tad ambitious for a time-bound readathon. They were right. My 1900 edition is printed on tissue-like paper, making it seem less than the 687 pages it is. It was inevitable that it would end up taking the whole of September plus part of August and October for me to read it. My reading coincided with me deciding to return to commuting by public transport, as the number of days I spend in the office rather than working from home increased. Lorna Doone lent itself well to immersive reading on the bus. The plot, although rambling at times, is exciting, drawing together different adventures and tense situations. It’s also very funny – John Ridd is an entertaining raconteur, making humorous observations about human nature and the more ludicrous aspects of the sociopolitical world.

9 thoughts on “Lorna Doone, A Romance of Exmoor

    1. It was an ambitious read, particularly given my current waxing and waning of reading concentration. Reading on the bus definitely helped push me along. I discovered that my reading stamina has deteriorated because I allow myself to get distracted too quickly by other mindless things, whereas on the bus I have to read, because scrolling on my phone makes me travel sick, and once I’m in the zone I read quite a lot. I need to regain the knack of doing that when I’m sitting on the settee!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I had no idea that this was such a long book. It’s one I’ve long wanted to read and your review – intriguing and insightful as ever – urges me towards it. My tried and tested method for chunksters is the kindle and short, daily instalments. I’ve recently finished Vanity Fair that way – even longer than Lorna Doone!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve got Vanity Fair on my list, too, Sandra, but I’m having a rest from chunky sagas. I usually buy big books on Kindle, but both Lorna Doone and Vanity Fair were secondhand bookshop purchases, in tiny volumes with tissue thin paper, and I was lulled into thinking they’re smaller than they are!

      Liked by 1 person

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