Oare Church

 

R. D. Blackmore

&

Lorna Doone

              No book, with the possible exception of those by Thomas Hardy, has had more of an impact on public perception of the West Country than Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor.  The most famous novel of Richard Doddridge Blackmore, its descriptions and near-personification of the landscape of Exmoor has made it a literary tourism center.  The area between the East Lynn River and Hoccombe Combe around the Badgworthy water is now known primarily as Lorna Doone Country and the main valley which used to be Badgworthy Valley is now primarily called Doone Valley.  The story is based off of actual existing legends of the area, including those of the wild Doones.  R. D. Blackmore truly captured the land and peoples of Exmoor, thus Lorna Doone has become part of the very identity of the West Country, and Exmoor especially.

            Blackmore’s novel Lorna Doone was published in 1869 and takes place in Exmoor during the late 17th Century, with much of its action happening around the ill-fated Monmouth Rebellion in 1685.  A swashbuckling tale of revenge and romance, it tells the story of John Ridd, the son of a farmer who is called back home from school because his father had been killed by the Doones, a family of robbers who infest the area, preying on it from their stronghold in Doone Valley.  This area is featured in a memorable seen in the novel where John’s mother bravely goes to the Valley to confront the wicked family about her husband’s death.  Blackmore vividly describes the valley of the Doones, saying

The Water Slide, Lynecombe

For she stood at the head of a deep green valley, carved from out the mountains in a perfect oval, with a fence of sheer rock standing round it, eighty feet or a hundred high; from whose brink black wooded hills swept up to the sky-line. By her side a little river glided out from underground with a soft dark babble, unawaresof daylight; then growing brighter, lapsed away, and fell into the valley. Then, as it ran down the meadow, alders stood on either marge, and grass was blading out upon it, and yellow tufts of rushes gathered, looking at the hurry. But further down, on either bank, were covered houses built of stone, square and roughly cornered, set as if the brook were meant to be the street between them. Only one room high they were, and not placed opposite each other, but in and out as skittles are; only that the first of all, which proved to be the captain's, was a sort of double house, or rather two houses joined together by a plank-bridge, over the river.

 

Here one can see the care Blackmore uses to describe the landscape of the novel.  This is an important part of the story and is one of Blackmore’s most noteworthy stylistic elements.

            John Ridd grows up hating the Doones, but his feelings are challenged when he accidentally meets and falls in love with Lorna Doone, a ward of the family.  However, she is much more than she appears to be, and this sets up the conflicts of the latter part of the novel, as questions of class, wealth, and duty arise.  Ultimately it is, as all good legends are, a tale of love conquering above all.

            R. D. Blackmore had an immense love for nature and the landscape of Exmoor.  Born in 1825, he moved to Devon to live with his father when he was 6 years old.  Blackmore loved to explore the Devon countryside as a child, led by his love for nature.  He went to Blundell School in Tiverton, the place John Ridd attends in the beginning of Lorna Doone.  He went on to study at Exeter College, Oxford.  He worked as a conveyancer in London and published three books of poetry before coming into a sum of money which enabled him to by some land in Teddington and spent most of his time gardening.  Writing was, in fact, a sort of secondary occupation for Blackmore.  He much preferred to work on his fruit.  This interest in nature informed much of his writing, especially Lorna Doone

            He wrote it in a way which emulated the style of the late 17'th century where his story is set.  Also, his focus on nature was clearly inspired by the romantics of the 1800's.  His writing truly reflected his life, as he seemed to have been a man designed for another time.  He was far too private, nature-centric, and quiet to be truly successful in the modern world  After his death in 1900, he was buried in Teddington and also honored with a window and a marble tablet in Exeter Cathedral, a tribute organized by fellow authors Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling and presided over by Eden Phillpots.  This, if nothing else, illustrates Blackmore’s importance to the West Country, as he has a memorial set up for him there in a place with which he is not regularly associated.  It also shows how he was at the center of the literary interests in the area, as he forms a connecting link between authors such as Hardy and Philpotts.  While he was never much of a socialite, the correspondences kept up by Blackmore had a great affect on the fortunes of many authors, as well as the West Country itself, which has benifited greatly from it’s associations with some of the best British authors in history.   

            He was inspired to write it by a number of possible sources, including “The Doones of Exmoor,” a series of short stories which ran in the “Leisure Hour” magazine, the story of a woman in Chagworth, Devon who was shot on her wedding day, and tales and landscapes he recalled from his Devonshire boyhood.

        There is much evidence to support the idea that there were wild men who terrorized this part of Exmoor in the late 1600's, but whether or not they were the Doone clan remains a mystery.  They are the stuff of legend, and that legend does not begin with Blackmore. Their stories had existed for many years already before Blackmore.   The Doones of this novel are the products of popular legends that have long surrounded Exmoor.  R. D. Blackmore merely gave them a voice.  But the questions of just where the Doones came from, what their place in history was, and what the nature of those legends were still remain.  According to Blackmore, the Doones were a noble family known to the royal court, but they turned to wickedness after losing a land dispute.  This reduced them to beggars and caused them to move to Exmoor, where they turned to a life of crime and became thieves and murderers,  although the widowed Mrs. Ridd’s interaction with them showed that the Doones still tried to act like aristocratic landowners.  They also kidnapped Lorna Doone, the heroine and title character of the novel, raising her as one of their own.  This is the cause of the book’s major internal conflicts within the maBlackmore memorial in Oare Churchin character John Ridd.            

            While Blackmore took some liberties with the Doone’s history, he follows the basic storyline of the Doones of Scotland and other historical and legendary stories.  Blackmore weaves his tale from less than factual information.  While there are many legends about robbers and murderers in Exmoor, they are not always named. One complete tale was told by a Mrs. Tucker, who learned the story as a child. In this story and others, the names of the robbers are not mentioned, nor is their punishments, but considering the time and place, it is safe to assume that stories like these are about the Doone family, and were used by Blackmore in his telling of his romance.  

            The weaving of history and legend in R. D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone is one of the things that makes it such a compelling story.  He was evidentally a master of using source materials, local legends, and stories to create believable characters.  The Doones, like the landscape they inhabit, inspire the imagination.  While we don’t necessarily root for them, we appreciate the work that went into their creation.  Because of it, we have some of the best villains of 19th century British literature.

            Also, the film’s influence on film would also be an interesting study is quite notable, as there have been 11 movies or television miniseries inspired by the book to date, although 6 of those were made before 1930.

            Doone Country can still be explored.  The hills and valleys that feature so prominently in the book have largely been preserved as a part of Exmoor National Park.  The Lorna Doone Farm and Oare Church, the setting of the climax of Blackmore’s novel, can be found in the town of Malmstead.  There is a window in the church which commemorates its literary importance.   Paths then go south along the Badgworthy Water and the Badgworthy, or Doone, Valley.  Here one can follow in Blackmore’s footsteps and spend some time walking through his favorite landscape.

        Blackmore and his novel Lorna Doone have been an incalcuable benefit to Exmoor and the surrounding West Country, and there are few who can claim to have done more

 

© Copyright Isaac Miller 2007