Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore

Lorna Doone is another of those old novels that were extremely famous in their time, but are rarely read these days. One of the great historical romances of the later nineteenth century, Lorna Doone is a long book with an epic scope, a great plot, and particularly strong characterisation; and it seized the imagination of a generation. Lorna Doone is the Lord of the Rings of historical romances (and by 'romance' I mean the old-fashioned sense, of adventure, and 'strangeness flowering from the commonplace') not just in its scope and influence but also for the ways in which it reinforces some tropes of its genre and skilfully avoids or subverts others.

For all these reasons you will probably never read it as part of a literature course. Too complex to be categorised into Marxist or feminist boxes.

So. In a hidden Exmoor valley live the Doones--a family of noble outlaws who made a living terrorising the surrounding farmers. Unluckily for them, one of these farmers is none other than the gigantic John Ridd, who as a boy stumbles into their valley and finds there the young Lorna Doone.

When he returns to the Doone-valley years later, John Ridd meets Lorna again and falls in love, despite that she is beautiful and refined and far above him—and despite that she is a Doone, for Doones killed John's father. The same man who did it wants Lorna for himself—and when John steals her away to safety, the feud begins!

That's the substance of the plot, but I haven't even hinted at the secret of Lorna's glass necklace, at John's cousin the highwayman Tom Faggus, at the fate that John narrowly avoids in the Monmouth Rebellion, or at Uncle Reuben Huckaback's machinations. It's a long story, with plenty of twists and turns in the plot. There are leisurely spots throughout the story, but to read it is to step into a sunnier time, where stories are allowed to unfold over years, and where the harvest and the winter are both worth commenting on.

Lorna Doone is unique in a lot of ways. It's one of the few historical romances that have a simple farmer as a hero—and even more surprisingly, he falls in love with Lorna, who is of extremely high birth. Instead of succumbing to cheap melodrama, however, Blackmore uses this to add real difficulty and emotion to the story. And because John is a farmer, the story of Lorna's wooing and rescue is punctuated with homely narratives of bringing the sheep home and making hay!

Although long, sometimes leisurely, and full of Exmoor dialect, Lorna Doone is well worth the challenge: romantic, exciting and homely by turns, with an unmistakeable atmosphere. The air of an older time stirs gently in it. I can't recommend it enough.

Gutenberg etext

Librivox recording

1 comment:

Tim Nelson said...

On Facebook, I commented "‎...and you completely forgot that it will help you to understand Lord of the Rings better!", and referred to the book "The Shores of Middle-Earth" (Giddings & Holland, I think).

Suzannah recommended that I pop over here and explain how.

My reply was "Phooey, I was hoping you'd remember. One of those guys had some theory that the plot of LoTR was some kind of clever interweaving of the plots of Lorna Doone, King Solomon's Mines, and Thirty-nine Steps. But I forget the details".

Suzannah suggested "Something about the Doone-gate being like the gate to Moria maybe?"

I responded with 'There was also somewhere where Tolkien apparently described someone as a "haggard rider"'



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