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The enduring romance of R D Blackmore’s ‘Lorna Doone’

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, Literature on Tuesday, 15 November 2011

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This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 862 published on 22 July 1978.

Lorna Doone, picture, image, illustration

The fight between John Ridd and Carver Doone by James E McConnell

By all accounts R.D. Blackmore was a kindly, amiable man who remained unbowed throughout all his life by the series of misfortunes which dogged him at every step. While he was at school he was hit on the head with a brass hammer, which left him with a legacy of epilepsy in later life. When he married, his wife became a chronic invalid, thus burdening him with looking after her while he himself was far from well.

He set up as a fruit-grower at Teddington in Middlesex, and the railway arrived and carved a path through his property, leaving a railway station almost on his doorstep. Crop after crop failed to appear or fell rotten to the ground. When he did succeed in getting his fruit to Covent Garden, he was often swindled.

His servants either left in droves or refused to work. His brother died mysteriously, and when Blackmore irrationally started accusing all and sundry of murdering him, he was bombarded with libel actions.

Even in that which was dearest to him – the creative act of writing – he was, for the most part, a dismal failure. All his books were published, but the critics were lukewarm about most of them, and today only one of them is remembered, his justly famous Exmoor novel, Lorna Doone.

In this one book, set in an area he had not seen since he was 16, Blackmore achieved heights that he was never to attain again. In the books he wrote afterwards, Blackmore tried desperately to recapture some of the magic of Lorna Doone, using locales ranging from the South Downs to Yorkshire, from Middlesex to Pembrokeshire, but the reviewers remained unenthusiastic.

Born in 1825, into a family of country parsons, Blackmore went to school in Devon. From there he went on to Oxford University, and eventually became first a lawyer, and then a schoolmaster.

The school holidays gave the young master time to indulge his passion for writing. First came a book of verses, then some Latin translations. With a handsome legacy from an uncle, which assured his future, he became a “gentleman market gardener”, and it was as such that he published his first novel, Clara Vaughan.

Clara Vaughan was a manuscript upon which Blackmore had been working off and on for a number of years. It had an imperfect plot and was far from successful.

Undeterred, Blackmore continued to tend the fruit trees in his Teddington, Surrey, orchards and in due time wrote a second novel called Cradock Nowell, which was also a literary failure. It was now plain that while Blackmore could draw brilliant pictures in words of Nature in its serenity and its violence, he was dreadfully uneasy when describing people. His digressions, too, were so long-winded that when they were finished the poor reader could be forgiven for forgetting what the book was about.

All this was to be changed in one spell-binding flash of inspiration. One day Blackmore read a magazine story called “The Doones of Exmoor” while on a Devon holiday. It must have recalled memories of his childhood in the West Country and it awakened a stir of excitement in Blackmore, for he noted the story and when he returned home from his holiday he wrote Lorna Doone.

He took it to the publishers, who were not very impressed. They printed 500 copies – a small enough order – in the usual three volumes common to Victorian book publishing. But the critics liked it, and the book became a success.

Blackmore was now as famous as any literary man in Victorian times. Visiting Americans came to his Teddington house just to get a glimpse of the great author. But all this fame and admiration rested on Lorna Doone. His writing output was slowed down, too, by the increasing demands of his orchards on his time as a result of crop failure, and by illness.

Blackmore touched for a moment some of his former greatness with a new novel, Perlycross. “When shall we have another Lorna Doone?” clamoured the critics. Yielding to pressure, Blackmore wrote a book containing four short stories, one of which brought the Doones briefly back to life. The story, however, proved conclusively that the master touch was gone, a fact he must have realised before his death in the first month of the 20th century.

A memorial window and tablet to his memory were erected in Exeter Cathedral in 1904.

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