The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Lorna Doone (1869)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Lorna Doone was written by R. D. Blackmore. Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900) trained as a lawyer but gave it up because of poor health and became a gardener and professional author. Blackmore's fame, during and after his lifetime, is the result of Lorna Doone, one of the most entertaining historical romances of the nineteenth century and a work which has deservedly never been out of print.
Lorna Doone is set in the latter half of the seventeenth century, in the area of western England known as Exmoor. John Ridd is a young boy when his father is killed by the Doones of Badgery, a villainous clan of thieves and murderers. But John has a solid, loving family, and with the help of his mother and his sisters Annie and Eliza the family survives. One day John is out exploring when he sees a young girl, at the edge of Doone Valley, who identifies herself as “Lorna Doone.” John is taken with her and remembers her. Years pass, and as a young man John returns to Doone Valley, meets up with Lorna again, and falls in love with her. She is not in love with John, not to the same degree that he is with her, but she likes him, and she hates the Doones. But she is destined to be the wife of Carver Doone, the monstrous son of Sir Ensor Doone, the leader of the Doones, and freeing her from them is no small thing. After months of waiting the worst frost and snow of the century arrive in west England, and under cover of the snow John succeeds in freeing Lorna from the Doones. But the course of love never did run smooth, and before John and Lorna can live happily ever after they must endure separation (Lorna goes to London to assume her role as a lady of a noble family), danger (John goes in search of his sister's roguish husband and gets arrested and nearly hanged as a rebel during the collapse of Monmouth's rebellion), more danger (an attack on Doone Valley), and near-heartbreak (Lorna is shot on the altar by Carver Doone, who John then kills in hand-to-hand combat). But there is, finally, a happily ever after, and all's well that end's well.
Lorna Doone is one of those massive Victorian novels known as a “triple-decker” due to its publication in three volumes. Because of its length and age, modern readers may approach it with some trepidation. In the case of Lorna Doone they needn’t, since it well deserves the title of “classic:” it is both well-written and emotionally involving.
Lorna Doone is one of those popular novels which critics and academics largely tend to slight because of its popularity. Lorna Doone was, after all, the most popular, best-selling regional historical novel (see: The Historical Romance) of the century, and has never been out of print–it’s no surprise that many academics would view it as too popular to be worth studying. This is unfortunate, since Lorna Doone deserves recognition as a historically important novel. In the 1860s, when Lorna Doone was written and published, the historical novel had already gone through several changes. Walter Scott’s Waverley novels had established the form in the 1820s, with its initial wave of popularity lasting through the 1830s; the 1850s saw a revival of the form, with the novels being written more seriously, more historically accurately, and with more serious aims, than previously; and the 1860s saw a return to more popular novels less concerned with strict historical accuracy. Lorna Doone, with its tight focus on the English West Country (the counties in the southwest corner of England), sparked a craze for historical novels set in particular regions as well as for historical romances which deviated from strict realism.
But Lorna Doone was considerably more carefully-written than most other historical romances of the time, and achieved greater things–as was Blackmore’s intent–than merely creating an enthusiasm among readers and writers for regional historical romances. Lorna Doone is a vocal advocate for the pastoral tradition (that literature which favorably compares and contrasts the rural lifestyle with that of the urban lifestyle); in the words of critic Sally Shuttleworth, Lorna Doone “carefully [delineates] the relationship between inner feeling and the outward cycle of the seasons, in ways which anticipate the later work of Hardy (who was himself a strong admirer of Blackmore).”1 Lorna Doone, in its portrayal of West Country life and of the lives of yeomen who like John Ridd work there, brought a new, pastoral patriotism to the historical romance, celebrating the values of pastoralism while also promoting the Victorian values of hard work and family.
Again quoting Shuttleworth, “the strength of Lorna Doone lies in the fact that it refuses to fall within the narrow perimeters of any one defined category.”2 A historical novel written at a time when strict historical accuracy was the vogue among historical novel writers, Lorna Doone is instead full of elements from Romanticism, including larger-than-life characters, a highly Romantic heroine, primal conflicts, and an epic landscape. A historical romance, Lorna Doone so carefully observes and records the life of West Country yeoman that it almost becomes documentary in style. A historical novel written at a time when historical novels were written by male authors for male audiences, Lorna Doone proved to be fabulously popular not only with men but with women, both immediately and over a long period of time. (Writers as diverse and modern as Angela Carter, in The Magic Toyshop (1967), and Anita Desai, in Clear Light of Day (1980), invoke Lorna Doone in their novels).3
One further way that Lorna Doone eludes pat categorization is its challenge to the expectations and formulas of historical fiction in the areas of masculinity and class. John Ridd is by nature conservative and seems to agree with the traditional placement of the aristocracy as being above the yeomanry–the preferred relationship of the classes in historical fiction of the time–but his marriage to Lorna Doone and the way in which the middle and lower classes vie with the aristocracy for power in the novel are a blow not for the traditional relationship of the classes, but for the triumph of the middle classes over the aristocracy. And John Ridd is, though heroic, quite different from the typical hero of Victorian historical romances. Bashful and self-deprecating where they are proud, compassionate where they are merciless, quiet where they are loud, unwilling to kill where they are brutal, and unsure of his own masculinity where the typical Victorian male hero takes Victorian masculine virtues for granted–soft where they are hard–John Ridd is continually negotiating with those masculine virtues.
Most interestingly, Lorna Doone is frontier fiction, but it is English frontier fiction rather than American, and that leads it to violate one of the core conflicts of traditional (read: American) frontier fiction (read: the Western): the frontier is inhabited by barbarians; barbarians can only be defeated by the gun; but all those who pick up the gun are barbarians; therefore those who defeat the barbarians cannot inhabit the newly-civilized frontier. In American frontier fiction, and especially in Western films (see, for example, John Ford’s The Searchers and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence) this means that after the hero has defeated the barbarians he must leave the newly civilized frontier. In English frontier fiction the hero who picks up the gun is not a barbarian and is allowed to return to civilization even after committing barbarous violence. (One reason for this is that in English frontier fiction barbarians are an irruption of evil into an ordinarily civilized status quo, the status quo that the protagonist comes from, and once the status quo is reinstated by the defeat of the barbarians, civilization reigns supreme and the gun-slinging hero can return to his home. In American frontier fiction barbarians–and the gun-slinging hero–are a part of a fallen, barbaric frontier world, and when the new, civilized status quo is imposed, the gun-slinging hero has no place in it).
Is Lorna Doone worth reading? Heavens, yes.
Admittedly, the language of the novel is stylized and mannered, and takes some adjusting to. Part of Blackmore’s remarkable attention to the novel’s West Country accuracy is the use of West Country dialect in dialogue as well as older rhetorical constructions, such as the use of “thou.” Despite being written in the late 1860s, Lorna Doone is set two hundred years earlier, and the language of the novel reflects that. Blackmore’s contemporaries, like Wilkie Collins (see: The Woman in White), were writing prose that has not aged particularly badly and can easily be read and enjoyed by modern readers, but Blackmore was too devoted to accuracy to tell a historical novel in modern language. Too, Lorna Doone is not the fastest-paced of books; it is slow to get going but picks up momentum when it finally does.
Those are the only two flaws in the novel, however. Lorna Doone is a particularly well-crafted novel, with Blackmore having paid close attention to the spoken cadences of prose. The novel is intelligently written, with memorable, carefully-chosen words–much more carefully chosen than the average historical romance of the time.
Blackmore is quite good at descriptions of environment. Whether those descriptions are “lyrical,” as critics have traditionally described them, is a matter of taste, but the descriptions are at the least well-written. Blackmore effectively portrays the pastoral life as an idyllic one and one much superior to urban life; there is never any doubt where Blackmore thinks the better life is. If Blackmore is long-winded in his descriptions the cumulative weight of the descriptions is effective in portraying the life of a rural farmer as an enviable one. Interestingly, however, Blackmore does not portray that life as in any way easy. Much of Lorna Doone is taken up with the specifics of farm life, the necessities of day-to-day work and the real life concerns of farmers: frost, drought, livestock lost to disease, theft, scavengers, the price of crops, and getting farm workers to earn their pay. This is an unusual theme for a historical novel, most of which are not, at heart, concerned with the exigencies of real life. Matters of economics–making money, doing one’s job, putting a roof over one’s head and food on one’s table–these are not inherently exciting and are not usually a part of most adventure novels. Characters in historical romances are often gentlemen of leisure or nobility and already have money, or go off sailing to be pirates and take booty. Novels with these characters are fun, of course, but they lack a certain grounding in reality. This is why novels like Lorna Doone and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped are unusual, and welcome. The characters in these novels are recognizable and even familiar in a way that characters from the historical romances of the 1890s are not. Most readers will be able to both identify with and empathize with John Ridd's daily struggles with his farm, where they cannot identify with and empathize with, for example, the struggles of the French aristocracy against the forces of the French Revolution.
Blackmore is similarly realistic in his characterization. John Ridd, his family, Lorna Doone–even Carver Doone, vile though he is, has an exchange with John Ridd late in the novel which provides an insightful glimpse into Carver’s massively deluded and hypocritical personality. Delusion and hypocrisy are bad character traits, to be sure, but they are recognizable ones, and they make Carver Doone more than just one-dimensional villain. Beyond the realism of the characters is the skillful way with which Blackmore portrays emotions. Blackmore keeps emotions real and understated, saying much more by implication or hidden tears than shrieks and too-strenuous attempts at affect. Blackmore also shows a sure touch at making Ridd, as a child, neither overly simple nor absurdly precocious. Ridd's interior life is likewise well done; he becomes a real person, so that the reader knows, or thinks they do, what Ridd would say and do in situations removed from the novel. The novel’s pace is comfortable, if not leisurely, so that the relationship between John and Lorna is naturally developed and is not rushed. The naturalistic and unhurried way in which Lorna Doone proceeds is one of its greatest strengths. The reader feels the passage of time along with the characters, and the reader identifies as much with John as farmer as much as with John as maturing adult. Blackmore also has a light touch with the humor of the novel.
The novel’s West Country dialect can be bothersome. But it is also a part of Lorna Doone's greatest strength: the novel’s completely convincing depiction of a departed time and place. Blackmore did a great deal of research to get the dialect and vocabulary of John Ridd and his family accurate, and it shows. The vocabulary and cadence, the rural lifestyle and practices, the concerns of those living in a lawless and wild land, they all feel very real. The reader is completely convinced that they are hearing a voice from the past.
Although Lorna Doone is a historical romance, it is not really an adventure novel. It is a romance, in the modern sense of the word. There are certainly elements of adventure in the novel, but it is much more concerned with the love story of John Ridd and Lorna Doone than with the violent destruction of the Doones. And because the characters are emotionally real (John more than Lorna, but Lorna as well as John) and the lives portrayed are recognizable to the reader, and because the characters are likable, the reader cares about what happens to John and Lorna and wants a happy ending for them. The plot may be conventional, but the novel is emotionally involving.
Lorna Doone is compelling reading of surprising depth and well worth the effort it takes to come to grips with the language. As critic Pamela Knights writes, "it contains humour and high adventure, romance and history, lyricism and violence, in settings ranging from the domestic to the demonic - often...within a single chapter."4 Readers are advised to seek it out.
Print: R.D. Blackmore, Lorna Doone. Oxford: Oxford University, 1989.
For Further Research
James E. Byer, “Lorna Doone,” Reference Guide to English Literature. New York: St. James Press, 1991.
Pamela Knights, “Introduction,” Lorna Doone. Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth, 2004.
Peter Merchant, “Rehabilitating Lorna Doone: Prospects and Problems,” Children’s Literature in Education 18, no. 4 (1987): 240-252.
Sally Shuttleworth, “Introduction,” Lorna Doone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Max Keith Sutton, “The Mythic Appeal of Lorna Doone,” Nineteenth Century Fiction 28, no. 4 (Mar 1974): 435-449.
1 Sally Shuttleworth, “Introduction,” in Lorna Doone (Oxford: Oxford University, 1989), x.
2 Shuttleworth, “Introduction,” xxiv.
3 Pamela Knights, “Introduction,” in Lorna Doone (Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Classics, 2004), xxxv.
4 Knights, “Introduction,” xiii.