One of my favorite Victorian sequences, #1: the true climax of Lorna Doone

Hi. So. This blog has gone for long periods with no new posts, for which I apologize, but the new year and new decade are here, and there’s a movement afoot to bring back blogs as a thing, and almost all of my work over the past…gosh, almost a year…has been for roleplaying games, which makes me feel like I’m out of practice writing anything other than material for games.

In other words, it’s time for me to start doing some actual writing again, even if it’s only in the form of a series of blog posts.

As it says on the tin, this is the first in a series of posts about some of my favorite moments of Victorian writing (with one additional moment of non-Victorian historical fiction set in the early nineteenth century, but I’ll get to that much later). As you may or may not know, back in the mid-Aughts I wrote a big encyclopedia of Victorian and nineteenth century genre fiction. And as you may or may not know, a sequel (updated and much-expanded) to that encyclopedia is coming Real Soon Now. (Mid-February? End of February? Sometime in there). I do like me some Victorian fiction, and a lot of it has at least one moment of—if not Awesomeness, then Real Cool-ness.

So I thought I’d write about some of them. Up first: the climax of Lorna Doone.

Lorna Doone, for those of you not familiar with it, was written by an Englishman, R.D. Blackmore and published in 1869. (You can read it online here). The novel 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), and more danger (an attack on Doone Valley). But there is, finally, a happily ever after, and all’s well that end’s well.

Lorna Doone is a “triple-decker,” one of the massive Victorian novels originally issued for publication in three volumes. It’s never been out of print, and it was the most popular, best-selling regional historical novel of the nineteenth century. The critics and academics approve of it, all the best people like it (writers as diverse as Angela Carter, in The Magic Toyshop, and Anita Desai, in Clear Light of Day, have invoked or been overtly influenced by Lorna Doone), and it’s a hell of a good read, even now.

My favorite moment from the novel comes near its end, after the Doones have been seen too and when all that prevents John and Lorna from being completely happy is that they aren’t yet married. The marriage, therefore, is arranged—and the reader expects it to be a final kind of catharsis after 660+ pages of good people struggling and suffering:

[SPOILERS, obviously]

Dear mother arranged all the ins and outs of the way in which it was to be done; and Annie and Lizzie, and all the Snowes, and even Ruth Huckaback (who was there, after great persuasion), made such a sweeping of dresses that I scarcely knew where to place my feet, and longed for a staff, to put by their gowns. Then Lorna came out of a pew half-way, in a manner which quite astonished me, and took my left hand in her right, and I prayed God that it were done with.

My darling looked so glorious, that I was afraid of glancing at her, yet took in all her beauty. She was in a fright, no doubt; but nobody should see it; whereas I said (to myself at least), “I will go through it like a grave-digger.”

Lorna’s dress was of pure white, clouded with faint lavender (for the sake of the old Earl Brandir), and as simple as need be, except for perfect loveliness. I was afraid to look at her, as I said before, except when each of us said, “I will,” and then each dwelled upon the other.

It is impossible for any who have not loved as I have to conceive my joy and pride, when after ring and all was done, and the parson had blessed us, Lorna turned to look at me with her glances of subtle fun subdued by this great act.

Her eyes, which none on earth may ever equal, or compare with, told me such a depth of comfort, yet awaiting further commune, that I was almost amazed, thoroughly as I knew them. Darling eyes, the sweetest eyes, the loveliest, the most loving eyes—the sound of a shot rang through the church, and those eyes were filled with death.

Lorna fell across my knees when I was going to kiss her, as the bridegroom is allowed to do, and encouraged, if he needs it; a flood of blood came out upon the yellow wood of the altar steps, and at my feet lay Lorna, trying to tell me some last message out of her faithful eyes. I lifted her up, and petted her, and coaxed her, but it was no good; the only sign of life remaining was a spirt of bright red blood.

Some men know what things befall them in the supreme time of their life—far above the time of death—but to me comes back as a hazy dream, without any knowledge in it, what I did, or felt, or thought, with my wife’s arms flagging, flagging, around my neck, as I raised her up, and softly put them there. She sighed a long sigh on my breast, for her last farewell to life, and then she grew so cold, and cold, that I asked the time of year.

It was Whit-Tuesday, and the lilacs all in blossom; and why I thought of the time of year, with the young death in my arms, God or His angels, may decide, having so strangely given us. Enough that so I did, and looked; and our white lilacs were beautiful. Then I laid my wife in my mother’s arms, and begging that no one would make a noise, went forth for my revenge.

Yes. Shot at the altar. Now, summarized in this way, it sounds clichéd and perhaps corny, but in context Lorna being shot and killed at the altar comes as one hell of a shock. It’s unexpected, to say the least; it’s bracingly unjust—Lorna is, all things considered, rather sweet and melancholy, deserving of as much happiness as John can give her, and here Blackmore goes killing her!; it flies in the face of contemporary (and later, really) literary convention and reader expectation; it completely wrong-foots the modern reader, who likely thinks they know where the story is going at this point, and discovers that they were wrong, wrong, wrong; heck–it introduces a major plot development with only thirteen pages left in the novel!

What happens next—well, I’ll let Blackmore tell it:

Of course, I knew who had done it. There was but one man in the world, or at any rate, in our part of it, who could have done such a thing—such a thing. I use no harsher word about it, while I leaped upon our best horse, with bridle but no saddle, and set the head of Kickums towards the course now pointed out to me. Who showed me the course, I cannot tell. I only know that I took it. And the men fell back before me.

Weapon of no sort had I. Unarmed, and wondering at my strange attire (with a bridal vest, wrought by our Annie, and red with the blood of the bride), I went forth just to find out this; whether in this world there be or be not God of justice.

With my vicious horse at a furious speed, I came upon Black Barrow Down, directed by some shout of men, which seemed to me but a whisper. And there, about a furlong before me, rode a man on a great black horse, and I knew that the man was Carver Doone.

“Your life or mine,” I said to myself; “as the will of God may be. But we two live not upon this earth, one more hour together.”

I knew the strength of this great man; and I knew that he was armed with a gun—if he had time to load again, after shooting my Lorna—or at any rate with pistols, and a horseman’s sword as well. Nevertheless, I had no more doubt of killing the man before me than a cook has of spitting a headless fowl.

Sometimes seeing no ground beneath me, and sometimes heeding every leaf, and the crossing of the grass-blades, I followed over the long moor, reckless whether seen or not. But only once the other man turned round and looked back again, and then I was beside a rock, with a reedy swamp behind me.

Although he was so far before me, and riding as hard as ride he might, I saw that he had something on the horse in front of him; something which needed care, and stopped him from looking backward. In the whirling of my wits, I fancied first that this was Lorna; until the scene I had been through fell across hot brain and heart, like the drop at the close of a tragedy. Rushing there through crag and quag, at utmost speed of a maddened horse, I saw, as of another’s fate, calmly (as on canvas laid), the brutal deed, the piteous anguish, and the cold despair.

The man turned up the gully leading from the moor to Cloven Rocks, through which John Fry had tracked Uncle Ben, as of old related. But as Carver entered it, he turned round, and beheld me not a hundred yards behind; and I saw that he was bearing his child, little Ensie, before him. Ensie also descried me, and stretched his hands and cried to me; for the face of his father frightened him.

Carver Doone, with a vile oath, thrust spurs into his flagging horse, and laid one hand on a pistol-stock; whence I knew that his slung carbine had received no bullet since the one that had pierced Lorna. And a cry of triumph rose from the black depths of my heart. What cared I for pistols? I had no spurs, neither was my horse one to need the rowel; I rather held him in than urged him, for he was fresh as ever; and I knew that the black steed in front, if he breasted the steep ascent, where the track divided, must be in our reach at once.

His rider knew this; and, having no room in the rocky channel to turn and fire, drew rein at the crossways sharply, and plunged into the black ravine leading to the Wizard’s Slough. “Is it so?” I said to myself with a brain and head cold as iron; “though the foul fiend come from the slough, to save thee; thou shalt carve it, Carver.”

I followed my enemy carefully, steadily, even leisurely; for I had him, as in a pitfall, whence no escape might be. He thought that I feared to approach him, for he knew not where he was: and his low disdainful laugh came back. “Laugh he who wins,” thought I.

A gnarled and half-starved oak, as stubborn as my own resolve, and smitten by some storm of old, hung from the crag above me. Rising from my horse’s back, although I had no stirrups, I caught a limb, and tore it (like a mere wheat-awn) from the socket. Men show the rent even now, with wonder; none with more wonder than myself.

Carver Doone turned the corner suddenly on the black and bottomless bog; with a start of fear he reined back his horse, and I thought he would have turned upon me. But instead of that, he again rode on; hoping to find a way round the side.

Now there is a way between cliff and slough for those who know the ground thoroughly, or have time enough to search it; but for him there was no road, and he lost some time in seeking it. Upon this he made up his mind; and wheeling, fired, and then rode at me.

His bullet struck me somewhere, but I took no heed of that. Fearing only his escape, I laid my horse across the way, and with the limb of the oak struck full on the forehead his charging steed. Ere the slash of the sword came nigh me, man and horse rolled over, and well nigh bore my own horse down, with the power of their onset.

Carver Doone was somewhat stunned, and could not arise for a moment. Meanwhile I leaped on the ground and awaited, smoothing my hair back, and baring my arms, as though in the ring for wrestling. Then the little boy ran to me, clasped my leg, and looked up at me, and the terror in his eyes made me almost fear myself.

“Ensie, dear,” I said quite gently, grieving that he should see his wicked father killed, “run up yonder round the corner and try to find a pretty bunch of bluebells for the lady.” The child obeyed me, hanging back, and looking back, and then laughing, while I prepared for business. There and then I might have killed mine enemy, with a single blow, while he lay unconscious; but it would have been foul play.

With a sullen and black scowl, the Carver gathered his mighty limbs, and arose, and looked round for his weapons; but I had put them well away. Then he came to me and gazed; being wont to frighten thus young men.

“I would not harm you, lad,” he said, with a lofty style of sneering: “I have punished you enough, for most of your impertinence. For the rest I forgive you; because you have been good and gracious to my little son. Go, and be contented.”

For answer, I smote him on the cheek, lightly, and not to hurt him: but to make his blood leap up. I would not sully my tongue by speaking to a man like this.

There was a level space of sward between us and the slough. With the courtesy derived from London, and the processions I had seen, to this place I led him. And that he might breathe himself, and have every fibre cool, and every muscle ready, my hold upon his coat I loosed, and left him to begin with me, whenever he thought proper.

I think that he felt that his time was come. I think he knew from my knitted muscles, and the firm arch of my breast, and the way in which I stood; but most of all from my stern blue eyes; that he had found his master. At any rate a paleness came, an ashy paleness on his cheeks, and the vast calves of his legs bowed in, as if he were out of training.

Seeing this, villain as he was, I offered him first chance. I stretched forth my left hand, as I do to a weaker antagonist, and I let him have the hug of me. But in this I was too generous; having forgotten my pistol-wound, and the cracking of one of my short lower ribs. Carver Doone caught me round the waist, with such a grip as never yet had been laid upon me.

I heard my rib go; I grasped his arm, and tore the muscle out of it* (as the string comes out of an orange); then I took him by the throat, which is not allowed in wrestling; but he had snatched at mine; and now was no time of dalliance. In vain he tugged, and strained, and writhed, dashed his bleeding fist into my face, and flung himself on me with gnashing jaws. Beneath the iron of my strength—for God that day was with me—I had him helpless in two minutes, and his fiery eyes lolled out.

* A far more terrible clutch than this is handed down, to weaker ages, of the great John Ridd.—Ed.

“I will not harm thee any more,” I cried, so far as I could for panting, the work being very furious: “Carver Doone, thou art beaten: own it, and thank God for it; and go thy way, and repent thyself.”

It was all too late. Even if he had yielded in his ravening frenzy—for his beard was like a mad dog’s jowl—even if he would have owned that, for the first time in his life, he had found his master; it was all too late.

The black bog had him by the feet; the sucking of the ground drew on him, like the thirsty lips of death. In our fury, we had heeded neither wet nor dry; nor thought of earth beneath us. I myself might scarcely leap, with the last spring of o’er-laboured legs, from the engulfing grave of slime. He fell back, with his swarthy breast (from which my gripe had rent all clothing), like a hummock of bog-oak, standing out the quagmire; and then he tossed his arms to heaven, and they were black to the elbow, and the glare of his eyes was ghastly. I could only gaze and pant; for my strength was no more than an infant’s, from the fury and the horror. Scarcely could I turn away, while, joint by joint, he sank from sight.

I know that was relatively long, and told in a somewhat dated fashion, but damn if that isn’t great stuff nonetheless. The reader finally gets their catharsis—not in the way they expected, of course, but it’s there, and in very satisfying form.

Of course, Lorna’s not dead, as John finds out when he rides back. She heals, he heals, and they finally, finally, get their Happily Ever After.

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.”

Check it out!

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