Friday, 11 July 2014

Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore.

R. D. Blackmore.
Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor, first published in 1869, was both one of the hardest and one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read. It's a historical novel based in the 17th Century, narrated by John Ridd, who has fallen in love with Lorna Doone. Lorna was raised by the notorious Doones who killed John's father, and is betrothed to the vile Carver Doone. 

In the Preface, R. D. Blackmore writes,
This work is called a "romance", because the incidents, characters, time, and scenery, are alike romantic. And in shaping this old tale, the Writer neither dares, nor desires, to claim it the dignity or cumber it with the difficulty of an historical novel.
It is indeed a romance of the purest kind set in the wilds of Exmoor (South West England), though whether it may lay claim to being a good historical novel is not for me to say being as I am rather ignorant of 17th Century England. At times it was enthralling and exciting, and other times there were parts that were very slow-paced, with minute detail of scenery and events (equally as gripping, though). The style was very difficult I have to admit, and the phonologic style of many of the characters speech was almost impossible. But it is worth the struggle. John Ridd tells of his love for Lorna in such an unabashed, almost ecstatic way, and he shows a steely determination to win his lady and to make her safe and happy. It is an absolute celebration of John Ridd's love, and the love men feel for those they adore, and yes, there are times where women are portrayed by John Ridd as the weaker sex, but John is a product of his time. He loves his mother, his sisters, and his Lorna and he does his utmost to protect them. It's an outstanding and beautiful novel.

I have many favourite parts, but I'll share with you the description of "The Great Winter" of 1683-84: such was the powers of this detail I felt cold on a July evening. Here's a paragraph from this section:
Of the sheep upon the mountain, and the sheep upon the western farm, and the cattle on the upper barrows, scarcely one in ten was saved; do what we would for them, and this was not through any neglect (now that our wits were sharpened), but from the pure impossibility of finding them at all. That great snow never ceased a moment for three days and nights; and then when all the earth was filled, and the topmost hedges were unseen, and the trees broke down with weight (wherever the wind had not lightened them), a brilliant sun broke forth and showed the loss of all our customs. 
All our house was quite snowed up, except where we had purged a way, by dint of constant shovellings. The kitchen was as dark and darker than the cider-cellar, and long lines of furrowed scollops ran even up to the chimney-stacks. Several windows fell right inwards, through the weight of the snow against them; and the few that stood, bulged in, and bent like an old bruised lanthorn. We were obliged to cook by candle-light; we were forced to read by candle-light; as for baking, we could not do it, because the oven was too chill; and a load of faggots only brought a little wet down the sides of it. 
For when the sun burst forth at last upon that world of white, what he brought was neither warmth, nor cheer, nor hope of softening; only a clearer shaft of cold, from the violet depths of sky. Long-drawn alleys of white haze seemed to lead towards him, yet such as he could not come down, with any warmth remaining. Broad white curtains of the frost-fog looped around the lower sky, on the verge of hill and valley, and above the laden trees. Only round the sun himself, and the spot of heaven he claimed, clustered a bright purple-blue, clear, and calm, and deep. 
That night such a frost ensued as we had never dreamed of, neither read in ancient books, or histories of Frobisher. The kettle by the fire froze, and the crock upon the hearth-cheeks; many men were killed, and cattle rigid in their head-ropes. Then I heard that fearful sound, which never I had heard before, neither since have heard (except during that same winter), the sharp yet solemn sound of trees burst open by the frost-blow. Our great walnut lost three branches, and has been dying ever since; though growing meanwhile, as the soul does. And the ancient oak at the cross was rent, and many score of ash trees. But why should I tell all this? the people who have not seen it (as I have) will only make faces, and disbelieve; till such another frost comes; which perhaps may never be.
Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter's 1992 adaptation of
It reminds me a great deal of Virginia Woolf's description of "The Great Frost" of 1608-09 in Orlando:
The Great Frost was, historians tell us, the most severe that has ever visited these islands. Birds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground. At Norwich a young countrywoman started to cross the road in her usual robust health and was seen by the onlookers to turn visibly to powder and be blown in a puff of dust over the roofs as the icy blast struck her at the street corner. The mortality among sheep and cattle was enormous. Corpses froze and could not be drawn from the sheets. It was no uncommon sight to come upon a whole herd of swine frozen immovable upon the road. The fields were full of shepherds, ploughmen, teams of horses, and little bird-scaring boys all struck stark in the act of the moment, one with his hand to his nose, another with the bottle to his lips, a third with a stone raised to throw at the ravens who sat, as if stuffed, upon the hedge within a yard of him. The severity of the frost was so extraordinary that a kind of petrifaction sometimes ensued; and it was commonly supposed that the great increase of rocks in some parts of Derbyshire was due to no eruption, for there was none, but to the solidification of unfortunate wayfarers who had been turned literally to stone where they stood.
How odd it is to write about such extreme winters when the sun is shining outside on this beautiful summer's day! But yes, R. D. Blackmore is such a wonderful writer, and it's no surprise to learn that he was one of the most popular (and prolific) writers of his age.

And, before I conclude, I found online a lovely 1893 edition of Lorna Doone with hundreds of beautiful illustrations from various artists. Here are a few of my favourites:

Yes, this was a wonderful book, and (I'm almost embarrassed to admit this) one of the hardest books I've ever read, which is strange because it is not notoriously difficult (as far as I know). Very rewarding however, and I loved reading it so much!

Further reading


  1. Hm, your description certainly makes me interested. Somehow I always associate Lorna Doone with the Waverly novels. Well, those and lemon cookies.

    1. I just learned about those lemon cookies a few days ago! Sadly can't get them in the UK :(

  2. Beautiful description of a book I knew nothing about. Love the illustrations you posted at the end. Absolutely beautiful.. (Hello to all your birds too).

    1. Thanks Pam. It is a lovely book :)

  3. Well, Lorna Doone would not exist without the "Waverley" novels, so that association makes sense. And it is set at the same time as Old Mortality, although the subject does not seem similar, not to mention the setting - that blizzard!

    Great work with the illustrations as always!

    1. Thank you :)

      I really need to get on and read Waverley. The only Scott novel I've read is Ivanhoe :S

  4. I've read about this book in other books, but I've never come across it myself. You make it sound very interesting - and the illustrations you chose are wonderful.

  5. "Our great walnut lost three branches, and has been dying ever since; though growing meanwhile, as the soul does."
    That line just rocked me. Glad you got to this one.

    1. Yep, it's a good line, that!


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