Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by RD Blackmore

An everyday story of country folk…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When John Ridd’s father is robbed and murdered by the infamous Doone clan, this should make young John their blood enemy. Instead, he falls in love with Lorna, the beautiful young granddaughter of Sir Ensor, the head of the Doones. Because, massive though he is and with a reputation throughout Devon and Somerset as a great wrestler, at heart John is a lover, not a fighter. Unless you threaten the people he loves…

After an exceptionally tedious first quarter, during which I many times considered abandoning the book, I gradually grew to quite enjoy it. Biographical fiction of this era tends to include the early years of the subject, meaning it’s often a long time before the story gets properly underway. Sometimes this works, if the writer fills it with interesting stuff – witness David Copperfield and his time living with the Micawbers. Other times it’s less successful, and I found John’s early life dragged, with very little incident to break up the admittedly excellent descriptions of rural life. The only real event of note is his accidental meeting with the child Lorna, whose infant beauty even then arouses his boyish fancy.

Eventually, however, John reaches manhood and, remembering the little girl, sets out to sneak into the Doone stronghold to find her again. The Doones are a gang of robbers and murderers living in a nearby valley, headed by Sir Ensor, a nobleman dispossessed of his land and fortune over a dispute between his family and the King. Although they terrorise the countryside, the locals seem to feel some strange kind of pride over them, as if they lend an air almost of glamour to the area. Which seems a little odd, since apart from murdering and robbing the men, they have an unfortunate habit of raping girls and women, and stealing them away from their families to force them into marrying the Doone men, who are not averse to a bit of polygamy. Call me old-fashioned, but the glamour escaped me…

By the side of the stream she was coming to me, even among the primroses, as if she loved them all; and every flower looked the brighter, as her eyes were on them, I could not see what her face was, my heart so awoke and trembled; only that her hair was flowing from a wreath of white violets, and the grace of her coming was like the appearance of the first wind-flower. The pale gleam over the western cliffs threw a shadow of light behind her, as if the sun were lingering. Never do I see that light from the closing of the west, even in these my aged days, without thinking of her. Ah me, if it comes to that, what do I see of earth or heaven, without thinking of her?

Having now fallen hopelessly in love with the lovely Lorna, John is conflicted about the Doones – he sees that they are bad, but doesn’t want to go against them for love of Lorna. Though remarkably, having been brought up by this horrid crew, Lorna has turned out sweet and moral and pure, and apart from old Sir Ensor whom she loves, has no high opinion of them; especially since she is being put under pressure to marry the nastiest of them all – the evil Carver Doone. (Cue booing and hissing…) Eventually, there will have to be a showdown, between the men of Exmoor and the Doones, and between John and Carver.

The major problem with the book is that it is incredibly slow. The actual plot is pretty underdeveloped – we are told about how horrible the Doones are rather than seeing it for ourselves. In fact, considering their central role, they appear very rarely. There’s a sort of detour into the politics of the time – the anti-monarchist plots and the Monmouth rebellion – but Blackmore assumes the reader’s familiarity with these events so doesn’t explain them, which left me heading off to wikipedia on more than one occasion. I don’t blame him for my ignorance, but nonetheless I always feel historical fiction should give enough background to allow the reader to understand what’s going on. There’s also a lengthy section where John is in London, where I swear nothing at all happens – nothing! John mentions afterwards that he met the King three times, but clearly this wasn’t important enough to show us as it occurred. Blackmore gives no feeling of what London may have been like in the period, beyond some discussion of bedbugs in various rooming-houses where John stayed.

Then the woods arose in folds, like drapery of awakened mountains, stately with a depth of awe, and memory of the tempests. Autumn’s mellow hand was on them, as they owned already, touched with gold, and red, and olive; and their joy towards the sun was less to a bridegroom than a father.

Yet before the floating impress of the woods could clear itself, suddenly the gladsome light leaped over hill and valley, casting amber, blue, and purple, and a tint of rich red rose; according to the scene they lit on, and the curtain flung around; yet all alike dispelling fear and the cloven hoof of darkness, all on the wings of hope advancing, and proclaiming, ‘God is here.’ Then life and joy sprang reassured from every crouching hollow; every flower, and bud, and bird, had a fluttering sense of them; and all the flashing of God’s gaze merged into soft beneficence.

Where the book does shine, though, is in its depiction of rural life. John loves his life as a farmer and through his eyes we see nature in all her kindness and cruelty. The harsh and bitter winter of 1683 is brilliantly depicted: weeks of deep snow and freezing fog followed by flooding when the thaw finally arrives. We are shown the hardships undergone by the men trying to save the farm animals stranded in the snow-covered fields, and learn of the toll, emotional and financial, as so many of the animals are lost.

The strange (to urban eyes) mix of affection and pragmatism the farmers have for their animals is beautifully described, making me long for those earlier times when farming seemed somehow less cruel, more natural, than our soulless meat production factories of today. We are shown the dependence of the community on abundant harvests and the way they come together first to bring in the crops and then to celebrate. The description of the harvest itself is wonderfully done, full of warmth as Blackmore describes the age-old rituals that surround this most important point of the rural year. For this picture of farming life alone, the book is well worth reading.

There is also a good deal of stuff about the place of women in this society, which I’m fairly sure is meant to be tongue-in-cheek humorous rather than hideously sexist, though sometimes the dividing line is so faint as to be invisible. Certainly John is transparent enough to let us see that Lorna’s beauty of face and figure is as important to him as any loveliness of soul she may possess…

“What are you doing here, Annie?” I inquired rather sternly, being vexed with her for having gone so very near to frighten me.

“Nothing at all,” said our Annie shortly. And indeed it was truth enough for a woman. Not that I dare to believe that women are such liars as men say: only that I mean they often see things round the corner, and know not which is which of it. And indeed I never have known a woman (though right enough in their meaning) purely and perfectly true and transparent, except only my Lorna; and even so, I might not have loved her, if she had been ugly.

But there are also lovely sections, especially between John and his sister Annie, where John thinks he is showing his masculine superiority while in fact Annie is quietly guiding him and winding him round her feminine little finger. Much of John’s interactions with the many females in his life left me quietly chuckling, and suspecting that the women were chuckling too behind his back, but affectionately.

As the book nears its conclusion, the pace thankfully picks up and there are some fine dramatic scenes to end on. Is it a happy-ever-after or a tear-jerking tragedy though? Well, if you want to know the answer to that question, I guess you’ll just have to read it for yourself…

Book 10 of 90

52 thoughts on “Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by RD Blackmore

  1. We were supposed to read that at school (aged about 14-15) and I hated it. As you said, far too slow-moving to start off with, and far too much ‘lecturing’ rather than action. I managed to escape to Day of the Triffids and was hugely relieved. Haven’t been tempted to try it again since.

    • My dad always claimed it was his favourite book so I felt a bit guilty that I’d never managed to get past the first few chapters. So I’m relieved to have finally read it, and liked it in the end, but it’s not one I’d be madly forcing on people. And I’m not totally convinced it deserves its ‘classic’ status.

  2. I had an abridged edition of Lorna Doone as a child and couldn’t even manage that despite reading everything I could get my hands on. Maybe I’ll try again (the abridged version).

    • Thanks! 😀 I loved all the farming stuff – not an easy life but they seemed to get a lot of satisfaction from it. I did find it very slow, but several people have commented that they loved it, so it may just be that his style didn’t quite work for me…

  3. Based on your great review, I’ll definitely continue to ignore this classic. Though I don’t mind a slow read (LITTLE DORRIT is one of my favorites after all), I can’t help thinking of an old musical adapted into a movie: SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, which was based on a short story that was based on The Rape of the Sabine Women. It was not a favorite. 😦

    • Haha! Glad I could help! I think I may be getting less patient as the years pass. I used to love getting lost in a long book, but now I seem to want the story to keep moving. You know, I loved that film when I was a kid and too young to really understand the story. And then when I did understand, it seemed like such a strange story to turn into a musical!

        • There are a lot of the old films that make me cringe a bit now, for various reasons, though I loved them when I was young. Like the one where Jimmy Cagney shoves a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face, which seemed hysterically funny at the time. Or even when Rhett carries Scarlett off to the bedroom against her will… and next morning she’s all sweetness…

  4. It is hard to get into those very slow-moving stories, FictionFan. But they have to their advantage that they give you a really clear and vivid picture of life at a place and time. So I can see why you thought that aspect appealing. I have to admit – not as much my sort of book. Still, I’m glad you found a lot to like.

    • I think I’m getting less patient with these slower old classics as the years pass. But once I got into this one, I did enjoy his descriptions of rural life – it reminded me a little of Hobbiton, and I wondered if Tolkien had been influenced by it at all. I’m glad I stuck with it in the end. 🙂

  5. I have been meaning to read this for about two years, thanks for the excellent review. Gives me a bit of a push. 🙂 I definitely don’t expect books set 300+ years ago to depict the same values we have today, it would be wrong if they did – falsifying history. Slightly nervous about the “exceptionally tedious first quarter”, “incredibly slow” and “underdeveloped plot”, but not put me off. The depiction of rural life, and showing a different relationship to the animals sounds really interesting. Recently read ‘Black Beauty’ – a sort of horse autobiography.

    • It was my dad’s favourite book so I’ve been meaning to read it most of my life! So I’m glad I finally have. Yes, the attitude to women was strange in this one in that it didn’t feel out of place for the time, but somehow the way it’s written made me feel he was actually mocking the attitude, certainly some of the time anyway. Like the sample I gave about him not loving Lorna if she was ugly – surely that was meant to be humorous!? And yet… Haha! Maybe I’m being too kind! 😉 I hope you enjoy it when you get to it, and if you do find the first part slow, remember that it does get better and it’s worth it in the end.

      Thanks for popping in and commenting. 🙂

  6. I read this several times during childhood (and not in an abridged version, lemme add!), and loved it . . . even though the finale reduced me to tears on every reading. I even listened to a serialization on the radio — probably on Children’s Hour. So I guess the book’s in my blood, a bit. The moment I saw the heading of your post there popped straight back int my mind the image I formed of Lorna when I must have been, I dunno, maybe ten years old.

    What puzzles me is that I don’t especially remember the book being slow. I do recall it being kinda long by comparison with, say, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and some of the others that got read a few times over, but that was part of the appeal, really.

    • That’s interesting because it’s almost exactly what my sister said too. In fact, she even warned me to have tissues handy. But I’m afraid not a tear leaked out, not even a lip quiver. I must have got terribly hard-hearted as I’ve aged! (Plus *MINI-SPOILER ALERT* I really wanted him to marry Ruth, who seemed like much more fun than Lorna… 😉 ) Several other people have also said they didn’t find it slow, so it must just be that his style didn’t quite win me over, or at least not for a long time. But I’m glad I stuck with it – I did enjoy it overall in the end.

  7. Somehow I managed to miss this one … thank goodness! Yes, the writing is lovely, and I appreciate the descriptions you’ve included, but. Long, tedious reads just bore me, regardless of the stylish prose — there, I’ve said it! And all that mistreatment of women, I fear, adds to my decision. But you’re done with it now and probably could use some nice chocolate as a reward!

    • I used to like getting lost in a long slow book (maybe when my TBR was shorter!) but now I really find I want the story to keep moving – it doesn’t have to be frantic, but steady progression. The stuff about women was funny in this one – I really couldn’t decide when he was being humorous and when he was serious! Ha! Much chocolate was consumed in the reading of this one… 😉

    • I did enjoy it in the end, but it took a long time for me to begin to get into it. Often it’s just down to a mismatch between reader and author, though I loved his writing about nature and farming, even though it was all those digressions that made it such a slow read. But I’m glad you enjoyed it more, and you’re certainly not alone! Several of my commenters are saying how much they loved it. 🙂

      • It may depend also on how much 19th century literature you are used to reading. It tends to be more descriptive and slower moving than contemporary literature. I don’t know how much of it you read, but I think that sometimes makes a difference in modern readers’ enjoyment of the books.

        • Yes, I know what you mean, but this one seemed slow and uneventful to me even in comparison to most literature of that period. Or it may just be that his writing didn’t work for me as well as some of the other authors of that time, meaning it didn’t hold my attention to the same level. But I fear that for me it doesn’t come close to comparing with Dickens or Thackeray, for example. Oh well – it’s one of the great joys of reading that we all find ourselves liking different things… 🙂

  8. I’m so glad you mention the farming/rural aspect. The realistic and compassionate depiction of that community might drown out some of the hissing and booing heard from the other sections, or plot deficiencies. Insightful review, as always, FF!

    • Thank you! 😀 I thought it was a lovely depiction of farming – not at all romanticised but showing the satisfaction of enjoying the results of their own hard labours, and how the work itself led to them working as a community.

  9. Lorna Doone is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read for so long that I think it would be a shame not to read it, but you post has certainly made me wonder whether I should bother. I really should have read it years ago when I loved reading really long books – ones I could get lost in and never want to end. I can’t give up on it before I’ve even tried it, so it’s staying on my Classics Club list and I’m hoping I’ll be one of those readers who doesn’t find it long and slow.

    • Yes, I don’t seem to enjoy getting lost in long books in quite the way I did when I was young – we always seem to have so many distractions now. But I was glad I read it in the end, despite the slow start – it maybe just took me a while to get attuned to his style. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it! 🙂

  10. I read this last year and loved it (it was even one of my books of the year) so I’m pleased you ended up enjoying it, especially after the way you felt about it at the beginning. I liked the descriptions of rural life too – that aspect of the book reminded me of Thomas Hardy, another author I love.

    • It maybe just took a while for his style to work for me or something, but I really didn’t think I’d make it through, and then after a bit I discovered I was enjoying it after all. And by the end I was looking forward to getting back to it each time. It’s years since I read any Hardy but I used to love him, and have a re-read of Tess on my Classics Club list. Yes, I always loved his portrayal of rural life too – I think I’d have quite liked to live in that period, where people could directly enjoy the results of their labours…

  11. I think I’ll read this book eventually but probably at the same time as some other, faster-paced books. Based on the quotes, I think I’d like the writing style but I’d need to take some breaks.

    • Yes, I always find it easier if I have something light on the go too, though by the end of this one I was enjoying it enough to be looking forward to reading it in big chunks. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it! 🙂

  12. I’ve been waiting for this review and although in parts it is what I expected as my memory serves me the ending did not make up for the sheer tedium you have to suffer to get there! I’m not even the slightest bit tempted to see if reading it as an adult would change my opinion of this one but I’m glad you found more than a little to please you!

    • Hahaha! I did enjoy it more than I thought I was going to in the end, but I doubt if I’ll be rushing to re-read it any time soon! I was surprised by the ending – my sister had told me to have hankies at the ready, but I didn’t feel the tiniest desire to sob – either I’m hard-hearted or I was just overwhelmed with relief at actually getting to the end…

  13. Well that was a lovely review, FF! I’m glad you ended up finding so much to praise in this one despite its flaws. That said, I’ve never read it and I don’t think I’ll add it to my (ever-growing) TBR. But I thoroughly enjoyed reading about it! And how lovely that you read your dad’s favorite book.

    • Thank you! 😀 I’m glad I enjoyed after all – because it was my dad’s favourite I’ve always felt a bit guilty about not having read it. I’d tried it before but didn’t make it past the slow start, so this time I was determined to struggle on, and it was worth it in the end…

  14. I was amazed when I saw your rating for this – from the hints you’d given so far I was sure you hated it! Well done for sticking with it, I think I would have given up if I disliked the start as much as you did. I read it as a teenager and really liked it, but I remember very little about it now. You’ve not tempted me to a re-read!

    • I was surprised myself! I really struggled with the first half but, whether I got tuned into his voice in the end or whether it actually speeded up, I eventually discovered I was quite looking forward to getting back to it each time. But I doubt I’ll be re-reading it either any time soon, for all that! 😉

  15. Not sure I would have had your patience for this one. The first quarter—first half? Hmmm. I have so little patience these days. Am wondering if my attention span is succumbing to the 24/7 catastrophe that is our government.

    • Really I was pushed by the fact that my dad always claimed it as his favourite book and as a result I always felt guilty for not having got past the first few chapters. So this time I was determined to read the whole thing if it killed me! Fortunately it didn’t… but it came close!
      Yeah, my concentration levels are about zero too – I’m trying to wean myself off obsessive news watching…

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