This anonymous review of Blackmore's most famous novel appeared in
orna Doone' really deserves its title as a romance. The story is well told; and although some impatient readers may call the pace too leisurely, we think that even they, if they once fairly begin it, will read on to the end, and close the book with regret. There is a reality and truthfulness about the story which gain upon the reader as he proceeds.
The period is laid in the time of James the Second, and we are completely transported out of the present day to the England that was when there were no roads at all across Exmoor; and for a man to travel safely from one town to another required not only a thorough knowledge of all the bogs, pit-holes, soft places and sloughs, but much wary walking and great good luck besides. Mr Blackmore is quite at home in the local aspects of Somerset and Devonshire, and he is thoroughly acquainted with the rustic life of England as it was in those days, when there was no communication between one town and another except by pack-horses for goods and stout nags for men, and when the people from another parish were foreigners instead of neighbours, when highwaymen flourished, and the gibbets which studded Exmoor told that some of them fell victims to their profession.
The story takes us completely into a bygone world. The rustic life of England as it was led at Plover Barrow Farm is set forth in a way to make one wish we might have paid a visit to that worthy and stalwart yeoman, John Ridd, the owner of the place and the hero of the story. Plover Barrow Farm seems to have been a rustic Paradise: it is pervaded by a sense of honest labour and wholesome tranquillity, with such a wealth of plenty and comfort and warmth that the reader is made to feel as if he had been carried far away from London, and was breathing the pure air of Exmoor, and luxuriating in the country fare so well and vividly described. Plover Barrow Farm had belonged to the same family of yeomen ever since the days of King Alfred; and John Ridd himself is quite a genuine hero, whose fame for great stature and bodily strength and skill as a wrestler still survives in local tradition.
The story is narrated in the first person, by John Ridd himself. It begins with him as a boy at school, fetched home suddenly on account of the death of his father, who had been set upon by a party of the Doones, and killed as he was returning from market with some of his neighbours. Now, the Doones were a family of outlaws and freebooters, who had established themselves in a valley on the borders of Bagworthy Forest, supporting themselves by rapine and robbery, and were the terror of the country for many miles around. These Doones are strictly historical personages; and the account given of them in the novel is curious. The chief, or patriarch of the tribe, Sir Ensor Doone, was originally a gentleman of estate, standing well in the county, but who, owing to some slight of law or Star Chamber proceeding, had been dispossessed; and then he and his sons and nephews, and all belonging to him, declared themselves the enemies of law, and established this stronghold, where they built a village (stealing the materials), and entrenched themselves as in a camp. They were strong, handsome, godless men, who had neither mercy nor scruples. They carried off not only horses, sheep, cattle and money, but the wives and daughters of the inhabitants, when it seemed good to them. They were never brought to justice. They were an established power; the peaceable people feared them, and, in time, almost got used to them. The long immunity enjoyed by the Doones throws a curious light on the condition of the western counties at that period. These Doones play a considerable part in the narrative: they are like the giants in the old nursery; and John Ridd is like one of the champions who used to arise for the deliverance of the country people. Whoever has read the old nursery story of 'Tom Hickathrift' will see a generic resemblance in the fortunes and character of the two heroes. John Ridd is a hero of what we flatteringly call "the genuine English type." He is brave, modest and upright, scorning lies and mean actions; gifted with enormous bodily strength, which stands him in good stead in his various adventures and dangers.
We cannot give an outline of the plot, for it is a series of incidents. How John Ridd ventures into the very heart of the Doones' valley when a mere boy, and how he there finds a beautiful fairy princess of eight years old, named Lorna Doone, granddaughter, as she believes herself, of the grand old Sir Endsor Doone, — and how he devotes himself to her, and how the love he bears her grows up with him and continues the good influence of his life, — how he goes to see her at intervals, though every visit is at the risk of his life, if discovered, — and how at last, after the death of Sir Endsor, he rescues Lorna from the cruel keeping of Carver Doone, his successor, who is starving her to death unless she will consent to marry him, — how he manages their escape in the midst of the great frost of l680; and how she is kept warm and happy at the Farm, and how the Doones make a night attack to recover her, and to burn the Ridds out of house and home, — and how they are repulsed (though John Ridd will not shoot his enemy, Carver Doone, because guns seem treacherous weapons), and how Lorna turns out to be no Doone at all but a great Scotch heiress, Lady Lorna Dugal, who is fetched up to London, made a ward in Chancery, and put under the guardianship of her uncle, the Earl, and how she remains always faithful to the good John who has a narrow escape of being hanged by Col Kirke after the battle of Sedgemoor, in which he had taken no part except to help a wounded, man upon the field, and how that was the means of his being sent to London where he not only meets Lorna, but has an adventure with burglars, which makes him much ta1ked of — and the King bestows upon him the, honour of knighthood and a coat-of-arms; all this and much more is narrated in a quiet and veracious style with unconscious touches of character and the introduction of persons who are not only historical but life-like.
Some of the incidents are narrated with great power — such as the outrage by the Doones, which at last aroused the long-suffering country people to avenge themselves, and destroy the whole race of Doones; and the final attack and destruction of their stronghold. The death-wrestle between John Ridd and his enemy, Carver Doone, is terrible and yet keeps clear of being melodramatic.
Last updated 25 April 2006