This review of Blackmore's most famous novel, the text of which David Blackmore contributed, appeared anonymously in a longer review article of recent novels and other books.
f we might venture to use commercial language in connection with wares so fragile, we should be disposed to say that, at this moment, novels are dull. The fact is not unusual in a literary sense, but the season seems to be so unusually unpropitious, that we find ourselves concentrating our attention upon a novel which is not new, which has somehow managed to get through its first three-volume stage without attracting any particular notice, but which now, in a cheap edition, has mysteriously asserted itself and taken the world by storm. 'Lorna Doone' has several disadvantages that might s well discourage the ordinary reader. It is very long, it is historical, and it is extremely minute in all its details. Something of the elaboration of a child's story of country-life — its love of details simply as details, its narrative of every walk taken, and every change of season — encumbers the tale; but all these details, or almost all, contribute to the making up of so wonderfully harmonious and real a whole, that its historical date is lost in the truth of its actual life, and we cease to be conscious that there is anything antiquarian in the manners depicted.
The historical novel proper is seldom a very satisfactory production; but there is more than one way by which its disadvantages can be neutralised. One of these methods of making an old-world tale as real to us as if it had happened in our midst, Thackeray has made use of in the story of 'Esmond,' the skill of which is simply extraordinary. It is an unpleasant story, but the workmanship is so exquisite that we can but stand and gaze at it in wonder. It has the air of a book written not in this but the previous century. The present, no doubt, intrudes into it by moments; but as a whole it reads as the sketches of the 'Spectator' read — like a book really belonging to the period it describes. The charm of 'Lorna Doone' is not of this kind. The scene is laid in wild Exmoor, in that dreary period of history which embraces the end of Charles II's reign, and the beginning of his unfortunate brother's — as unattractive an age as can be imagined. But there is no antiquarianism about it. "Why, here arc men with helmets!" we heard a reader say, looking with visible dismay at the frontispiece. But the fact is, the men in helmets occupy so little space in the story, and the life, of the farmhouse in which the scene is laid is so entirely simple and true, that one forgets it is not of one's own age. Perhaps, for anything we can tell, people live at the present day in Exmoor as people lived in the days of Great John, otherwise Grit Jan, Ridd. There seems no particular reason why it should not be so; for it is a real life that is set before us — not certain tricks of manner which pass away, but an absolute living, such as changes but little from century to century. Even the melodrama with which the book is full comes natural. We may here and there make a faint objection to it, as in the case of the villain of the piece, who is a very big and a very black villain indeed; but there is nothing him which strikes us, as monstrous in the existence of the robber clan in the midst of these wild and peaceful solitudes.
The story of the Doones is, as we are told in the preface, a real story. They are represented as a rebellious and lawless but noble family, driven out of the society of their kind by their reckless life, and living intrenched in a natural fortress — a glen locked fast among the hills, with but one narrow entrance, which is perfectly defensible. They are as safe in this retirement as in a castle; and their houses occupy the banks of the brawling mountain-stream which runs through it, and are dotted about the green slopes. Here they live in idleness in the midst of the hard-working agricultural population, making raids upon passing travellers, and sometimes even upon the farmhouses, if there happens to be either money or a pretty face to tempt them. They are the natural enemies of everybody around them, hated but also feared. There is no authority in law which can reach them — or at least no magistrate has power or inclination to carry the penalties of justice to the Doone-gate; and there they dwell accordingly, a gigantic race, stalking about the moors with their long carbines, or riding out in wild parties to carry murder and destruction around.
The story of Lorna Doone is told by the young yeoman John Ridd, himself more gigantic in natural stature and strength than any Doone of them all, although the reivers were all picked men, subject to a certain standard of size. "There was not one among them," says John Ridd "but was a mighty man, straight and tall and wide, and fit to lift four hundredweight. If son or grandson of old Doone, or one the northern retainers, failed at age of twenty, while standing on his naked feet, to touch with his head the lintel of Sir Ensor's door, — and to fill the door-frame with his shoulders from side-post even side-post, he was led away to the narrow pass which made their village so desperate, and thrust from the town with ignominy to get his own living honestly. Now the measure of that doorway is, or rather was, I ought to say, six feet and one inch lengthwise, and two feet all but two inches taken crosswise in the door — not that I think anything of a standard the like that," adds great John Ridd, "for if they had set me in that doorway at the age of twenty; it is like enough I should have walked away with it on my shoulders, though I was not come to my full strength then."
This young giant lost his father at a very early age by the hand the Doones; and would no doubt have grown up their determined enemy, but for an adventurous raid which he made while a boy by means of the wild chasm through which the river escaped from that terrible valley into their territory where he found Lorna Doone, a child of only eight years old, but yet old enough to become at once the princess of his life. Lorna is supposed to be the granddaughter of old Sir Ensor, and is to be the queen of wild community, which, however she hates. This little lady is a very precocious child, and she is rather modern in her ways when she grows up; but nothing can be more charming than the story of the love which takes hold of the young rustic, filling him with all manner of beautiful thoughts, ripening and strengthening with his strength. His home and his mother and sisters form the constant light in the picture of which the Doones are the shadow. The innocent, honest, and blameless family, with pretty Annie, who has a genius for cookery, and whose "equal had never been seen for making a man comfortable;" and Lizzie, who loved books, and was undergrown, and knew that the gift of cooking was not vouchsafed by God to her; but sometimes she would do her best, by intellect, to win it; whereas it is no more to be won by intellect than divine poetry; and their mother, who is very kind and sweet and loving, but fancifully jealous, as good mothers always are, at least in novels; and the warm and kindly home-light which surrounds them, which is as genial and real as if we could see it shining out of the quiet old farm-kitchen, not etherealised nor over-refined, but, full of savoury smells, and homely activity, and substantial food, — is set forth before us in the most lifelike and charming reality. John Ridd is no intellectualist, though he was a scholar of Tiverton, one of the Blundellites of that famous centre of learning. He sets very little store by his younger sister's books and his own devotion to Shakespeare, which is a little dwelt upon at the end of the book, is evidently an afterthought, byway of giving some higher gifts to the honest yeoman, and it is not at all in harmony with the rest of the picture. But he is full of mother-wit, and that minute rustic observation of every change of atmosphere and natural appearance which is the poetry of the rural mind. Curiously enough, though the book is full of stirring scenes, there is none sufficiently striking in itself, as detached from the general thread of the story, to be quoted as an example of the real power in the book; unless it were, perhaps, the account of John's interview with Judge Jeffreys, which is perhaps the only favourable appearance ever made by that personage in print. However, as Judge Jeffreys has nothing to do with the story except in this accidental interview, we prefer to quote the introduction into the tale of Tom Faggus, a renowned highwayman; whose position among honest people is one of the most curious things in the book. Tom is the cousin of the high-minded and honourable Ridds, who are perfectly aware what his profession is, and yet are on the whole very proud of him. The first mention of him occurs in the time of John's school-days, when we are told, — "The day-boys had brought us word that some packmen, intending their way to town, had lain that morning at Sampford Peveril, and must be in ere nightfall, because Mr Faggus was after them. Now Mr Faggus was my first cousin, and an honour to the family, being a Northmolton man of great renown on the highway from Banner town even to London. Therefore, of course, I hoped that he would catch the packmen; and the boys were asking my opinion, as of an oracle, about it."
The way in which this gallant makes his first appearance at Plover's Barrows farm is as follows: — The river is in full flood after rain, and the ducks of the farm have just given utterance to certain cries of distress, which, have called forth John and Annie, aged respectively fifteen and thirteen, to see what is the matter. It is then found that a real catastrophe has happened in the duck world. "The old white drake — the father of all, a bird of high manners and chivalry, always the last to help himself from the pan of barleymeal and the first to show fight to a dog or cock intruding upon his family, — this fine fellow and a pillar of the state was now in a sad predicament, yet quacking very stoutly." He had got jammed in by the corner of a hurdle which was stretched across the stream at ordinary times, but was now dangerously rising and falling with the swollen tide.
"Annie was crying and wringing her hands, and I was about to rush into the water, although I liked not the look of it, but hoped to hold on by the hurdle, when a man. on horseback suddenly came round the corner of the great ash hedge on the other side of the stream, and his horse's feet were in the water. "'Ho, there!' he cried; 'get thee back, boy! The Hood will carry thee down like a straw. I will do it for thee, and no trouble.'
"'With that he leant forward, and spoke to his mare — she was just of the tint of a strawberry, a young thing, very beautiful; and she arched up her neck, as misliking the job: yet, trusting him, would attempt it. She entered the flood with her dainty fore legs sloped further aud further in front of her, and her delicate ears pricked forward, and the size of her great eyes increasing; but he kept her straight in the turbid rush by the pressure of his knees on her. Then she looked back, and wondered at him, as the force of the torrent grew stronger, but he bade her go on; and on she went, and it foamed up over her shoulders, and she tossed up her lip, and scorned it, for now her courage was waking. Then, as the rush of it swept her away, and she struck with her fore feet down the stream, he leaned from his saddle in a way which I never could have thought possible, and caught up old Tom with his left hand, and set him between his holsters, and smiled at his faint quack of gratitude. In a moment all three were carried downstream, and the rider lay flat on his horse, and tossed the hurdle clear from him, and made for the bend of smooth water.
"They landed some thirty or forty yards lower, in the midst of our kitchen-garden, where the winter cabbage was: but, though Annie and I crept through the hedge, and were full of our thanks and admiring him, he would answer us never a word until he had spoken in full to the mare, as if explaining the whole to her.
"'Sweetheart, I know thou couldest have leaped it,' he said, as he patted her cheek, being on the ground by this time and she was nudging up to him, with the water pattering off from her, 'but I had good reason, Winnie dear, for making thee go through it.'
"She answered him kindly with her soft eyes, and sniffed at him very lovingly, and they understood one another. Then he took from his waistcoat two peppercorns, and made the old drake swallow them, and tried him softly upon his legs, where the leading gap in the hedge was. Old Tom stood up quite bravely, and clapped his wings, and shook off the wet from his tail-feathers, and then away into the courtyard; and his family gathered around him, and they all made a noise in their throats, and stood up, and put their bills together, to thank God for this great deliverance.
"Having taken all this trouble, and watched the end of this adventure, the gentleman turned round to us with a pleasant smile on his face, as if he were highly amused with himself; and we came up, and looked at him. He was rather short, but very strongly built, and springy, as his gait at every step showed plainly, although his legs were bowed with much riding, and he looked as if he lived on horseback. To a boy like me he seemed very old, being over twenty and well found in beard; but he was not more than four-and-twenty, fresh and ruddy-looking, with a short nose and keen blue eyes and a merry waggish jerk about him, as if the world were not in earnest. Yet he had a sharp, stern way, like the crack of a pistol, if anything misliked him, and we knew (for children see such things) that it was safer to tickle than to buffet him.
"'Well, young ones, what be gaping at?' He gave pretty Annie a chuck under the chin. and took me all in without winking,
"'Your mare,' said I , standing stoutly up, being a tall boy now. 'I never saw such a beauty, Sir, will you let me have a ride of her?'
"'Think thou could'st ride her, lad!. She will have no burden but mine. Thou could'st never ride her. Tut! I be loth to kill thee.'
"'Ride her!' I cried. with the bravest scorn, for she looked so kind and gentle; 'there never was a horse upon Exmoor foaled but I could tackle in half an hour — only I never ride upon saddle. Take them leathers off of her.'
"He looked at me with a dry little whistle, and thrust his hands into his breeches-pocket, and so grinned that I could not stand it. And Annie laid hold of me in such a way that I was almost mad with her. And he laughed and approved her for doing so. And the worst of it all was he said nothing.
"'Get away, Annie, will you! Do you think I'm a fool, good sir! Only trust me with her and I will not override ride her.'
"'For that I will go bail, my son. She is like to override thee. But the ground is soft to fall upon after all this rain. Now come out into the yard, young man, for the sake of your mother's cabbage. And the mellow straw bed will be softer for thee, since pride must have its fall. I am thy mother's cousin, boy, and am going up to house. Tom Faggus is my name, as everybody knows; and this is my young mare Winnie.'
"What a fool I must have been not to know at once! Tom Faggus the great highwayman, and his young blood-mare the strawberry."
Tom Faggus has no inconsiderable part in the tale; and we learn with much interest how he retired and lived a "godly life," and got his pardon, and married the pretty Annie; though to the end of his career his highwayman-days return to his memory as a kind of golden age. It is, however, John Ridd himself in whom the interest of the story centres; and it is, as we have said, not an interest which belongs to striking scenes, but to the minute production of the man and his ways upon the canvas before us. We are as much interested in the way he digs out his sheep from the snow as in his rescue of Lorna from the hands of her clan. His size, and his strength, and his good farmership; his love of the animals who are his friends; his delight in the prosperity of his fields — as if they were friends too; the dumb-loving motherhood with which all nature seems to his eyes to surround and cherish him, — are wonderfully real, and tenderly touched. He is a man of the moors and fields, with a fresh breeze blowing about him, and all the yeoman's cares in. his mind. We do not venture to say that 'Lorna Doone' will ever take a strong hold upon the popular mind. Its historical character alone would hinder this, and so must its close texture — if we may use the words— the minute and elaborate composition which defies the art of skipping. Even its close printing is a mistake and drawback to the book; we should have had it in large print, with a cheerful breadth of margin to beguile the reader — though in that case we tremble to think how many volumes there would have been. It is, in short, too long, even by the most indulgent judgment, and had it been preseted to us under the most favourable circumstances. But though it may never secure universal popularity, it is a book far above the standard of the ordinary novel — a book full of the truest nature and beautiful thoughts. [43-47]
Oliphant, Margaret. "New Books IV." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. 109 (January 1971): 22-47.
Last modified 28 April 2006