This anonymous review of Blackmore's most famous novel appeared in
etween books so bad that they must be gibbeted for the benefit of the writing race, as farmers nail up kites and jays on barn-doors as a warning to their thievish companions, and books so well-meaning and so weak that they are unfit for either blame or praise, a reviewer's work is seldom pleasant.
For undoubtedly, the great proportion of the light literature poured out in this present day is of an inferior and worthless kind, and in the mingled flood of absolute evil and negative merit, it is rare to light upon a book of positive value, tender and yet strong, warm but kept wholesome and pure, stirring and not sensational. We have such a book in Lorna Doone, which though we do pretend to rank it with the acknowledged masterpieces of fiction, is one of real excellence, and of a class not common amongst us. It is a story founded on the old "nurse tales of Exmoor", contained in the traditions concerning John Ridd "of the parish of Oare, in the county of Somerset, yeoman and churchwarden," or as the author puts it in his preface, "the savage deeds of the outlaw Doones in the depth of Bagworthy Forest, the beauty of the hapless maid brought up in the midst of them, the plain John Ridd's Herculean power, and (memory's too congenial food) the exploits of Tom Faggus" — Faggus being, as many of our readers may know, a noted highwayman of his day, whose strawberry mare Winnie, rivalling Dick Turpin's Black Bess, was not, however, quite the clever witch Mr Blackmore has painted her. The story is told in the form of an autobiography, in which we think that the author has created an unnecessary difficulty. It is almost impossible to keep either diction or mode of thought quite in harmony with times dating back two centuries; and yet the temptation is great, both for the quaintness and colour given by the manner of speech supposed to be in use then, and for the charm of the apparently unconscious self-revelation implied in those little touches which are impossible in any but the autobiographical form. To a non-critical reader the mode will be all that is delightful; but one of more fastidious taste and a keener eye for anachronisms will often wish that John Ridd's phraseology had not been quite so much like our own, and will wonder how he came by many a modern word which he uses with fluent glibness incomprehensible in an unlettered yeoman of the time of Charles II.
The story opens on the 29th of November, 1673, on which day John Ridd, aetat 12, a big brave boy for his years, who had fought about once a week during the three years he had been at school, is fetched away by John Fry, serving man at home, to learn that his father had just been murdered by the Doones of Bagworthy. As his last feat John Ridd has to fight a big boy, one Robin Snell. In this fight he gives the keynote of his, character and of the future story by his candid confession that, if not exactly afraid, yet he was anxiously wishing he had it not to do, though determined not to give in. At first he fights wildly, not yet come to his courage or his eyesight; then he goes in more warily, according to the instructions of the "clever boy" on whose knee he sits as second; and then when John Fry comes up and whispers to him, just before the third round, "Never thee knack under, Jan, or never coom nigh Hexmoor again," he sets both fists again, and his heart sticks to him like cobbler's wax, and, determined that Robin Snell shall kill him or that he shall conquer Robin Snell, he fears him and spares him not, neither spares himself, and though he knows not the rest, it comes about that he has the end of it, and helps to put Robin to bed.
The character of John Ridd himself is the chief point of interest in the book, and the author has shown much cleverness in the way in which he makes him reveal himself. He is painted as a shrewd, unlearned man, honest, single-minded, and straight forward, possessed of herculean strength and size, yet as tender as the typical strong man should be. He is as brave as a lion, but with none of the blind ferocity of courage — indeed, not ashamed to confess as a man what he confessed as a boy, that his heart "goes up and down" and that he dislikes his position horribly when he is so placed that he cannot act or defend himself, and must simply trust to chance not to be discovered and murdered without the possibility of resistance; faithful to his high-born love from first to last and. through all circumstances, and reverencing her as deeply as he loves her; unconscious of his own worth, and humbly depreciating himself for the further exaltation of Lorna, yet every now and then showing a sturdy spirit of self-assertion when lighter brains wish to rank him as a clod, and the slowness of his natural wits, long in getting ideas but hard in holding them, is counted to him as a reason why quicker men, shallower and less honest, should lord it over him, and either patronise him or snub him as they may be inclined. But even then he shows neither littleness nor petulance; and the patience and calmness and quiet depth of his nature are as manifest in his displeasure as in his courage and his love.
The character of Lorna too is very beautiful, if more ideal, and therefore impossible; and her constancy towards her faithful, slow-going yeoman, who divides his time between her and his beasts, and dwells on his passion while plodding between his furrows, is very tenderly worked out. That she should love him when he was her sole hope of salvation from the lawless men among whom she lived — nominally as their "little queen," in fact as their prisoner — was natural enough; but that she should go on loving him after she had been a year in London, and had learnt the secret of her own rank and birth, tasting the sweets of flattery and the pleasures of the town, was almost more than could be expected. Yet, charming as she is, if we were inclined to take grave exception to anything in the book, it would be to this very character of Lorna; not because it is not beautiful, but because it is not natural. She is as purely imaginary, as purely unreal from the point of view of humanity, as one of Moore's angels or Arab girls. She is one of those creatures, much delighted in by the romancists, who are independent of education, and owe nothing to training; one of those self-perfecting, self-sufficing women who grow up pure and refined and accomplished in the midst of vice, vulgarity and neglect; and on whom outside conditions have no kind of effect, and spiritual tendencies are the sole modifying forces. Brought up in the depths of Glen Doone, where her only companions are a set of outlawed miscreants, she is yet one of the sweetest and most refined gentlewomen the age could produce; culture and delicate, and essentially aristocratic. She is taught nothing, yet knows all; she is not even taught the useful domestic work which was held as natural then for all gentlewomen to know and to practice as all gentlemen to manage a rapier and know the politest mode of the duello. And herein the pseudo John Ridd betrays his nineteenth-century education and tone of thought by putting forth her pretty uselessness as one of the charms of her ladyhood, and one of its proofs; the real John Ridd would have lamented it as a blot on her womanhood, for ignorance of home duties was not then held a grace, but a defect. The contrast between her ideal sweetness and John's stout material honesty is very well put; yet if she had been the conventional lady Mr Blackmore paints her, she could scarcely, in spite of all the worth of the man, have loved the horny-handed farmer as she did, or have chosen to pass her life in that rough Somersetshire home where was nothing to delight her taste or feed her intellect, and the pleasures of which she could not enjoy, any more than she could perform its duties. "All for love and the world well lost," truly; but there must be some kind of harmony between the lover and the beloved. If the picture given us is to be believed, there was no more equa1ity or likeness between John Ridd and Lorna Doone than there would be at this present time between an earl's daughter and a proprietor farmer whose education stopped when he was twelve years old, and whose greatest gift went into the best-drawn furrow and the mightiest pile of cleared stones. These things, however, must not be taken realistically. They are meant to be typical rather than actua1, and to symbolize constancy on the one hand, and the natural union of grace with strength on the other, love binding all together; and so we take it here.
We much like the description of the cheery, honest English home where John Ridd was the blameless master, with his soft-hearted buxom mother as mistress, while sister Annie, with all her bright hair falling round her, cooked rashers and pasties as no one else could; and sister Lizzie, book-leaned, sharp-faced and sharp-tempered too, seasoned her wit with spite, and cared little whose sore place she chafed if only she might chafe someone's. A welcome for all, and as much good meat as they could carry away, plenty if, in somewhat rough and untrimmed form, and a ruddy warmth in the whole atmosphere, material and spiritual, were the features of John Ridd's farm at Oare; and we count Mr Blackmore's description of the home-life led by the sturdy yeoman and his family as among his most successful efforts. The savage Doones are too well described. A wild and lawless set they were, living in the depths of Bagworthy Forest, whence they sallied as they had occasion, robbing whom they listed, and murdering man, woman and child when their blood was up. It was "wae work" for the country round when "Dunkery Beacon" was alight; for though it had been instituted as a beacon for the safety of the general neighbourhoood, it was never lighted now save to show the Doones their way home, since they threw the watchman on the top when its light had incommoded them. When Dunkery Beacon was alight now, the neighbours knew the Doones had been out; and each man blessed God that he had escaped, while waiting to hear on the morrow whose wife was now a widow, whose children fatherless, and whose homestead a blackened mass of ashes for the visit the outlaws paid last night. Exiles, felons and outlaws since 1640 — no one knew exactly why, for there were two stories — the Doones had taken to robbery for their living; and it was a trade for which nature had eminently fitted them: —
There was not one among them 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 of the northern retainers, failed at the age of twenty, while standing on his naked feet, to touch with his forehead the lintel of Sir Ensor's door, and to fill the door-frame with his shoulders from side-post even to side-post, he as led away to the narrow pass which made their valley so desperate, and thrust from the crown 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 crosswise in the clear. Yet I not only have heard, but know, being so closely mixed with them, that no descendant of old Sir Ensor, neither relative of his (except, indeed, the old Counsellor who was kept by them for his wisdom), and no more than two of their following, ever failed of that test, and relapsed to the difficult ways of honesty.
John himself, however drew ahead of all this; for he says that, if he had been put into that door-frame at the age of twenty, like enough he would have walked away with it on his shoulders, though he was not come to his full strength then. Also, they were taught all manner of cunning tricks as well as all manner of dexterous ones; so that what with skill, strength, daring, and savagery the Doones of Glen Doone, felon outlaws all of them, were by no means desirable neighbours, and the country suffered for their settlement down in the impregnable valley as a colony of hedge-birds suffers when a family of kites settles in the crags overhead. How John and Lorna circumvented these murderous villains; how John indeed ventured into the very heart of their den again and again, at the peril of his life if he were discovered, and only escaping discovery by the merest chance; how he stole from them their queen under their very eyes; and how one of them in particular sought revenge, and just missed his aim though he almost shot true; how a terrible retribution came upon all the sinners when the peasantry at last rose against them and rooted them out from their accursed stronghold — all these and others are the more exciting parts of the narrative, where the reader at times holds his breath, so graphically yet so simply does John Ridd tell his tale. Indeed, he tells his tale well all through, and, whether it is love or war, exposition of character or artistic description of scenes and places, Lorna Doone is a work or real excellence, and as such we heartily commend it to the public.
Last modified 25 April 2006