Quite a-ways into the story he is relating, John Ridd, who has repeatedly told us that he is just a simple country farmer, cites Shakespeare. Lest the Victorian reader question how a seventeenth-century yeoman farmer knows anything about Shakespeare, Blackmore has his narrator concoct the strangest narrative explanation. According to Ridd, while in London to confer with King Charles II, he was walking along minding his own business.
Two women were scolding one another across the road, very violently, both from upstair windows; and I in my hurry for quiet life, and not knowing what might come down upon me, quickened my step for the nearest corner. But suddenly something fell on my head; and at first I was afraid to look, especially as it weighed heavily. But hearing no breakage of ware, and only the other scold laughing heartily, I turned me about and espied a book, which one had cast at the other, hoping to break her window. So I took the book, and tendered it at the door of the house from which it had fallen; but the watchman came along just then, and the man at the door declared that it never came from their house, and begged me to say no more. This I promised readily, never wishing to make mischief; and I said, "Good sir, now take the book; I will go on to my business." But he answered that he would do no such thing; for the book alone, being hurled so hard, would convict his people of a lewd assault; and he begged me, if I would do a good turn, to put the book under my coat and go. And so I did: in part at least. For I did not put the book under my coat, but went along with it openly, looking for any to challenge it. Now this book, so acquired, has been not only the joy of my younger days, and main delight of my manhood, but also the comfort, and even the hope, of my now declining years. In a word, it is next to my Bible to me, and written in equal English; and if you espy any goodness whatever in my own loose style of writing, you must not thank me, John Ridd, for it, but the writer who holds the champion's belt in wit, as I once did in wrestling. [394-95]
This is a desperate, even incredible, plot device if there ever was one. We are not particularly surprised when three-quarters the way through the book Lorna is revealed to be the daughter of the ill-fated Countess of Dugal — "though Lorna's father was a nobleman of high and goodly lineage, her mother was of yet more ancient and renowned descent, being the last in line direct from the great and kingly chiefs of Lorne" (505). One isn't all that surprised to learn of the heroine's noble birth because these kinds of discoveries, after all, characterize melodramas and romances like this novel. But when the narrative grinds to a halt so Ridd can awkwardly explain how he acquired his own volume of Shakespeare — something vastly harder to come by in seventeenth-century Somerset than it would have been in Victoria's time — the reader wonders why Ridd made no mention of this central event in his intellectual life earlier when relating his brief visit to London. Furthermore, the servant's refusal to take the book from him hardly makes any sense at all, not only because Ridd was the only person assaulted but also because the simple presence of the book wouldn't prove anyone guilty of anything.
Why does Blackmore go to such length to give John Ridd his own copy of Shakespeare's works? Partly, one supposes, to make this apparently simple yeoman farmer appear a bit more complex, and partly to allow the novelist to include Shakspeare. Can you think of any other reasons?
Blackmore, R. D. Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor. New York: Clarke, Given and Hooper, 1890. [e-text of this edition at Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.
Last modified 8 June 2007