As Rhoda Flaxman has shown in her study of word-painting in Victorian literature, extended passages of description make the narrative grind to a halt because they form a different literary mode than story-telling itself. In Lorna Doone the reader comes upon such a shift from the action of story-telling to word-painting little less than half way through the novel when the narrator, John Ridd, describes himself working in amid the trees. What begins as a rare occasion in Victorian fiction when we actually encounter someone at work quickly metamorphoses into a poetic description of nature.
I worked very hard in the copse of young ash, with my billhook and a shearing-knife; cutting out the saplings where they stooled too close together, making spars to keep for thatching, wall-crooks to drive into the cob, stiles for close sheep hurdles, and handles for rakes, and hoes, and two-bills, of the larger and straighter stuff. And all the lesser I bound in faggots, to come home on the sledd to the woodrick. . . .
It was very pleasant there in the copse, sloping to the west as it was, and the sun descending brightly, with rocks and banks to dwell upon. The stems of mottled and dimpled wood, with twigs coming out like elbows, hung and clung together closely, with a mode of bending in, as children do at some danger; overhead the shrunken leaves quivered and rustled ripely, having many points like stars, and rising and falling delicately, as fingers play sad music. Along the bed of the slanting ground, all between the stools of wood, there were heaps of dead brown leaves, and sheltered mats of lichen, and drifts of spotted stick gone rotten, and tufts of rushes here and there, full of fray and feathering.
All by the hedge ran a little stream, a thing that could barely name itself, flowing scarce more than a pint in a minute, because of the sunny weather. Yet had this rill little crooks and crannies dark and bravely bearded, and a gallant rush through a reeden pipe — the stem of a flag that was grounded; and here and there divided threads, from the points of a branching stick, into mighty pools of rock (as large as a grown man's hat almost) napped with moss all around the sides and hung with corded grasses. Along and down the tiny banks, and nodding into one another, even across main channel, hung the brown arcade of ferns; some with gold tongues languishing; some with countless ear-drops jerking, some with great quilled ribs uprising and long saws aflapping; others cupped, and fanning over with the grace of yielding, even as a hollow fountain spread by winds that have lost their way.
Deeply each beyond other, pluming, stooping, glancing, glistening, weaving softest pillow lace, coying to the wind and water, when their fleeting image danced, or by which their beauty moved, — God has made no lovelier thing; and only He takes heed of them.
It was time to go home to supper now. . . The sun was gone down behind the black wood on the farther cliffs of Bagworthy, and the russet of the tufts and spear-beds was becoming gray, while the greyness of the sapling ash grew brown against the sky; the hollow curves of the little stream became black beneath the grasses and the fairy fans innumerable, while outside the hedge our clover was crimping its leaves in the dewfall, like the cocked hats of wood-sorrel, — when, thanking God for all this scene, because my love had gifted me with the key to all things lovely, I prepared to follow their example, and to rest from labour.
Therefore I wiped my bill-hook and shearing-knife very carefully, for I hate to leave tools dirty. [306-307]
Although such a passage does interrupt the flow of story-telling, it nonetheless obviously has a role in the novel. First of all, it permits Blackmore to show us his hero at work in the landscape — something, one assumes, that gave the novelist great pleasure, since he was a man who took a large inheritance and spent it on land so he could work as a horticulturist. The first paragraph in the preceeding passage provides realistic detail that helps ground this historical romance. As the entire passage also makes clear, it also serves as a means of characterizing Blackmore's protagonist, a man who turns out to be a skilled forester, a careful worker who takes pride in his tools, and a sensitive, poetic soul. The passage, of course, also has yet another function, for it both provides a change of pace from the novel's action and also explains why the speaker, who has been immersed in the joys of working in nature, will soon come close to being caught and killed by the villainous Doones. It makes the excitement that follows more intense.
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
Flaxman, Rhoda L. Victorian Word Painting and Narrative: Toward the Blending of Genres. Ann Arbor: UMI Press.
Last modified 8 June 2007