Book Review: Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore


Reading Lorna Doone is like a walk on Exmoor; at times you’re wading through a bog of words before getting lost in a fog of schmaltz, only for the sun to come out and for you to realise it’s rather beautiful – until it starts to mizzle again.

Based on a Devon legend, at the heart of Blackmore’s classic novel is the love story between Lorna Doone – a daughter of the local aristocratic outlaw clan the Doones of Bagworth – and the novel’s narrator John Ridd, a strapping, but simple lad who runs the family farm after his father is murdered by a Doone when he was a boy. Lorna is betrothed to a cousin, the brutal Carver Doone, but her pre-ordained life is discarded the minute her and John’s eye meet over a bubbling brook. Naturally it’s love at first sight, and throwing caution to the fierce Exmoor wind, John rescues Lorna from the clutches of her bad relatives, royally pissing them off and unleashing some pretty fierce retaliations  Fortunately John has friends in high places (at one point he’s even hobnobbing with the King, although I’m sure not sure how he managed that) so despite a few brushes with blunderbusses along the way, our hero and heroine’s too-good-to-be-true love lives on.

Lorna is the drippiest love-struck heroine this side of Juliet, a Victorian fantasy whose personality barely dents the page. John is a more interesting character, although a no more likable one. He’s a man with a good heart and high morals, but is unbearably pompous, boorish and arrogant. Set in the mid to late 1600s, I wasn’t expecting a metrosexual, but this 17th century version of a white van man is difficult to warm to. His unconditional love for Lorna seems largely based on her beauty (you can practically hear Blackmore salivating every time he describes his heroine’s hypnotising good looks) and how daintily she eats her food.

I’m not without romantic bones, but the way the pair talk to each is more rooted in folklore than any number of West Country faerie stories. Fortunately, his eldest sister Annie has a little life to her and then there’s Lizzie, the family’s youngest and fiestiest female who John struggles to hide his contempt for her backchat and her unladylike appetite. I try not to read classics with 21st century eyes, if I did I’d be disappointed with everyone from Shakespeare to Dickens. For a modern woman pre-2000 fiction (particularly Victorian male authors) can be very trying, as female characters are forever trembling or fainting and are frequently mute. But while I can usually overlook these flimsy females, I found John Ridd and his rose-tinted love for the beautiful, compliant, obedient Lorna particularly difficult to swallow.

But I couldn’t have read over 600 page without finding some redeeming qualities, and there were several – at the very least Lorna Doone is a cracking yarn. Set in a time I know little about, in a part of the country shrouded in legend, Blackmore’s ability to capture the atmosphere, every frosty fern and muddy puddle, the terror of a lawless land and the bleak, dangerous reality of life on the moors, drew me in and kept me reading. The best bits were when John and Lorna didn’t share a page. When John was er, rid of Lorna the pace quickened and plot sped up as he unearthed the truth about her upbringing while she cavorted in court in London. Lorna might be a wet bore, but her backstory was gripping. I’m currently nearing the end of Anna Karenina and Tolstoy’s fresh, simple text and the very real passions, jealousy and doubts of the characters is a refreshing dunking in the real world after Blackmore’s quagmire of words and the other worldly romance of Lorna and John.

by Suzanne Elliott