Love Among Outlaws

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Lorna Doone, Richard Doddridge Blackmore, 1869

Before she was a cookie, Lorna Doone was a lady. A beloved literary heroine. Heroine is a strong word for Lorna, though. If being sweet, innocent, pretty and passive while men fight over you qualifies you as a heroine, Lorna is certainly one. The subtitle of Lorna Doone is A Romance of Exmoor. Before we launch into criticizing the romance aspect, let’s talk about what make this book great.

Blackmore borrows classic elements from earlier decades in literature, including:

  • bleak and beautiful English moors for the setting
  • romanticized highway men: armed horsemen who rob nobles as they travel in their coaches
  • Gothic elements, such as a witch and a ghostly mystery with a practical explanation
  • a complicated plot involving secret identities and historical events

I suppose you could consider the first person narration a throwback to Tom Jones or Wuthering Heights, but the narrator of Lorna Doone is too special for me to classify him as an homage. John Ridd is his own man and a truly special voice in the English cannon. He is a hyper-masculine hero who is embarrassed by the attention his exceptional height attracts in his small, rural community. What I love most about John Ridd and Lorna Doone is the humble tone of John’s narrative. He is modest and not quite comfortable sharing the details of his life and his great love with us. He’s sorry for taking up so much of our time. It’s quite heartwarming.

The central drama of the book revolves around the tension between a band of robbers and the community they prey upon. A tension only John Ridd with his height, strength, work ethic, and humility can resolve. I’d mention his charm, because social relationships are key to his eventual overthrow of his nemeses, but he doesn’t so much charm people over to his cause as win them through his undeniable merit. Are you starting to see why a self-effacing tone is critical to this novel’s success? John Ridd is too perfect to be stuck on himself. Everyone around him admires him so much, if he admired himself even a bit, he’d be tiresome.

Back to this band of robbers. A gentleman named Sir Ensor Doone lost his land and wealth in a legal reversal of fortune. He settled in a remote valley in Exmoor with his extended family. After his neighbors grew tired of providing food for a group who were too noble to farm their own land, Sir Ensor Doone and his clan took to raiding the local farms. The locals cannot or will not seek legal recourse when they are wronged, because they either believe that the noble Doones are entitled to pillage whatever they desire, or they find that the legal authorities believe so. At first the concept of outlaws being tolerated because of their aristocratic status seemed outrageous and decidedly English to me. But, do we not allow the rich to make off with our earnings in this country? Are the rich not growing richer at our expense? They are. Even the foulest behavior of the Doones’, carrying off farmers’ daughters to provide new Doone children, has its contemporary counterpart. Do we not allow rich men to harass and assault women? We do. And, like the people of Exmoor, even though we find this behavior repellent, we allow these men to retain their status.

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We meet our hero, who is destined to overthrow the Doones, on the day that they murder his father. He is still a schoolboy, so we must see him through a bout of fisticuffs with a larger boy before he can launch into his life’s journey. Because it’s just not a British bildungsroman without boys punching each other.

John returns home to the terrible news of his father’s death and to his mother and sister. In his grief he feels “although they were my dearest loves, I could not bear to look at them until they seemed to want my help,” which is a statement typical of the sweet familial sentiment Doddridge does not shy away from. Many authors are afraid of sentiment; it takes a brave writer to write to write openly affectionate moments.

The early parts of Lorna Doone are my favorite. I have mentioned the Victorian fetish for rusticity in my George Eliot posts, and I will discuss the travesty that is Thomas Hardy’s early bowing to this fetish in an upcoming post. Doddridge gets it right. Yes, his Exmoor peasants are romanticized, but he does not condescend to them. My absolute favorite passage in the novel is when a duck is rescued from a flood. John Ridd knows every animal on his farm personally. When he returns from a trip to  London, he has a touching reunion with a ram that ventures to the outskirts of the farm to great him. The potential loss of the beloved patriarch of his duck clan is dramatic, tense and humorous. Not to worry, the duck is rescued by his cousin, Tom Faggus. Faggus is a highwayman, but a noble one. A Robin Hood type who rides a nearly human strawberry colored mare. Anyway, the duck tale perfectly encapsulates what I love about Lorna Doone, while it is certainly romantic and rustic, Doddridge takes his rustics seriously. He delivers vernacular prose and dialogue that does not endeavor to trivialize the lives and concerns of rural folk. This cannot be said of Charles Dickens, George Eliot or of Thomas Hardy’s early work. The book is rustic, humble, humorous and sentimental without falling into the trap that most educated Victorians who wrote about country people fell into.

For example, John Ridd meets the love of his life, Lorna, while he is searching for loaches, a fish that his mother loves to eat. She hasn’t been eating much since the death of her husband. Her sweet, caring son is worried, and determined to find loaches for her, even if it means traveling dangerously close to the supposedly impregnable Doone valley. He nearly drowns while attempting to scale a…waterfall type situation. I’m not sure I quite understand the geography or geology of what Doddridge describes. Suffice it to say, he scales a slippery and dangerous thingy to discover not just loaches, but a beautiful young maiden. Lovely Lorna is the “Queen” of the Doones. For detailed and spoilery reasons, she is destined to marry the heir apparent of the Doone clan, Carver Doone, who happens to be the man who shot John’s father.

That is only the beginning of the long, complicated and dramatic love story of John Ridd and Lorna Doone, but it’s the end of my favorite part of the novel. In John’s opinion what’s notable about their romance is that he could ever get someone of such high birth to fall in love with him. In my opinion, it’s more remarkable that a practical and useful farmer would repeatedly risk his neck for a woman who has nothing to offer other than beauty and a genteel manner. But if we know anything at this point in this reading project, it’s that the only way Brits have of demonstrating that a character is worthy and deserving is to reward said character with a rich spouse of very high birth.

The rest of the book retains the characteristics I enjoyed in the early bits, but with a lot of fighting and “oh, Lorna, oooh, my Lorna, how I love the way she trembles in my arms.” Given the thriving market in romance novels, I suppose there are plenty of people who actually like to read about innocent maidens trembling in the arms of very tall farmers, but I am not one of those people.

If you’d like to know anything more about Lorna Doone, go on and read it. It’s pretty darn good in spite of Lorna’s trembling. I have read it twice and I enjoyed it even more the second time around. Also, the Brilliance audio recording is delightful. The narrator’s accent is perfect.

Here’s quite a long quote from the duck story that I love. John and his sister Annie are alerted to the perilous position of the patriarch duck by the quacking of his family:

“Annie began to cry ‘Dilly, dilly, einy, einy, ducksey’ according to the burden of a tune they seem to have accepted as the national duck’s anthem; but instead of being soothed by it, they only quacked three times as hard, and ran round till we were giddy. And then they shook their tails together, and looked grave, and went round and round again. Now, I am uncommonly fond of ducks, both roasted and roasting and roystering; and it is a fine sight to see them walk, poddling one after another, with their toes out, like soldiers drilling, and their eyes cocked all ways at once, and the way that they dib with their bills and dabble, and throw up their heads and enjoy something, and then tell the others about it. Therefore I knew at once, by the way they were carrying on, that there must be something gone wholly amiss in the duck-world.”

Duck joy is about universal.

You might like Lorna Doone if:

  • you like Walter Scott
  • you can’t get enough of the moors
  • you like Robin Hood
  • you like stories about farm life in which farmers are looked down on

You might not like Lorna Doone if:

  • you’re just not going to read a book with a trembling maiden no matter what else there is to recommend it

Final Thoughts:

I’m happy the words and characters of Lorna Doone are in my brain. They are quite welcome to my headspace. It might be a niche interest, but it’s a good book and well deserves the reputation it held and continues to hold in the British literary landscape.

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