Friday, May 4, 2012

Lorna Doone

11. Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore

Lorna Doone was recommended to me at a party a few years ago, where the cookies of the same name made an appearance. However, unlike the homonymous shortbread or even the Devonshire cream with which it shares an origin, Lorna Doone the novel is dense, filling, and leaves a lingering taste.

Lorna Doone is a Devonshire novel like The Betrothed is an Italian novel, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an American novel. It's impossible to divorce from the topography of the moor, the passing of the seasons, the harvesting of grains, the bleeting of sheep, the dialect of Devonshire (or Somerset, as the case may be). Here, in the late seventeenth century, is set our Romeo and Juliet tale, if Romeo were an honest yeoman farmer and Juliet were the scion of high-born outlaws whose name inspired fear throughout the land.

Lorna Doone is this Juliet's name, and the Doones are well-known and feared in Devonshire for their entitled brand of murdering and marauding. Our narrator is our Romeo, John Ridd the yeoman farmer, and if ever there is a more endearing, well-rounded and thoroughly good man in literature, I challenge you to find him. Literary ladies tend to like their rakes, reformed and otherwise, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, Rhett Butler, and so on. John Ridd is a man after my own heart, one I could recommend with a good conscience. Though he purports to be simple, it is evident that he is anything but.

Mr. Ridd loves his Shakespeare, as well as his mother and sisters (though not above a few brotherly jabs), he gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, and is scrupulously honest to a fault. There is a sort of Forrest Gump quality to him, especially as he is drawn into Monmouth's Rebellion, but one feels that John is more aware than he lets on. His reputation as a champion wrestler and enormous size help to establish a sort of "gentle giant" myth that both the reader and Lorna can see past. What also endears me to Mr. Ridd is that, depending on his character, this could so easily have been a simple tale of revenge.

As a young boy, the Doones kill John Ridd's father. When he is grown, it is expected for him to seek vengeance. But he chooses not to, not only for Lorna's sake, but because he does not know which one killed his father and does not wish to disturb the lives of his family and neighbors in the retaliative massacre he knows would result.

Lorna herself is duly lovable and beautiful as a heroine should be. There is little besides John's love and pity for her condition to recommend her, but the former alone would be enough. She certainly has more sense than Juliet, despite being only marginally older.

Lorna Doone is a novel to savor with a cup of tea (and clotted cream!) over long successive afternoons. R.D. Blackmore, through John Ridd, paints a varied picture of seventeenth century Devonshire, including encounters with interesting characters from backwoods witches to London spies and of course a particular emphasis on highwaymen. Each character has a telling back story and some get to tell tales in their own words. Part of the reason the novel is so dense is the prevalence of dialect, for though John is able to write in proper English, he uses plenty of native slang, and his servants speak entirely in brogue. Blackmore stands up well to his contemporaries Thackeray and Dickens, and his work smacks of something even more-a true faith in the goodness of human nature.

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