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Lorna Doone by R.D Blackmore

What I want to know is something none of them can tell me - what am I, and why set here, and when shall I be with them? I see that you are surprised a little at this my curiosity. Perhaps such questions never spring in any wholesome spirit. But they are in the depths of mine, and I cannot be quit of them.

I would guess that even if they haven't read it, most people know the basic premise of this classic novel: that it deals with the forbidden love between John Ridd, a young Exmoor farmer, and Lorna Doone, a girl raised by a feared clan of local outlaws. But the novel is actually a lot more complex and sweeping than its renowned romance plot first implies, taking in as it also does a huge number of important real historical events from the seventeenth century including the great winter of 1683-4, the Monmouth Rebellion, and the rise of Judge Jeffreys. Indeed, Blackmore does an excellent job in mediating between the isolated microcosm of Plover's Barrow Farm and the turmoil of John's heart, and the tremendous unrest and political/religious rebellion gathering pace across the country as a whole.

Lorna is the novel's named protagonist and its central enigma: her origins are shrouded in mystery and the notion of a young maiden attempting to grow up with a pure heart in the midst of such corruption is an intriguing one, hence I have chosen some lines from Lorna's only section of first-person narrative for my key quote of the novel. Overall, however, I found Lorna rather overshadowed by two other characters. Firstly John Ridd (in local dialect "Jan"), her steadfast lover, and the book's narrator: John is a brilliant character, a giant of a man more suited to wrestling than philosophising, which makes the strength of his passion for her seem all the more real. A stereotypical "yokel," John's voice is a homely one: he lacks confidence in high society and his narrative is frequently derailed by observations about farming and local affairs. He is pure in heart, but doesn't always do the right thing, and I found that these realistic flaws made me warm to him tremendously. However, perhaps the main character in Lorna Doone is not a person at all, but rather an area: the bleak beauty of the Exmoor landscape is described with such vivid detail that this unique landscape becomes the novel's central character, mirroring in its rich and variable seasonal change the roller-coaster emotions of the humans who live within its rugged hills and valleys. It is certainly telling that, during the two sections of the book set in London, John pines for his farm as much as he does for Lorna.

I would certainly recommend this novel to any of you hankering to read some classic fiction as it really does offer a bit of everything: aching romance, mystery, humour, battle scenes, and some beautiful landscapes. However, I think I enjoyed this book on a more personal level than many people would as I am myself an Exmoor girl. I grew up just off the borders of the National Park, so all the locations in Lorna Doone were instantly familiar to me. Indeed, I have many fond memories from my teenage years of swimming with my friends in the very deep river at Doone Valley which is a real and truly beautiful place. I have a strong hankering now to go back there having read this book. The other funny personal thing in my reading of this novel, was that a lot of the minor characters speak in West Country dialect. Now Barry teases me about my very slight West Country twang, but I certainly don't have the full on Wurzels accent. My Uncle Steve, who is a farmer, however, does and he is absolutely priceless! So whenever I read the accented sections I could hear Steve's voice in my head and thus, in my mind, pretty much every minor male character became an Uncle Steve! It's probably not the effect Blackmore had in mind but that's how it worked out for me.

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September 2010

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