Saturday, December 26, 2009

Lorna Doone

For, according to our old saying, the three learned professions live by roguery on the three parts of a man. The doctor mauls our bodies; the parson starves our souls, but the lawyer must be the adroitest knave, for he has to ensnare our minds.

The full title of this story is Lorna Doone: a Romance of Exmoore, and the subtitle is an exact description of the plot. R. D. Blackmore's most famous work is a story of forbidden love and the wild and rebellious area of western England in the 17th century.

Often referred to as "The Last Victorian", R. D. Blackmore was admired by such writers as Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gerald Manly Hopkins, and J. M. Barrie. Lorna Doone was (and still is) his most popular novel, becoming a favorite among both male and female readers. In fact, the male students at Yale in 1906 voted it their most favorite novel. Today, it is still considered to be a fine example of classic romance interwoven within a thrilling historical setting.

The Plot:

John Ridd is a farmer's son growing up in the western region of Exmoore. Though only 7 days ride from London, Exmoore is still a wild and somewhat lonely country, and is terrorized by a family of noble outlaws called the Doones. After his father is murded by the band, John takes on the role of provider for his family and swears undying hatred of the outlaws. That is, until he meets the beautiful Lorna Doone. Lorna has lived her life in the Doone Valley, yet she abhors the violence and hatred that is the way of life there. As time passes, Lorna and John grow to love each other passionately.

But not only is Lorna already betrothed to the heir of the Doone throne, malicious Carver Doone, she is also unknowingly a part of a much more complex plot to regain the ancient Doone lands. It will take all of John's strength, courage and love to overcome these obstacles. And even after battles are fought and risks are taken, John might still lose Lorna to a secret that has been kept for many years, a secret tied to her and a beautiful diamond necklace.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Many people compare Lorna Doone to the works of Sir Walter Scott, and in my opinion that is a fairly good comparison. Though in many ways it is simply a love story, it is actually just as focused (if not more so) on the setting, both of time and place.

In this respect, Blackmore is probably most like Thomas Hardy and his Wessex novels. Exmoore itself becomes a character in the story, with its dense fogs, windswept coast, and rolling hills. The people of Exmoore are also kept realistic by having their language written out as they would speak it. The story is simply chock full of sayings, legends, and beliefs of both the era and the region and it really helps bring that aspect of the novel to life. It is also an interesting look at an often ignored period in history. As in Captain Blood, this story is set in the time of the Monmouth Rebellion. This particular rebellion (lets face it, England's had plenty of them) centered around the death of King Charles II. Legally, it is his brother James II who should ascend the throne, but since James is a Catholic, many Protestants wanted to see the throne go to Charles' illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. Like pretty much every other rebellion in England (not counting a certain one in 1776), this one ended in tragedy. The feelings leading up to it and the horror of its consequences are played out very well in this novel. In this time, your survival depended on where your loyalty lay. Choose carefully.

While I enjoyed both the regional and historical points of the novel (to an extent), I must admit that I wasn't 100% sold on the characters themselves. Perhaps my sensibilities are a tad too modern, but I really felt that Blackmore was a trifle condescending to his female characters. Lorna is pretty and sweet, but we aren't given much us else to make us love her like John does. Annie is the favorite sister because she is also pretty and sweet and a good cook. Lizzie is the not so favorite sister because her passion is reading and writing and she speaks her mind. And the only woman who in my opinion is both sensible and kind, energetic and meek is Ruth Huckaback, and she is left as a bit of an old maid. John himself says that he would have been happy to marry Ruth if he hadn't met Lorna. Gee, that sure is comforting. Plus, John is always commenting on how women can't make decisions, are always meddling, can't be trusted, etc.
No wonder the male readers at Yale thought it was such a great novel. Anyway, that is probably my biggest stickler with this story.

All in all, Lorna Doone is a good example of many novels of the period. It is a blend of a traditional romance, historical fiction, Victorian values, pastoral tradition, and modern sensation. It is a nice little read and one that many people will probably enjoy.

The Movie:

There are plenty of film versions of this story, the earliest dating back to 1911. The two most recent films include the 1990 version starring Polly Walker as Lorna, Clive Owen as John, and Sean Bean as Carver Doone.

The other is the 2000 version starring Amelia Warner as Lorna, Richard Coyle as John, and Aidan Gillen as Carver Doone. This film was very enjoyable. The plot is somewhat streamlined allowing for a bit more romance and less history. Most of the plot is kept intact and the actors do justice to their roles, especially Aidan Gillen who plays Carver. He brings an obsession to the role that is at once disturbing and attractive. If you like BBC productions of classic novels, you'll like this one.

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