Critical Evaluation

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R. D. Blackmore, in his preface to Lorna Doone, was content to call his work a “romance,” because the historical element is only incidental to the work as a whole. Secret agents, highwaymen, clannish marauders, and provincial farmers figure against a background of wild moor country. A feeling for the old times, for great and courageous people, and for love in danger made the novel popular with Victorian readers. People who read it in their youth tend to remember it with nostalgia in later years, for the book has a penetrating simplicity. Told in the first person by John Ridd, the main character, it has an authentic ring, the sound of a garrulous man relating the adventures of his youth.

The most memorable features of this novel, which many critics believe to be Blackmore’s best, are its characterizations and its setting. The characters are drawn in the dramatic and often exaggerated fashion of the Romantic tradition, with its larger-than-life heroes, heroines, and villains. John Ridd is a powerful figure, a giant of a man whose honesty, virtue, patience, and steadfastness match his great size and towering strength. His true love, Lorna Doone, is the epitome of the Romantic heroine; she is mysterious and enchanting but entirely unrealistic. Lorna grows up pure, shy, and virtuous—a priceless pearl of femininity by Victorian standards—in the coarse and isolated environment of a robbers’ den, surrounded by a clan of thieves and ruthless cutthroats. Perhaps of necessity, Blackmore paints his heroine in wispy, shimmering terminology; at the close of the novel, the reader still has no clear idea of her actual features. At the other end of the spectrum is the villainous Carver Doone, an unforgettably cruel, almost satanic, figure. The most vital force in Lorna Doone, however, is the Exmoor landscape. In soulful descriptions, Blackmore brings to life the wild moors, with their violent, stormy climate and harsh, forbidding countryside as well as their magnificent beauty and awesome loneliness.

The plot of Lorna Doone has its weak spots, such as the unnecessary and unconvincing conferral of knighthood on John Ridd, for whose impressive nature such an honor is trivial and extraneous; and the mediocre description of the Battle of Sedgemoor, which Blackmore borrowed from the work of historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. Overall, however, the narrative is filled with gripping excitement and told in a rugged, simple, and often lyrical prose. Some scenes in particular are unsurpassed, such as the wonderfully taut and realistic one in which John pits his strength and stubbornness against the fury of Tom Faggus’s mare. In a different vein, but equally skillful, is John’s description of his sorrow at Lorna’s unexplained absence from their secret meeting place, a sorrow that spoils the natural beauty of the place in his eyes.

Ironically, Lorna Doone first became popular by accident; people bought the novel on the mistaken assumption—owing to a journalist’s blunder—that it was about the marquis of Lorna’s marriage, which had captured public interest at the time. It was a propitious error, however, creating as it did the novel’s first devoted reading audience, which has had its descendants in every succeeding generation.

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