The Victorian novel, “Lorna Doone – a Romance of Exmoor”, is generally assumed to be a work of fiction, set in a stunning location on the borders of Devon and Somerset and against the turbulent historical backdrop of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. Yet some believe that the author, R D Blackmore, drew upon illusive tales of real people who once lived, fought, loved and died in his beloved Exmoor. The book is seen through the eyes of honest young farmer John Ridd, and tells the story of his love for the beautiful and mysterious Lorna, whom everyone believes to be the granddaughter of Sir Ensor Doone. The Doones are a vicious, brutal, gang who terrorise the neighbourhood, robbing, murdering and extorting. John – or ‘Jan’ in West Country dialect – after many adventures eventually defeats the Doones and wins his bride. But the menacing and jealous Carver Doone is still on the loose. Seeking revenge, he makes his way to Oare church on the happy couple’s wedding day – and shoots Lorna.
“It is impossible for any who have not loved as I have to conceive my joy and pride, when after ring and all was done, and the parson had blessed us, Lorna turned to look at me with her glances of subtle fun subdued by this great act.
Her eyes, which none on earth may ever equal, or compare with, told me such a depth of comfort, yet awaiting further commune, that I was almost amazed, thoroughly as I knew them. Darling eyes, the sweetest eyes, the loveliest, the most loving eyes – the sound of a shot rang through the church and those eyes were filled with death.
Lorna fell across my knees when I was going to kiss her, as the bridegroom is allowed to do, and encouraged, if he needs it; a flood of blood came out upon the yellow wood of the altar steps, and at my feet lay Lorna, trying to tell me some last message out of her faithful eyes. I lifted her up, and petted her, and coaxed her, but it was no good; the only sign of life remaining was a spirt of bright red blood.”
So you can’t possibly visit Exmoor without going to St Mary’s in Oare, where this terrible and dramatic act is supposed to have happened (in the book). We were staying with our friend Paul, who generously undertook all the driving as we rattled along slender lanes at the bottom of deep combes, a couple of miles inland somewhere between Bagworthy and Countisbury. Fortunately, there was no other traffic. A red doe (a deer, a female deer…) leapt in front of us and scrabbled in panic up the wooded slope on the other side of the track. Stupidly, we’d left the decent map behind and I was trying to see where we were on an inadequate small-scale road atlas, whilst simultaneously playfully head-butting Paul’s roof. Then we were on it, an ancient diminutive stone affair on a bank above a sunken lane with a distinctive, whitewashed, porch.
House martins had built their nest inside the ridge of the porch roof and looked down nervously as we creaked open the door. It is a peaceful, simple, church, lined with box pews. The nave is believed to be 15th century, the tower and the chancel added in the 19th century. Tiny now, at the time in which the novel was set it would have been even smaller, perhaps only accommodating a dozen or so worshippers. The window through which Carver Doone is meant to have fired his gun would have been unglazed in the 17th century. There’s a memorial to Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900) on the north wall; he is buried in Teddington. Outside, the setting was overcast, but just wonderful – and totally silent.
When we got home, I took down an old copy of “Lorna Doone”. It was amongst a collection of books that have been in the family for years, a lovely, small, red-bound thing with gilt lettering on the spine, published by Collins and with illustrations by Wilmot Lunt. There’s no date in it; I should imagine it was printed sometime in the 1920s or 30s, and doubt whether it had been opened for at least half a century. Intriguingly, there’s an unknown woman’s name written in the front – perhaps someone’s old girlfriend, long gone. In any event, not having ever read the full version, I thought I better had – particularly having visited Oare church. Besides, I wanted to know what happened – don’t you?
My copy of “Lorna Doone – a Romance of Exmoor” is charming. But it is also 640 pages of some of the most tortuous Victorian prose I have ever come across; RD Blackmore was certainly no Bernard Cornwell. I found myself getting incredibly frustrated on occasions with our hero, Jan Ridd, who not only seemed incapable of saying anything in one word when he had twenty at his disposal and, in so doing, in a round about kind of way, without wishing to prevaricate or obfuscate, and certainly not to overly use subordinate clauses, if you get my drift, often took a heck of a long time to get to the point. It also saddens me to say that Jan, for all his undoubted virtues, could sometimes be ponderously thick. That said, it is a great story – full of adventure, romance (of course), not without humour – and deservedly a classic. Though it’s been both filmed and televised numerous times, I don’t understand why there hasn’t been a more memorable or successful movie version. David Lean could have done something with it, but now I’m thinking it’s more Spielberg – or possibly Ron Howard or Tom Hanks; definitely not Tarantino. Will you contact them, or shall I?
Oh – you still don’t know what happened, do you? If you don’t want to know the result – look away now…
For the rest of you – Jan tracked wicked Carver Doone down to the moors where they fought. Carver was beat and then got accidentally sucked into the black bog, never to be seen again. Exhausted, Jan made his way home to find that, miraculously, Lorna had survived. And everyone lived happily ever after.