BLACKMORE AND LORNA DOONE

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Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900), the son of an Anglican Curate, was educated at Blundell's School, Tiverton, and Exeter College, Oxford. He was called to the Bar in 1852 but retired through ill health; after teaching Classics at Twickenham School for a short time; he took up horticulture and market gardening. He published two volumes of poems by Melanter (1854) and Eppulia (1855) which shoed little merit. His first novel, Clara Vaughan (1864) was recognised immediately for its combination of vigorous prose and poetic imagination. He wrote a number of novels that, in his opinion, ranked level with his masterpiece Lorna Doone, which was published modestly in 1869 but slowly achieved success. However, it is in this colourful story that his romantic gifts of poetic expression and exciting adventure have found enduring form. Each Lorna Doone addict must decide how much of the legend he wants to believe. One thing is sure; there were outlaws called Doone on Exmoor and stories were told and written about them long before Blackmore published his novel. In turbulent, bygone days, when justice was severe and penalties harsh, Exmoor, Dartmoor and similar remote and inaccessible spots made excellent hideouts for fugitives on the run. However, the inhospitable bleakness of these places made them hard areas in which to survive. A man had to live by his wits and not be over-scrupulous about it, especially if he had a family to rear. Highway robbery, cattle stealing, murder even might become a necessity if the fugitive were to stay alive. Such a man's children would grow up into half wild savages, mistrustful of anyone, not a member of the family circle and hostile to strangers. The last surviving descendant of one such tribe, on Odham Moor near South Molton, died almost within living memory. He was animal-like and illiterate and lived in a hut of tufts until time and weather brought about its collapse when he moved into a barrel. Blackmore had been hearing about such people from his boyhood. He was born at Longworth in Oxfordshire where his father, the Reverend John Blackmore was the Curate in Charge. However, following the death of his wife and sister in law from Typhus Fever, John Blackmore accepted a curacy firstly in Culmstock in 1826 and then Ashford, Nr. Barnstaple in 1835. Many years late, in 1894, Culmstock became the ‘Perlycross’ in Blackmore’s novel of that name. R D Blackmore’s Grandfather was Rector of Combe Martin and Oare.  His uncle was Rector of Charles, a little village on the fringe of the Moor, and he stayed frequently with both of em. In 1865, before he began to write Lorna Doone, Blackmore came to Lynmouth and stayed at the Rising Sun Inn using it has his base from which to collect information about the people he wanted to put into ' his novel, and to view the places in which he intended to set the action of his story. He could not have visited any spot called the Doone Valley - because none existed. The name does not appear on any map published before or during Blackmore’s lifetime. Since his death, the area around Lank Combe on the west bank of Badgworthy Water has, by common consent, been dubbed the Doone Valley as approximating more closely to the imaginary place Blackmore described. It is now so marked on some maps, but there is no ‘official’ authority for it. Whether this is indeed the place he intended, we shall never know. Blackmore always refused to discuss it and, after the book became famous, he grew impatient with people who tried to pin him down and unravel the fact from the fiction. To one correspondent he wrote in 1891: "I quite forget how the book began to grow, having taken no special heed and to another, five years later, with more irritation: "Nothing will induce me to go into this genesis of Lorna Doone, of which I have heard enough". Similarly, in 1887 he had written to James Moorhead: "When I wrote Lorna Doone, the greatest effort of my imagination would have been to picture its success. If I had dreamed that it would have been more than a book of the moment, the description of scenery which I know as well as I know my garden would have been kept nearer to their fact. I romanced therein, not to mislead others, but solely for e uses of my story. - The story had obviously taken shape in his mind over a span of years, yet it was by freak for fortune that Lorna Doone ever had the chance to become popular. Blackmore’s publishers did not much care to the book and their lack of faith seemed justified when they first brought it out in 1869. The reviews were not encouraging; there was little interest in it and sales were poor. Blackmore himself, writing to his friend Mrs William Halliday of Glenthorne after the book had  become a success, said, "It went the round of publishers who declined with unanimity. I brought home the manuscript more than once in sorrow and discomfiture. At last I was fain to accept an offer of nothing for it". . Of the first 500 copies, only 300 were sold. It is by the merest fluke that Lorna Doone was ever heard of again. Sampson Low Jnr, against the judgement of the rest of his firm resolved to risk publishing it and the book began to run when on its last legs. From 1871, the fame of Lorna Doone snowballed and the book appeared in edition after edition. Although Blackmore always insisted that he made very little money from it, he must have know before his death in 1900, that he had written a classic which would live after him.