By M.J. Porteus, author of Lorna Doone: The Wild and Wanton Edition
Although it seems to be eternally and universally popular, (even apparently being voted by male students at Yale in 1906 as their favourite novel!), I suspect many have never read the full version. It wasn’t one of the compulsory texts when I studied English at school so I confess that in my ignorance and laziness I didn’t bother reading it back then. (I have since worked hard to overcome both traits!) However I now think its blend of romance, strong hero, beautiful heroine paradoxically both frail and strong-willed, villain, factual settings, and references to actual historical events is a particularly potent blend.
I have unfortunately heard it described as “rambling” and “tortuous,” and whilst I agree that there are several passages which could be edited out without damage to the plot, to do so would be to miss some of the most lyrical descriptions ever written. Even Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stephenson, and Rudyard Kipling apparently rated Blackmore’s ability to empathise with nature and create original descriptions for commonplace events or entities. So I’m in good company when I love passages such as:
We drew our horses up and listened, through the thickness of the air, and with our hands laid to our ears. At first there was nothing to hear, except the panting of the horses and the trickle of the eaving drops from our head-covers and clothing, and the soft sounds of the lonely night, that make us feel, and try not to think.
…being quicker of mind than I am (who leave more than half behind me, like a man sowing wheat, with his dinner laid in the ditch too near his dog), …
…the midst a tiny spring arose, with crystal beads in it, and a soft voice as of a laughing dream, and dimples like a sleeping babe. Then, after going round a little, with surprise of daylight, the water overwelled the edge, and softly went through lines of light to shadows and an untold bourne.
In respect of Wild and Wanton series requirements, Lorna Doone was a gift: Blackmore’s innuendo permeates the text. More about that in my next blog post!
Add to this that I am fortunate to live in Lorna Doone country itself, near the border of Somerset and Devon just like John Ridd, and I can easily access the towns or cities and rolling countryside or sea-shore which are vividly featured in the book, and Taunton Museum in the area has many relevant exhibitions including one on the Monmouth Rebellion which is a key plot point in the novel. So I can live, eat, and breathe it!
And I also happened to be cast to perform in the world premiere of Lorna Doone, The Musical: music by Ed Welch and libretto by Barry Gardner, I seem to recall. Sounds grand but it bombed after about a week! (Incidentally all trace of this version appears to have disappeared other than a scratchetty cassette (younger readers may need to ask what this is!) of the sound-track in my possession but without its paper outer wrapper to tell me more about it.) An internet search tells me about another piece of musical theatre written in 1982 and based on the famous Blackmore novel. It was premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe and written in the Gilbert & Sullivan genre, but I can’t even recall if it predates or succeeds the other version.
What this tells you is that I am getting a) old, b) forgetful, or c) disorganised. Arguably all three! But also that the story has inspired many to adapt it, and the impact on me of learning more about the story of Lorna Doone through the musical has endured, so naturally when the chance arose to work on the novel I jumped at it!