Written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Co-Ordinator
For the dark winter months of December and January the MERL Book Group ‘Rural Reads’ read Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R.D. Blackmore. Lorna Doone is the perfect ‘rural read’, as living and working in the countryside is intrinsic to the story and is integral to the characters’ essence.
Written in 1869, Lorna Doone takes place in 1685 and is set in the South West of England (more specifically in Devonshire and Somerset), meaning walkers and enthusiasts can now walk along the notorious Doone valley depicted in the book. It is narrated by the protagonist, John Ridd, and he takes the reader through his story of life during a tumultuous period, including fear of outlaws, farming, civil war and, ultimately, the love shared between himself and Lorna Doone.
John Ridd is a respected farmer and family man who, after the death of his father to Doone outlaws, becomes the master of the farm. After accidentally stumbling into the valley as a young teenager, John and Lorna fall deeply in love, although admittedly it is John who initially falls head over heels. Their love, however, is obstructed by the Doones, the outlaws who terrorise the South West and who cling onto Lorna so that she can become their future queen. The devious Carver Doone, who is the most brutal and deadly of the Doones, has set his eyes and ambitions on Lorna and wishes to marry her, and the story unfolds from here with adventure and passion.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe Lorna Doone to be a most fitting book for Rural Reads and also for MERL because there are countless moments in the book when John discusses or uses an object that we have in our collection. For example, there is the settle which Lorna falls asleep on, a coracle for fishing and even butter pats. Visitors can see all these objects on display in the museum (or on our online catalogue).
An endearing quality of John Ridd is his love for his family and his animals, and throughout the book you find him saving sheep from thick blankets of snow or caring for his horses as he writes “I loved some horses, and even some cows for that matter.” The importance and love of animals is a common theme throughout the book – one of my favourite chapters is when highwayman Tom Faggus’s horse Winnie leads John to the wounded body of her master. As a group we all particularly enjoyed this particular characteristic of John.
However, we weren’t taken with the character of Lorna Doone, as we found her rather pale compared to other characters and I personally imagined her to be frail with almost translucent skin, lacking in passion. We discussed that Lorna’s character – as described through the eyes of John – was his perfect imagining of a woman. However, she didn’t quite meet our expectations.
Folklore runs through the core of the novel along with pagan beliefs that people in rural communities held and believed. The oral tradition of storytelling and spreading news is used; Tom the highwayman, for instance, regales the Ridd family with fantastical tales of his adventures and of the wider world which they blindly consume. The theme of folklore and tradition also reminds me of the corn dollies we have in our collection and the folklore which surrounds them.
As a whole we enjoyed Lorna Doone even if some of us didn’t finish it, but we all had aspects of the book that we enjoyed and wanted to share. I would personally recommend the book to everyone because it has romance, war, tragedy, friendship, betrayal and some very witty anecdotes about sheep – what more could you want?
Next month we are reading The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, we are meeting on Thursday 27th February at 5.30pm at MERL and we hope to see you there.