Place: Exmoor. Time: 17th century. January 29, 2009Posted by Jenny in literature, nature, travel, Uncategorized.
Tags: English footpaths, Exmoor, Lorna Doone, Monmouth Rebellion, R.D. Blackmore, Walter Scott
If your knowledge of literature is good, you will immediately suspect from the words above that I have been reading the novel Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore. Yes, it is true. I have been living on the wild, windswept heath of Exmoor, loitering by the fireplace in the cottage of the Ridd family, galloping on my faithful steed along roads frequented by highwaymen, and venturing up the roaring cascades of a hidden stream to visit the forbidden lair of the Doone clan.
The book was more of a favorite of my grandmother than my mother. Grandma Johnstone had one of the old-fashioned three-volume editions. She was not in a hurry to finish a book. She loved the leisurely setting of a scene in Sir Walter Scott, the tale that begins with a small figure making his way across a highland glen, or over a pass between precipitous crags, or through whatever mist-swirling, moss-festooned place Scott might have invented. Blackmore was a bit later than Scott, writing Lorna in 1869. But they were cut from the same cloth. Their books were meant to be lived in for a while, as one sat in the parlor in the evening turning the pages, admiring the illustrations, lost in the romance and intrigue.
I would like to visit Exmoor someday. It takes its name from the River Exe, and many other streams and rivers flow through it. Most of it is now a national park. Exmoor has the advantage of not being on the way to anywhere else, unless perhaps you are going from South Wales to Cornwall. The area has only small villages. Herds of red deer and wild ponies wander the moors. The coastline is embroidered with waterfalls and ravines. There is said to be a “Beast of Exmoor,” southwest England’s answer to Sasquatch, that makes mysterious nocturnal attacks on livestock. Exmoor boasts many species of heather, some obscure lichens and mosses, a high-elevation beech forest, and something called a whitebeam tree. It is possible to walk many miles along the system of public footpaths that are such a wonderful feature of England.
Blackmore was writing about a time 200 years earlier than his own, the period of the Monmouth Rebellion, also known as the “Pitchfork Rebellion,” against the rule of the papist James II. It was a harsh time. The bodies of criminals were hung from gibbets as a warning along the highways. Lives were short and often curtailed by violence. Some of the passages in Lorna are written in a dialect as impenetrable to me as Uncle Remus would be to a reader in England. But part of the enjoyment for me is to learn about those lives, the schools that were attended, the food and beverages that were served (the venison and the ale), the conversation that was had in a tavern, the gathering of the villagers, both men and women, to do the work of the harvest. The plot of Lorna is pure rhinestones and moonbeams, but the setting is very real. Probably not much had changed in Exmoor between 1685 and 1869.
It’s fun just to read the captions to the illustrations. (You can find an illustrated version of Lorna if you go to the Project Gutenberg website.) “I was grieved to see a disdainful smile spread upon his sallow countenance.” “For, lo! I stood at the foot of a long pale slide of water.” “As snug a little house blinked on me, as ever I saw or wished to see.” “We happened upon a great coach and six horses labouring very heavily.” Ah, wonderful!