Seventeenth century Exmoor has been my virtual home for around seven weeks now, and I feel that my feet are comfortably settled under John Ridd’s table. He’s been an entertaining host, though as a twenty-first century woman, to begin with, I did have some problems adjusting.
It’s hardly my first time in Restoration Britain. I have vivid memories of skating along the frozen River Thames with Virginia Woolf’s, Orlando; and wandering the Welsh hills with Lucy Walter and the young prince who would be crowned as Charles II, in The Child From The Sea, by Elizabeth Goudge.
Antonia Frazer, Jean Plaidy and Margaret Irwin introduced me to some of the key political characters and events for this period. However, apart from Orlando, the main characters in those and other novels, have tended to be strong females.
I’ve been asking myself, ‘do I love history because of historical fiction, or historical fiction because I love history?’ Maybe I might also ask, ‘did those adventures distort my idea of history?’
Although I knew that most women, in those times, were constrained, contained and restricted, I was usually too busy cheering on the rebels to think about what day-to-day life was like for the majority. RD Blackmore’s novel forced me to think of them in domestic spheres.
Women are ideally soft, submissive, and lovely to look at. John describes his sister, Annie, as:
…of a pleasing face, and very gentle manner, almost like a lady, some people said; but without any airs whatever, only trying to give satisfaction.
She’s also a paragon, keeping the kitchen immaculate and constantly cooking up massive delicious meals for the family and all visitors.
Lorna Doone, the woman of John’s dreams, lacks practical skills, but then, she’s a lady.
I could not but behold her manner, as she went before me, all her grace, and lovely sweetness, and her sense of what she was.
She was a different being; not woman enough to do anything bad, yet enough of a woman for man to adore.
I could have grown tired of all these characters, if I hadn’t begun to notice that there was an interesting gap between what John said, and what the women were doing. While they could not be described as active, in a modern sense, it became apparent that they were often at odds with John’s ideals.
John’s mother, for example, when her husband is murdered, walks into the hideout where the criminals are living to ‘speak her mind’ to them.
Now, after all, what right had she, a common farmer’s widow, to take it amiss that men of birth thought fit to kill her husband? And the Doones were of very high birth, as all we clods of Exmoor knew; and we had enough of good teaching… to feel that all we had belonged of right to those above us. therefore my mother was half-ashamed, that she could not help complaining.
It’s a moment that holds a key to so much of this story. A great wrong has been committed, in a time when rights are with the strongest. There is no police-force to turn to, there is only class. The society described is close to feudal. Everyone should know their place. And yet, here is Sarah Ridd, approaching her betters to tell them that she, and her children, have been harmed by their actions.
We’re left to decide whether she’s brave or foolhardy, in making herself vulnerable to a gang well known for rapine, pillage and murder. She may never do anything so outrageous again, but the potential of all women for acts of bravery has been presented.
It may be more than I should expect from a book that was written a hundred and fifty years ago, set in a time a hundred and ninety years before that. Perhaps it signals the beginning of a pattern.