Chickens, eggs, and travelling through time with RD Blackmore.

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.

Literary tourism

It’s a hundred and fifty years since RD Blackmore’s novel, Lorna Doone was first published. So, this autumn, I’ve been discussing it with some of my Creative-Reading groups.

It’s been an interesting journey, and a rewarding one. Not least, because part of my preparation included three days touring around Exmoor, tracking down identifiable locations. Comparing the spaces that inspired with the story was intriguing. Here are a few of my favourite locations.

The story opens in 1673, when the narrator, John Ridd is twelve years old. He’s studying at Blundell’s school, in Tiverton, and gives a brief history of the school, as he describes his last days there.

The building he knew is now called ‘Old Blunell’s’, as the school moved to a bigger premises in 1882. I didn’t go inside. The interior has now been divided into flats, but the exterior is as it’s described in the novel. Since Blackmore was a scholar there himself, it’s probable that the customs John Ridd describes are authentic, from singeing night-caps to learning to swim in the Lowman River.

Oare village, where the Ridds farmed is still tiny, and a long way down from the coast road. While my photo gives an idea of the scale of the landscape, it is unlikely that Blackmore would recognise the large fields, or the extent that they now stretch to. Much of Exmoor was cleared, and ‘improved’ from the mid nineteenth century on.

The debate about which of the village buildings might have been the model for Plovers Barrow, the farm of the Ridds, has been going on since soon after the novel was published. Many readers refused to accept that Blackmore imaginatively ‘rearranged’ the geography to suit his story.

We stayed near a farm that claimed to be the original. However, it had recently been taken apart and completely re-built. Lovely as it is, it didn’t seem to resemble the farm Blackmore describes.

Oare church, however, did seem identical. It is just visible in my photo of the village, above. The white painted porch is to the left side of the main clump of buildings.

Here’s the interior, with its box pews, and stone font.

Robber Bridge is mentioned several times in the story. The long narrow road leading to it had a timeless feel, despite the tarmac, and occasional car or tractor.

Tarr Steps, was worth a visit. Although, it’s only mentioned in passing, as being near the cave where Mother Melldrum had her summer home. My photo fails to convey just how huge these steps are, or how atmospheric this river is,

Mother Melldrum’s winter home, which John visits, is in the Valley of the Rocks, near Linton.

Finally, there’s Dunster. It’s another passing mention in the novel, but I couldn’t miss the timber-framed Yarn Market. It was rebuilt in 1647, and despite all of the twenty-first century trimmings surrounding it, standing under that roof felt close to stepping back through time.

I haven’t mentioned the countryside itself, because in the uncleared parts, it doesn’t seem to have changed much since Blackmore published the novel. If you want to know how it felt, looked or sounded as we lingered in the lane by Robbers Bridge, read some of John Ridd’s lyrical descriptions. Thomas Hardy said that those passages showed him something of what was possible in writing about ‘place’.

Blackmore’s novel is not an easy read. His style leans towards archaic, and has some interesting sentence structures. What impressed me, was the way he shaped his material, and how John Ridd’s narration works.

Lorna Doone will be going back on my shelf, and I think I might have to return to Exmoor for a longer visit, soon.