Sunday, July 10, 2011

New Wor(l)ds

A week ago, all I knew about Richard Blackmore's Lorna Doone was that the book shares a name with a cookie and that Deep Purple's guitar player shared a name with the author. As it turns out, I didn't even know the book's general date, since I put it under "18th-century novels" in my overall plan and, as I learned on the first page of the book, it was published in 1869.

But I had even more to learn as I kept turning the pages (or, actually, pressing the Kindle button). In starting Lorna Doone, I entered a strange new world: the Exmoor region in Devon and Somerset of southwest England, where I've never been and know very little about. As with Henry Esmond, coincidentally, this nineteenth-century book sets its tale in the seventeenth century, which adds to the alien atmosphere of the book: when first-person narrator John Ridd tells of the arrest of Lord William Russell and Mr. Algernon Sidney, he assumes I know who they are, but I don't. Then there's the antiquated vocabulary of English farming and trade: chapman, wether, peat rick, and so on. (My spell checker puts a wavy line underneath "wether" and "chapman," so it doesn't know these words either.) And he often uses outmoded meanings of familiar words: "factor" as a trader in goods, for instance, and "tell" to mean "count." (The last example survives in our culture with the bank teller.) And on top of it all, some of the characters speak in a local dialect whose accent (also unknown to me before this) Blackmore indicates by respelling almost every word. A sample:
"Plaise ye, worshipful masters," he said, being feared of the gateway, "carn 'e tull whur our Jan Ridd be?"

"Hyur a be, ees fai, Jan Ridd," answered a sharp little chap, making game of John Fry's language.

"Zhow un up, then," says John Fry poking his whip through the bars at us; "Zhow un up, and putt un aowt."
This mysterious world of Lorna Doone is full of all kinds of danger. I've seen floods and rapids threaten or even take life several times already in the first quarter of the book. Highwaymen plague the crude roads, but John Ridd and his family consider them gentlemen in comparison to the Doone family, who rob and kill neighbors sometimes randomly for sport. The people of Exmoor apparently just grow up learning to accept the danger and deal with it. John says at one point that he is "feared of being afraid; a fear which a wise man has long cast by, having learned of the manifold dangers which ever and ever encompass us." And the danger may not be all material: an uncanny moan floats through the woods every few months or so. "It mattered not whether you stood on the moor, or crouched behind rocks away from it, or down among reedy places; all as one the sound would come, now from the heart of the earth beneath, now overhead bearing down on you. And then there was rushing of something by, and melancholy laughter, and the hair of a man would stand on end before he could reason properly."

Poor Lorna grows up in this perilous world among a family of heartless marauders. She acknowledges the evil of her clan's ways, but she believes herself doomed never to escape. "Is it any wonder," she says to John, "that I cannot sink with these, that I cannot so forget my soul, as to live the life of brutes, and die the death more horrible because it dreams of waking? There is none to lead me forward, there is none to teach me right; young as I am, I live beneath a curse that lasts for ever." (Her last words reminded me of A Tale of Two Cities and Charles Darnay's disgust with the aristocratic heritage that has, he says, left him "bound to a system that is frightful to me, responsible for it, but powerless in it." I wonder if John Ridd will have to make a Sydney Carton-esque sacrifice in order to free Lorna.)

Lorna says she takes some comfort from little, everyday "signs" of goodness. "Whether from the rustling wind," she says, "or sound of distant music, or the singing of a bird, like the sun on snow it strikes me with a pain of pleasure." Much of the theme of the book, in fact, seems to revolve around observation of the poetry in things. Like Duke Senior in the comedy by John's favorite poet, John might say he and Lorna find "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones," although they may have trouble finding "good in everything." John says "God can never charge him" for being a poet, but within a couple of pages of taht denial, he notices remnant patches of snow left on the hills "like a lady's gloves forgotten." He claims that in remembering a scene, he notices details that made no impression at the time, so perhaps we're to take it that John simply has a natural poetic gift without realizing it -- or at least without the cultural freedom to admit it.

John's first-person narrative wanders aimlessly through this dangerous, mysterious world. Characters come and go quickly, and he cannot report even the briefest event without tangents upon tangents about the situation, the way he felt, and other similar events. Explanations for these side-excursions always come later rather than sooner. Sometimes he tells the reader that explanations will come later, as when he says one man came "a foot below the Doone stature (which I shall describe hereafter)." Why didn't he just say then that the Doone's were normally quite tall? Overall, the unfamiliar details and the tangled presentation of context makes for difficult reading.

But don't I read a novel partly to learn about a world I'm not familiar with? Maybe a lack of narrative organization is just part of John's character. When he starts to tell Lorna's background, in fact, he admits that writing gets him confused and decides to let her tell her story in her own words. Then, he says, "If ye find it weariness, seek in yourselves the weariness." John Ridd really is wiser than he lets on or admits to himself; he knows that slow reading might be due to the book and might be due to the reader. I'm enjoying the parts I understand of Lorna Doone and even some of what I don't understand, so I'll credit my weariness to the reader and keep going.

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