Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year. This week Mike lifts the lid and reveals the truth about one of my favourite books and television series as a child..Lorna Doone…
The dastardly shooting of Lorna (Doone)
The Victorian novel, “Lorna Doone – a Romance of Exmoor”, is generally assumed to be a work of fiction, set in a stunning location on the borders of Devon and Somerset and against the turbulent historical backdrop of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. Yet some believe that the author, R D Blackmore, drew upon illusive tales of real people who once lived, fought, loved and died in his beloved Exmoor. The book is seen through the eyes of honest young farmer John Ridd, and tells the story of his love for the beautiful and mysterious Lorna, whom everyone believes to be the granddaughter of Sir Ensor Doone. The Doones are a vicious, brutal, gang who terrorise the neighbourhood, robbing, murdering and extorting. John – or ‘Jan’ in West Country dialect – after many adventures eventually defeats the Doones and wins his bride. But the menacing and jealous Carver Doone is still on the loose. Seeking revenge, he makes his way to Oare church on the happy couple’s wedding day – and shoots Lorna.
“It is impossible for any who have not loved as I have to conceive my joy and pride, when after ring and all was done, and the parson had blessed us, Lorna turned to look at me with her glances of subtle fun subdued by this great act.
Her eyes, which none on earth may ever equal, or compare with, told me such a depth of comfort, yet awaiting further commune, that I was almost amazed, thoroughly as I knew them. Darling eyes, the sweetest eyes, the loveliest, the most loving eyes – the sound of a shot rang through the church and those eyes were filled with death.
Lorna fell across my knees when I was going to kiss her, as the bridegroom is allowed to do, and encouraged, if he needs it; a flood of blood came out upon the yellow wood of the altar steps, and at my feet lay Lorna, trying to tell me some last message out of her faithful eyes. I lifted her up, and petted her, and coaxed her, but it was no good; the only sign of life remaining was a spirt of bright red blood.”
So you can’t possibly visit Exmoor without going to St Mary’s in Oare, where this terrible and dramatic act is supposed to have happened (in the book). We were staying with our friend Paul, who generously undertook all the driving as we rattled along slender lanes at the bottom of deep combes, a couple of miles inland somewhere between Bagworthy and Countisbury. Fortunately, there was no other traffic. A red doe (a deer, a female deer…) leapt in front of us and scrabbled in panic up the wooded slope on the other side of the track. Stupidly, we’d left the decent map behind and I was trying to see where we were on an inadequate small-scale road atlas, whilst simultaneously playfully head-butting Paul’s roof. Then we were on it, an ancient diminutive stone affair on a bank above a sunken lane with a distinctive, whitewashed, porch.
House martins had built their nest inside the ridge of the porch roof and looked down nervously as we creaked open the door. It is a peaceful, simple, church, lined with box pews. The nave is believed to be 15th century, the tower and the chancel added in the 19th century. Tiny now, at the time in which the novel was set it would have been even smaller, perhaps only accommodating a dozen or so worshippers. The window through which Carver Doone is meant to have fired his gun would have been unglazed in the 17th century. There’s a memorial to Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900) on the north wall; he is buried in Teddington. Outside, the setting was overcast, but just wonderful – and totally silent.
When we got home, I took down an old copy of “Lorna Doone”. It was amongst a collection of books that have been in the family for years, a lovely, small, red-bound thing with gilt lettering on the spine, published by Collins and with illustrations by Wilmot Lunt. There’s no date in it; I should imagine it was printed sometime in the 1920s or 30s, and doubt whether it had been opened for at least half a century. Intriguingly, there’s an unknown woman’s name written in the front – perhaps someone’s old girlfriend, long gone. In any event, not having ever read the full version, I thought I better had – particularly having visited Oare church. Besides, I wanted to know what happened – don’t you?
My copy of “Lorna Doone – a Romance of Exmoor” is charming. But it is also 640 pages of some of the most tortuous Victorian prose I have ever come across; RD Blackmore was certainly no Bernard Cornwell. I found myself getting incredibly frustrated on occasions with our hero, Jan Ridd, who not only seemed incapable of saying anything in one word when he had twenty at his disposal and, in so doing, in a round about kind of way, without wishing to prevaricate or obfuscate, and certainly not to overly use subordinate clauses, if you get my drift, often took a heck of a long time to get to the point. It also saddens me to say that Jan, for all his undoubted virtues, could sometimes be ponderously thick. That said, it is a great story – full of adventure, romance (of course), not without humour – and deservedly a classic. Though it’s been both filmed and televised numerous times, I don’t understand why there hasn’t been a more memorable or successful movie version. David Lean could have done something with it, but now I’m thinking it’s more Spielberg – or possibly Ron Howard or Tom Hanks; definitely not Tarantino. Will you contact them, or shall I?
Oh – you still don’t know what happened, do you? If you don’t want to know the result – look away now…
For the rest of you – Jan tracked wicked Carver Doone down to the moors where they fought. Carver was beat and then got accidentally sucked into the black bog, never to be seen again. Exhausted, Jan made his way home to find that, miraculously, Lorna had survived. And everyone lived happily ever after.
© Images Mike Biles 2019
A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.
About the book
Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?
A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.
What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?
Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.
A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading
One of the recent reviews for the book on Goodreads
Like most Americans, I had a rather rudimentary education about British history, so this book seemed the perfect antidote for that particular affliction. Indeed, it did fill in some gaps nicely, and what’s more, it did so with some delightful dollops of humor, (ahem… humour…) as well.
Do you have to be a history nerd to enjoy this book? No, of course not. (But it helps.) I particularly enjoyed reading the parts about more recent history… like from WWI on. It was interesting to get a fresh perspective (i.e. Brit point of view) on parts of history I was already fairly familiar with.
I must, however, confess that I skimmed over (i.e. skipped) the lengthy time line at the end of the book. I appreciate how much research and effort the author put into compiling it, but I chose not to read it. For me, it was kinda like skipping the “begats” in the Bible, ya know? (Something tells me I probably missed out on some really good chuckles by skipping it, though…
Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mike-Biles/e/B07W928W23
And on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Mike-Biles/e/B07W928W23
Follow Mike on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/19553725.Mike_Biles
About Mike Biles
Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.
Connect to Mike Biles and explore his wonderful archives
Website home page – http://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog page – http://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinterest – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/
My thanks to Mike for sharing the background and the location for this wonderful story, and I must have read an abridged version in the 1960s where Jan was given a better script…and a new film version would be wonderful..
Join Mike again next week for another glimpse into the history, people and places in Britain.