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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825–1900)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE LITERARY success of Blackmore came late in life. He was born in Longworth, Berkshire, England, in 1825, was graduated at Exeter College, Oxford, and afterwards studied law in the Middle Temple, practicing his profession as a conveyancer.  1
  But his heart was in an outdoor life. Like his own John Ridd, the hero of ‘Lorna Doone,’ he is a man of the moors and fields, with a fresh breeze blowing over him and a farmer’s cares in his mind. In 1854–5 he published several volumes of poems under the pen-name of “Melanter.” ‘The Bugle of the Black Sea’ and a complete translation of Virgil’s ‘Georgics’ appeared in 1871.  2
  Other volumes of verse followed, of which it may be said that he is a poet more sensitive to influence than fertile in original impulse; although some of his prose, in which even rhythm is observed in what seems to be an unconscious manner, displays high original quality. It is therefore fair to say of him as a poet that while his works did not gain him the reputation that has placed him among the foremost literary men of the day, the subtle influence rural nature exerts on man, and the part it bears in the sweet harmonies of life, are told in passages that are resonant with melody.  3
  The poet’s delight is in the prosperity of the fields, as if they were his friends, and in the dumb loving motherhood with which all nature seems, to his eyes, to surround him.  4
  As the precursor of a summer that yielded such a mellow harvest, the spring of Mr. Blackmore’s fiction was slow and intermittent. The plot of his stories is never probable, but in his first novel, ‘Clara Vaughan,’ published in 1864, it impairs belief in the general reality of the book; and though there is hint of the power to excite sympathy of which his latter novels prove him so great a master, the intelligence refuses such shrieking melodrama. ‘Lorna Doone’ therefore came unheralded. It was published in London in 1869 and slowly grew in favor, then leaped into popularity. In 1878 twenty-two editions had been printed.  5
  Other novels followed. ‘The Maid of Sker,’ ‘Alice Lorraine,’ ‘Cripps the Carrier,’ ‘Erema,’ ‘Mary Anerley,’ ‘Christowell,’ ‘Sir Thomas Upton,’ came in rapid succession. The paternity of no novel of Mr. Blackmore’s is doubtful. All have marked characteristics. They are long and exceedingly minute in detail. With all his finish, he tells his story almost with a child’s elaborateness of incident. Every change of the seasons, the history of every walk is set down. He is in love with every feature of the landscape, be it the wild doons of Exmoor or the wilder Yorkshire coast, or, across the seas, the plains of the Sierras. He is a story-teller of the days in which it was quite unimportant whether tales should come to an end or not. He would have saved Scheherazade all her trouble and enjoyed the task. He cannot pass carelessly by the slightest incident; it is his nature to approfondir all his surroundings: if the hero breaks his stirrup and stops at the blacksmith’s to have it mended, the blacksmith will appear at the end of the story united to the rider, from the third and fourth generation, by a subtle thread of connection. But all these details, while they encumber the tale, contribute to a harmonious whole; for he has in a peculiar degree an instinct for the judicious introduction of telling human characters that are as much a part of the detail of the scene as the trees and stones. Upon these characters he expends a wealth of humor, and his humor is characteristic of Blackmore alone. It is full of unexpected turns and twists of fancy, quiet fun when we expect grave comment. Friendly old people appear, full of innumerable quips of individuality, and breezy fields and wealthy orchards and a general mellow fruitfulness form the background of the play.  6
  Especially in his prodigality is Blackmore characteristic of Blackmore. Other writers keep their quaint reflections for their dialogue, and confer immortality on their principal characters. But Blackmore has no sense of economy. As Mr. Saintsbury says of Thackeray, he could not introduce a personage, however subordinate, without making him a living creature. He does little with a character he has described in such powerful lines as Stephen Anerley. The fisher village folks, wild and hardy, with their slow speech and sly sagacity, the men at sea and the women at home; the maimed and broken-down yet jolly old tars; the anxious little merchants, and the heavy coast-guardsmen, we learn to know as we know the rocks and caves, the fishing cobbles in their bright colors, the slow-tongued gossips pouring out their long-voweled speech. All these characters, although they have a general resemblance to each other, have also a peculiar, quaint simplicity and wisdom that is Blackmoreish, as Thackeray’s characters are Thackeraian. The author steps in and gives his puppets his little twist, the characteristic obliquity each possesses, his quips and cranks. If he would but confine the abundant tide of his flowing and leisurely utterances, he would have more time to bestow on really exciting and dramatic episodes, instead of going off into a little corner and carefully embellishing it, while the dénouement waits and the interest grows cold. Neither can he write a page without sending a sly bolt of amused perception through it, in which he discovers some foible or pricks some bubble of pretension, but always tenderly, as if he loved his victim. To the fact that Mr. Blackmore’s success came late in life, we have perhaps to be thankful for the softened and indulgent maturity which finds a hundred excuses, and knows that nothing is as good or as bad as it seems.  7
  The best expression of his genius in the delineation of character is not—with perhaps the exception of John Ridd—in his heroes and heroines. The former are drawn with the stronger hand. The maidens are pretty girls, sweet and good and brave for the sake of their fathers, and cunning for their lovers. His young men are gallant and true; but as exemplary love is apt to run smooth, it is not here that the drama finds the necessary amount of difficulty and pain. The interest centers in such delicious conceptions as Parson Short, full of muscular energy and sound doctrine, in Dr. Uperandown, his salt-water parish rival, the carrier Cripps, Parson Chowne, and the renowned highwayman Tom Faggus, of whom they were immensely proud. These people, before he has done with them, get hold of our sympathies, while the author keeps perennially fresh his enjoyment of human follies. His rustics do not talk with elaborate humor, nor are they amiable, but they are racy of the soil.  8
  One cannot dismiss a novelist without a reference to his plots, unless indeed he discards plots as an article of faith. Mr. Blackmore has no such intention. His stories are full of adventure and dramatic situations, and his melodrama is of the lurid kind on which the calcium light is thrown. Sometimes, as in ‘The Maid of Sker’ and ‘Cripps,’ they violate every probability. In others, as in ‘Mary Anerley,’ the mystery is childishly simple, the oft-repeated plot of a lost child recovered by certain strangely wrought gold buttons. In ‘Erema,’ the narrative suffers for want of vraisemblance, and loses by being related by a very young girl who has had no opportunity of becoming familiar with the world she describes. He is constantly guilty of that splendid mendacity which fiction loves, but which is nearly impossible to actual life. Self-sacrifice as depicted in ‘Christowell,’ involving much suffering to little purpose, is unsatisfactory; and it is a sin against the verities to make unreasonable generosity the basis of fiction representing life.  9
  But while the reader quarrels with a waste of precious material, Mr. Blackmore pursues his meditative way, with his smile of genial observation, himself the best of all his personages. The smell of the heather and the wild moorland odors, the honeyed grass and the fragrant thyme, the darker breathings of the sea, get into his pages and render them fragrant. A few villages lie on the edge of that wild region, and a living trout stream darts by, but the landscape does not obtrude itself nor interrupt the story. The quaint philosophy flows on spontaneously, with a tender humanity and cheerful fun. A writer like this may be pardoned if he is an indifferent builder of a tale.  10
  The scene of ‘Lorna Doone,’ the novelist’s masterpiece, is laid in Devonshire; and what Wordsworth did for the lake country, Blackmore has done for the fairest county in England. The time is that of Charles II. The book is historical, it is very long, it is minute in detail, and it is melodramatic: but it is alive. The strange adventures may or may not have happened, but we believe in them, for it is real life that is set before us; and whatever the author may tell us of robber caves and black-hearted villains, there is nothing incredible in any of his confidences. Nothing in recent novel writing is more vivid than the contrast between these outcast nobles the Doones, robbers and brigands, living in the wilds of Bagworthy Forest, locked fast in the hills,—and the peaceful farm-house of the yeoman Ridd who lives on the Downs. This home is not idealized. From the diamond-paned kitchen come savory smells of cooking and substantial fare. Pretty Annie, whose “like has never been seen for making a man comfortable,” Lizzie, who was undersized and loved books, “but knew the gift of cooking had not been vouchsafed her by God,” the sweet homely mother, and above all the manly figure of the young giant John, make a picture of which the gloomy castle of the Doones is the shadow. And what more charming than the story of the love that takes possession of the young boy, making a poet, a soldier, a knight of him, through a chance encounter with Lorna, the queen of the wild band, the grandchild of old Sir Ensor Doone?  11
  With John Ridd,—“Grit Jan”—the author dwelt till he possessed him with human attributes and made him alive. Around him the interest of the story centers. He is full of mother-wit and observation of men and things, especially of every changing mood of the nature he regards as his true mother. He is brave and resourceful, and rescues Lorna and himself from numberless difficulties by his native shrewdness. And his love is a poem, an idyl that crowns him a shepherd king in his own green pastures.  12
  The fame of ‘Lorna Doone’ has in a measure overshadowed Blackmore’s other romances, but such books as ‘The Maid of Sker’ and ‘Crips the Carrier’ do not fall far behind his masterpiece.  13
  Blackmore’s death occurred near London on January 20, 1900. His disposition was extremely retiring, and he allowed no details of his private life to appear in print.  14
 
 
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