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Why Lorna Doone? Especially when picking from the decade that hosted our Civil War, in which the published accomplishments of Great Expectations, Silas Marner, Little Women, and The Luck of the Roaring Camp all hail from. One reason is that it is decidedly pastoral in thrust, leaving The City to claim the crown of advancing human civilization—you know, all that stuff we were force-fed in high school History class—and conquer the rest of the world with its intellectual, political, and especially religious nonsense.
This is basically a memoir written mid 19th century but set in the mid 17th century. A very decided singular point of view, it is the adventures of a sturdy young farmer named John Ridd. Along with his mother and two younger sisters—Annie and Lizzie—they manage their rural holdings called Plover's Barrows at the edge of the moors in southwest England. When John was twelve, his father was murdered by the Doone clan who had settled in a fortress-like valley just walking distance from their farm. The Doones—a titled family that had lost their holdings and turned outlaw—bully, coerce, and slaughter the surrounding countryside for their sustenance. The farmers put up with this because they have to, as the governing bodies yield to the Doone's high-birth lineage either in lieu of the political climate or just plainly lacking interest of affairs out in the Boonies. John grows up and out of his blinding revenge over the killing, and into a giant of strength, duty, fairness, and—most of all—the ability to love without guile or selfishness. It is through his heart we experience the foremost joy of this novel in his compassion and understanding of the natural world and all of its inhabitants. Indeed, his wondrous observances of the landscape, weather, plants, trees, and animals, plus the bonding between livestock and humans alike throughout the novel, create an inescapable world-view of life as it should be if embraced by both the hardships and bounty of Nature.
On a scouting adventure at the outskirts of Doone valley, John spies a teenaged Lorna Doone. “Smitten” does nothing to adequately describe John's nascent and all future feelings toward this maiden. It becomes, of course, the lockstep of the plot, and, by that position, overwhelms all other themes as the paramount consummation in all human strivances.
It turns out that Lorna—being too young to remember—is not actually a Doone, but was kidnapped while the rest of her immediate family met their ends at the hands of their rival enemy, and now—against her consent—is being preened to marry the biggest bully of the gang, Carver Doone. Of course, rescuer John Ridd white-knights her to safety in Plover's Barrow. During this time of retaliatory attacks and an unprecedented, bitter winter, Lorna's true inheritance is discovered, and—by law—is removed from John's devoted protection and taken to London as the Chancery's ward under her great-uncle Earl Brandir's jurisdiction until she is old enough to manage her extensive landholdings and wealth. Now, as Lady Lorna Dugal, she is royalty and far beyond John Ridd's meager influence.
This leads to a final act full of permutation. Annie—John's oldest sister—has married a King-pardoned highwayman who has joined forces with the Duke of Monmouth against the new King and is saved by John at the deciding battle of Sedgemoor. Taken to London, John sees Lady Lorna in all her finery, and, although it has been a year, her feelings for John have not been swayed by pageantry and power. John returns to the farm knighted and with a Coat of Arms, and just in time to lead the crushing attack that turns the Doones into the Doomed—with the exception, naturally, of Carver Doone. But, even better yet, Lorna shows shortly after bribing Hangin' Judge Jeffreys, and is now free to marry John Ridd. If you think this will end like the other great English Romance novel settled on the primeval moors from 20-some years previously—Bronte's Wuthering Heights—well, you'll hafta read it to see.
This “Romance” was written before the automobile, before electricity, and before indoor plumbing. What is familiar about it is that the impending presence of crime and the situational ethics of opportunity feel surprisingly contemporary. But, rather than despair, it emphasizes virtue, and believes in human dignity with the respect afforded to one's choices. The Doones are gangsters—bullies and thieves—and not much different from ghetto gangs crowding our urban centers. Gentrifying their roots only underscores the ease in corrupting any political power structure. And clearly, this selfsame, born-into entitlement of breeding is John and Lorna's biggest obstruction. The Victorian century's acceptance of individual rights—meager as they were during Britain's Industrial Revolution—prejudice this feudal-era issue beyond authenticity. That said, the lifestyle conflicts of Lorna Doone do not orbit around money or commerce, really. It is love, respect, duty, and honor that ultimately motivate these heroes of Exmoor.
And that, these days, is quite refreshing.