Although Richard Doddridge Blackmore was not born in Devon, he claimed: "In everything, except the accident of my birth I am a Devonian; my ancestry were all Devonians; my sympathies and feelings are all Devonian." His family seems to have stemmed from the parish of Parracombe. From the 17th century or before they owned the farms of East Bodley and Barton and leased land in the neighbouring parish of Martinhoe at Killington and Bumsley. In each generation there had been Richard or John Blackmores or both. John Blackmore, the novelist’s grandfather, was born at Parracombe in 1764. He passed the family estate there to the novelist’s father, also John Blackmore, who later sold East Bodley, West Hill and Bumsley to support his son Frederick, the novelist’s half brother. This caused a rift with Henry, the novelist’s full brother, who from then onwards adopted the surname Turberville. Their relatives, the Doddridges, came from the Devon line of Sir John Doddridge, the famous bachelor judge who lies buried under his effigy in Exeter cathedral.
John senior went to TivertonSchool and ExeterCollege, Oxford, to which John junior followed. John senior became curate of High Bray, where he married Mary Hunt and produced sons John (b1794) and Richard (b1798). About 1780 he bought the advowson of the neighbouring parish of Charles hoping to become rector there, but the vacancy did not arise until 1840. Meanwhile, in 1809 he became rector of Oare, then also Combe Martin in 1833. He held both of these positions until his death in 1842.
Richard Doddridge Blackmore was born in 1825 in the village of Longworth in Oxfordshire, where his father was Curate. His mother, Anne (née Knight), died of typhus a few months after his birth. Along with his older brother Henry (who became an eccentric in later life), he was sent off to care of Anne's sister Mary at Nottage Court, near Porthcawl. After her marriage to the Rev. Richard Gordon, they moved with her to Elsfield Rectory, near Oxford. During this time John Blackmore Jnr. worked as Curate in Bushey, Herts. He then re-married and moved to his native Devon, at King's Nympton from 1832-35. Richard and Henry returned full-time to life with two parents in this very rural village. Richard started formal schooling during this period. He first went to Hugh Squier's School in South Molton for about a year before being transferred about 1833 to Kings School, Bruton, in Somerset. In 1837 he transferred to Blundell's school in Tiverton. By now his parents had moved to Culmstock village, where they settled for a further six years, and there was completed the second family of two half sisters and one half brother for Richard. Many years later, in 1894, Culmstock became the Perlycross in his novel of that name. Perlycross includes detailed descriptions of local places and living conditions at that time. Blackmore used real places, but changed their names: Perlycross is Culmstock; Perlycombe is Hemyock; River Perle is the Culm; Perliton is Uffculme; Pumpington is Wellington.
After that, John Blackmore Jnr. moved yet again, to become Curate at Ashford, near Barnstaple. John Snr. served as Curate at Charles there for many years, lived at the 'Old Rectory' and farmed the Parsonage Farm, adjoining. By the time the living fell vacant he was Rector of Combe Martin and Oare and, unable to undertake further responsibility, he appointed his second son Richard to the living. His elder son, John, was for some unknown reason passed over, and remained Curate of Ashford. John Jnr performed the ceremony at his brother's wedding at Combe Martin church in 1840.
RD Blackmore loved to stay at his uncle's and grandfather's at Charles during his school holidays. According to a local gazetteer, his uncle had "a large and commodious Rectory House, recently rebuilt, and commanding extensive views." At the east end of Charles church is a memorial window erected in 1925 to celebrate the centenary of RD Blackmore's birth. At Charles Bottom, by the bridge, there is a large fallen menhir stone, thought to date from the Bronze Age. On it R.D. Blackmore often sat and there composed some of his early poetry and prose. When he was seventy years old, he wrote the following lines:
"Sometimes of a night, when the spirit of a dream slips away for a waltz with the shadow of a pen over dreary moors and dark waters, I behold an old man with a keen profile under a parson's shovel hat, riding a chestnut horse up the slopes of Exmoor, followed by his little grandson upon a shaggy and stoggy pony. In the hazy fields of lower hills some four or five miles behind them may be seen the ancient Parsonage, where the lawn is a russet sponge of moss and a stream trickles under the dining-room floor, and the pious rook, poised on the pulpit of his nest, reads a hoarse sermon to the chimney pots below."
RD Blackmore was a brilliant scholar and before he left Blundell's in late 1843, aged 18, he had been head boy for over two years. The syllabus was predominantly a classical one, and Blackmore won a scholarship to study classics at Oxford, where he took his degree in 1847. It was while on vacation from his studies in the mid-1840s that he first tried his hand at writing fiction; that effort eventually became the novel The Maid of Sker, which was published in 1872 and contained descriptions areas around Exmoor, Ashford and Porthcawl, all of which he knew well.
After leaving Oxford and spending some time as a private tutor, Blackmore decided on a career in law. He entered the Middle Temple in 1849 and was called to the Bar in 1852. Blackmore was married on 1853 to Lucy Maguire. She was 26, and somewhat delicate; for which reason it is assumed that they never had any children, but the marriage was a happy one Ill-health, however, prevented him from continuing legal work and in 1854, he took the post of classics master at Wellesley House Grammar School, Twickenham. Then Blackmore’s uncle, the Rev. H.H. Knight, Rector of Neath, died and left his nephew a sum of money that enabled him to realise a long-held ambition of possessing a house in the country encompassed by a large garden. The land selected was a 16-acre plot at Teddington. Here he built his new house – completed in 1860 – in which he lived for the rest of his life. In the extensive grounds he created an 11-acre market garden specialising in the cultivation of fruit. His knowledge of horticulture was extensive, but because he lacked the necessary business sense, the garden rarely made a profit and he supplemented his income through writing. A Teddington merchant, is recorded as stating to a visitor: "He is not a social man, and seems wedded to his garden in summer and his book writing in winter. That is all I know about him; except that he keeps the most vicious dogs to protect his fruit, and I would advise you to avoid the risk [of visiting him]."
His first published work was Poems by Melanter (1853), followed by Epullia (1855),The Bugle of the Black Sea (1855), etc.; but he soon found that fiction, not poetry, was his true vocation. Beginning with Clara Vaughan (which contains an episode at Heddon's Mouth) in 1864, then Craddock Nowell (set in the New Forest) in 1866, he produced fifteen novels. Of these much the best known, though not the author's favourite, is Lorna Doone (1869). In 1865 Blackmore and Lucy took a holiday in North Devon, and he used the time to do some careful research forLorna Doone. Of course, he was on his home and school territory, so he had a good start from his own memories, plus the input from family and friends. Several Exmoor inns claimed that the Blackmores stayed there while the research was undertaken: the Royal Oak at Withypool, Rising Sun at Lynmouth and Ship at Porlock, all claiming that at least some of the book was written there. Blackmore returned to Teddington, and probably from spring 1867 until spring 1868 he wrote his one really successful novel.
Many stories of the Doones predated Blackmore’s novel. In several documents it is mentioned that Hoccombe Combe was called ‘The Doone Valley’ by locals well before the novel and that after the novel the name became transferred to Lank Combe. Many of the stories of Doones can be traced back to Ursula Johnson, who was born a Babb in 1738, married Richard Johnson, and died in 1828. She was reputed to be a witch with remarkable powers of memory. Her family served the De Wichehalses of Lee Abbey, who feature in the novel along with a John Babb. Seven years after her death her stories were collected for the vicar of Lynton, the Rev Matthew Mundy. The stories were mainly remembered by Ursula Fry of Pinkworthy and Aggie Norman of Lynton. The former died at the age of 90 in 1856 and the latter at the age of 83 in 1860. Aggie Norman was also reputed to be a witch and, living seasonally in the Valley of Rocks, was undoubtedly the model for the witch Mother Meldrum in the novel. The stories, of the Doones, Tom Faggus the highwayman and the De Wichehalses, were all woven into Blackmore’s writing. The Blackmore family was related to the De Wichehalses by marriage.
Blackmore always refused to discuss the locations in the story and, after the book became famous, he grew impatient with people who tried to pin him down and unravel the fact from the fiction. To one correspondent he wrote in 1891: "I quite forget how the book began to grow, having taken no special heed" and to another, five years later, with more irritation: "Nothing will induce me to go into this genesis of Lorna Doone, of which I have heard enough". Similarly, in 1887, he had written to James Moorhead: "When I wrote Lorna Doone, the greatest effort of my imagination would have been to picture its success. If I had dreamed that it would have been more than a book of the moment, the description of scenery which I know as well as I know my garden would have been kept nearer to their fact. I romanced therein, not to mislead others, but solely for the uses of my story." He always considered his work as impressionistic, giving the atmosphere of the place without adhering to accurate geography. However, he did write the introductions to several illustrated editions of the story, including ones showing pictures of Lank Combe as the 'Doone Valley'.
The initial response to Lorna Doone was not encouraging: there was little interest in it and sales were poor. Blackmore himself, writing to his friend Mrs William Halliday of Glenthorne after the book had become a success, said, "It went the round of publishers who declined with unanimity. I brought home the manuscript more than once in sorrow and discomfiture. At last I was fain to accept an offer of nothing for it". Of the first 500 copies, in three-volume form, only 300 were sold. Sampson Low Jnr, against the judgement of the rest of his firm, resolved to risk publishing it as a single volume. From 1871, the fame of Lorna Doone snowballed and the book has never since been out of print, although Blackmore always insisted that he made very little money from it.
After the success of Lorna Doone, Blackmore tried more novels over the next years, but none came even close in popularity. He was always frustrated by this situation, as he put his very best endeavours into each successive book. He wrote several more in the same genre of rural romance, each with a female name as the title, and each set in a new region of the country. Thus he produced The Maid of Sker (1874, South Wales and North Devon), Alice Lorraine (1875, South Downs and Kent), Erema (1877, California, Sussex and Berkshire), Mary Anerley (1879, North and East Yorkshire coast), Kit and Kitty (1890, Middlesex and the Thames) and his final novel Dariel (1896, Surrey). Inserted in the sequence was Cripps the Carrier (1876, Oxfordshire). He then changed his emphasis, and wrote three novels with a village as a title and as the theme of the plots: Christowell (1882, Dartmoor), Springhaven (1887, Newhaven, Sussex), Perlycross (1894, Culm valley, East Devon). A book of short stories: Tales from a Telling House was published in 1896. These were tales from Exmoor and contained the story Slain by the Doones, under which title the book was published for the American market.
His wife’s health began to deteriorate and she died in 1888. After her death, Blackmore was looked after by her nieces, Eva and Adalgisa Pinto-Leite. Blackmore himself died at Teddington in 1900 after a long and painful illness, and was buried next to his wife. Four years after his death a memorial to him was erected in Exeter Cathedral. The result of work by a committee including his good friend, Thomas Hardy, plus Rudyard Kipling, and James Barrie, it bore an address written by another writer from Devon, Eden Phillpotts. A reduced copy of the memorial was also mounted in Oare Church; above it was a stained glass window depicting David, Jonathan, and Samson - the archetypes of courage, love, and strength, respectively. John Ridd and Lorna Doone are cast at the top of the window, not far from Carver Doone.
Blackmore was one of the most read novelists of his generation. He won literary merit and acclaim for his vivid descriptions of the countryside and sympathy with, nature. He shared with Thomas Hardy a strong sense of regional setting in his works and acted as pioneer of the new romantic movement in fiction that continued with Robert Louis Stevenson and others. Today even Lorna Doone is not well read, although it has been abridged as a children's story and has had many film and television adaptations. It is mainly considered as a 'good yarn' but not necessarily good literature as it is somewhat wordy for modern tastes. This is a great pity as his descriptions of nature were masterly and his use of local dialect and portrayal of ordinary people and their work were pioneering.
Blackmore, David. Lorna's Author: Annotated references to RD Blackmore and his works, Chester, Blackmore Books (2001) 31 pp.
Blackmore, David. Blackmores of Parracombe: The family of thirteen at Court Place, Chester, Blackmore Books (2001) 24 pp.
Blackmore, David. Lorna's Author: The life and character of R.D. Blackmore, Chester, Blackmore Books (2001) 32 p.
Blackmore, David. Lorna's Author: R.D. Blackmore the novelist, Chester, Blackmore Books (2001) 32 pp.
Blackmore, David. Lorna's Author: R.D. Blackmore the Victorian Christian, Chester, Blackmore Books (2001) 24 p.
Blackmore, David. Lorna's Author: Glimpses of R.D. Blackmore's personal life, Chester, Blackmore Books (2001) 19 p.
Blackmore, David. Lorna's Author: A sermon by the father of R.D. Blackmore, Chester, Blackmore Books (2001) 16 p.
Blackmore, David. Lorna's Author: Letters by R.D. Blackmore to his sister, Chester, Blackmore Books (2001) 108 pp. [ISBN 0-9540730-0-2]
Blackmore, David. Parracombe: Henry Blackmore's memoir: The Story of a Unit, Chester, Blackmore Books (2001) 52 p.
Blackmore, David. Lorna's Author: R.D. Blackmore the Devonian, The Author (2004)
Budd, Kenneth George, The Last Victorian: R.D. Blackmore and His Novels (1960)
Dunn, WH, RD Blackmore, a Biography (1955)
Sutton, Max Keith, R.D. Blackmore (1979).
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