R.D. Blackmore

Genres - Drama, Romance

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In cinematic terms, R.D. Blackmore is remembered for just one book out of the 17 novels and volumes of poetry that he published between the 1850s and 1880s: Lorna Doone, which has been filmed at least seven times. Born in 1825 in Longworth, Berkshire, Richard Doddridge Blackmore was the son of John Blackmore, the curate-in-charge of the parish. His mother died of typhus before he was a year old, and the elder Blackmore returned to the west country, where he had been born. Except for a brief time living with an aunt and uncle in Oxford, Richard spent virtually his entire childhood in Devon, whose people and locales would figure prominently in his fiction. He proved an excellent classics scholar and attended Oxford. 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.

Blackmore worked as a teacher, tutoring students in private, and trained and worked as an attorney for a short time before ill-health forced him back into teaching. In 1853 -- the same year he was married -- he published two poetry collections anonymously. His first published novel, Clara Vaughan, appeared in 1864, and, five years later, he published his most successful novel, Lorna Doone. Subtitled "A Romance of Exmoor," the book was an adventure set in the 17th century involving a man seeking revenge against the lawless clan that killed his family, and the woman he loves, who was raised by the miscreant family. The 600-page book was originally received with only modest interest when it was published as a three-volume set -- a common format in the 1860s -- but when it was reprinted in a single volume, the novel's popularity soared. Its free-flowing romanticism set a new standard for Victorian fiction and helped make Lorna Doone one of the most popular English novels of the second half of the 19th century, going through dozens of editions and finding readers across the English-speaking world. His success as a writer, coupled with an inheritance from his uncle, allowed Blackmore to acquire the land and resources necessary to build Gomer House, the large home and garden near Teddington where he indulged in his life's other great interest, horticulture, with a special emphasis on growing exotic fruits. He never wrote another book as successful as Lorna Doone (which was reprinted for decades), but his later work, including The Maid of Sker (1872), Alice Lorraine (1875), and Christowell (1882), all sold very well, and he was one of the most popular of the late-Victorian novelists. Blackmore's health began to fail after the death of his wife in 1888, and, the following year, he published his last novel, Kit and Kitty.

Blackmore died in 1900 after a long illness and many years living in the care of his wife's nieces. He was sufficiently well regarded to be the subject of three separate biographies in the 20th century. The first film adaptation of Lorna Doone was made in 1912 by director Wilfred Noy, and, in 1922, Madge Bellamy starred in a highly regarded, deeply atmospheric version directed by Maurice Tourneur. The best film version from the sound era is the 1935 British feature produced and directed by Basil Dean. By contrast, the 1951 American adaptation by director Phil Karlson for Columbia Pictures is widely regarded as a total failure, treating the story almost like a Western in tone and pacing. The book was still in print in those days, and so widely known that the Three Stooges could get away with a pun (used in "The Hot Scots" in 1948, which was remade as "Scotched in Scotland" in 1954) in which, introduced to the laird's niece, named Lorna Doone, Shemp Howard steps forward and says, "Hey Lorna -- how ya doone?" In 2000, the story was filmed yet again, this time as a miniseries for the A&E network.