R. D. Blackmore was one of the most famous English novelists of his generation.
|Born:||June 7, 1825
Longworth, Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), England
|Died:||January 20, 1900
Teddington, Middlesex, England
|Magnum opus:||Lorna Doone|
|Influences:||Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott|
|Influenced:||Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, F. Scott Fitzgerald|
Richard Doddridge Blackmore (June 7, 1825 - January 20, 1900), referred to most commonly as R. D. Blackmore, was one of the most famous English novelists of his generation. Over the course of his career, Blackmore achieved a close following around the world. He won literary merit and acclaim for his vivid descriptions and personification of the countryside, sharing with Thomas Hardy a Western England background and a strong sense of regional setting in his works. Noted for his eye for, and sympathy with, nature, critics of the time described this as one of the most striking features of his writings.
Blackmore, a popular novelist of the second half of the nineteenth century, acted as pioneer of the new romantic movement in fiction that continued with Robert Louis Stevenson and others. He may be said to have done for Devon what Sir Walter Scott did for the Highlands and Hardy for Wessex. Blackmore has been described as "proud, shy, reticent, strong-willed, sweet-tempered, and self-centered."
Though very popular in his time, Blackmore's work has been largely ignored since, and the whole of his body of work, save his magnum opus Lorna Doone, has gone out of publication. Thus, his reputation rests chiefly upon this romantic work, despite its not being his favorite.
Richard Doddridge Blackmore was born on June 7, 1825, at Longworth in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), one year after his elder brother Henry (1824–1875), where his father, John Blackmore, was Curate-in-charge of the parish. His mother died a few months after his birth, the victim of an outbreak of typhus which had occurred in the village. After this loss, John Blackmore moved to his native West Country, first to Culmstock, Devon, and later to Ashford, in the same county. Richard, however, was taken by his aunt, Mary Frances Knight, and after her marriage to the Rev. Richard Gordon, moved with her to Elsfield rectory, near Oxford. His father married again in 1831, whereupon Richard returned to live with him in Devon. Having spent much of his childhood in the lush and pastoral "Doone Country" of Exmoor, and along the Badgworthy Water (where there is now a memorial stone in Blackmore's honor), Blackmore came to love the very countryside he immortalized in Lorna Doone.
In 1837, Blackmore entered Blundell's School in Tiverton. He excelled in classical studies, and later won a scholarship to Oxford University, where he took his degree in 1847. During a university vacation, he made his first attempt at writing a novel. This was the beginning of The Maid of Sker—not, in fact, completed until many years later, and eventually published in 1872.
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. Ill-health, however, prevented him from continuing legal work as a full-time occupation and in 1854, he took the post of classics master at Wellesley House Grammar School, Hampton Road, Twickenham. In later years, this became the Metropolitan and City of London Police Orphanage and then Fortescue House School. Soon after accepting this position, he moved from London to No. 25 Lower Teddington Road, Hampton Wick, where he lived until he moved to his new home in Teddington.
Blackmore was married on November 8, 1853, at Trinity Church, Holborn, to Lucy Maguire. She was 26, a Roman Catholic, and somewhat delicate; for which reason it is assumed that they never had any children. They were both fond of her sister Agnes’ four children and often had them to stay. As well as helping with their education, the Blackmores seem to have adopted Eva when she was 7. Theirs was described by Blackmore's sister as a "happy marriage."
In September 1875, Blackmore’s uncle, the Rev. H.H. Knight, Rector of Neath, died and left his nephew a sum of money which enabled him to realize a long-held ambition of possessing a house in the country encompassed by a large garden. Blackmore’s father encouraged him in the scheme and helped him to carry it into effect.
The land selected was a 16-acre plot at Teddington which Blackmore had seen and admired for some time. Here he built his new house, completed in 1860, in which he lived for the rest of his life. He called it "Gomer House," after one of his favorite dogs, a Gordon Spaniel. In the extensive grounds he created an 11-acre market garden specializing in the cultivation of fruit. The grounds were surrounded by high walls which served to keep out thieves and to aid the ripening of tender fruit. His knowledge of horticulture was extensive, but because he lacked the necessary business sense, the garden was not a very lucrative enterprise.
At the time Blackmore came to Teddington, the railway had not yet disturbed its quiet rural atmosphere. Before long, however, plans were in hand for the purchase of land and the construction of lines. In 1868, Blackmore won a fight against the claims made on his property by the London and South West Railway Company, but he was unable to prevent the building of the railway station almost directly opposite his house.
Blackmore’s best known and most successful novel, Lorna Doone (1869), established him in the front rank of British novelists of that time. With it, he pioneered a new romantic movement in English fiction. The novel’s overwhelming popularity was secured when it appeared as a one-volume edition, as distinct from the three-volume form in which it was originally published. Some local residents in Teddington regarded Blackmore as somewhat unsociable, if not misanthropic. Charles Deayton, 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]."
This statement gives a rather distorted picture of Blackmore’s character. Although Blackmore was a man of a retiring disposition, preoccupied with the demands of writing and fruit growing, he did, in fact, have a number of very intimate friends whom he met regularly. His works had a wide following in the United States, and during his life he formed many friendships with Americans.
His wife’s health began to deteriorate and became critical by the beginning of January 1888, and she died at the end of that month. The funeral was held on February 3, 1888, in Teddington Parish Church, and she was buried in Teddington cemetery. After her death, Blackmore was looked after by her nieces, Eva and Adalgisa Pinto-Leite. Blackmore died at Teddington on January 20, 1900, after a long and painful illness, and was buried next to his wife, per his request. His final letter was to his sister Ellen, who likewise was suffering a terminal illness. Blackmore movingly ended his short Christmas letter of 1899 as follows:
I have fallen away during the last month, having taken obstinate chills, & caring neither to eat nor drink, nor speak. All my energy & spirit are abated, & often I know not where I am.—E. & D. join me in kindest love, & I am always.
PS Frost coming, I fear—don't like the look of it[.]
Upon his death at the age of 74, a well-attended funeral in Teddington Cemetery, conducted by his old friend, the Reverend Robert Borland, was held in his honor. Four years after his death, in April of 1904, a memorial to him was established in Exeter Cathedral. The result of work by a committee including his good friends, Thomas Hardy, 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's two nieces continued to live in Gomer House; Eva died in 1911, and was also buried in the Blackmore grave. Then in October of 1938, there was an auction of all its contents, which included Blackmore’s own library containing first editions of his works. The house itself was later demolished and Doone Close, Blackmore’s Grove, and Gomer Gardens were built, referencing the novelist’s associations with Teddington. The end of Doone Close marks the approximate site of Gomer House. Blackmore’s market garden covered the area between the present Station Road and Field Lane.
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