In chapter 46, which comes about half way through Lorna Doone, John Ridd shows the social superiority and delicacy of his beloved by comparing her way of eating to that of his two sisters:
Now, though our Annie was a graceful maid, and Lizzie a very learned one, you should have seen how differently Lorna managed her dining; she never took more than about a quarter of a mouthful at a time, and she never appeared to be chewing that, although she must have done so. Indeed, she appeared to dine as if it were a matter of no consequence, and as if she could think of other things more than of her business. [389-90]
This brief passage has several obvious purposes, the first of which is to demonstrate Lorna's delicacy and the superiority of her behavior to that found in Ridd's own social circle, that of the prosperous, if hardly genteel, yeomanry to which he and his sisters belong. It also reinforces our view of Ridd, the narrator, as particularly naive and ignorant of the ways of the upper classes — something perhaps a little hard to believe of a young man who has already been summoned to appear before the King. (Surely he has seen people with good manners eat before.) Blackmore includes Ridd's naive observations, here, then, to praise Lorna, demonstrate the gap between the social classes of the lovers, and once again characterize his narrator as a salt-of-the earth commoner.
This class difference found in Blackmore's novel relates to other nineteenth-century novels of love and courtship: The situation in Lorna Doone contrasts sharply with Austen's Pride and Prejudice, in which Darcy has a higher social position than Elizabeth Bennett, and Brontë's Jane Eyre, in which the heroine who gives her name to the novel supposedly comes from a lower class than Rochester. (Using a plot device familiar in fairy tales and melodrama, the heroine turns out to come from a higher class after all.) In novels written by both men and women, such as Dickens's Great Expectations, the man comes from a lower class, as is also the case in Gaskell's North and South.
Given that most people in Victorian England, a country marked by sharp divisions of social class, married people from their own set, one wonders why inter-class romance plays such an important role in the nineteenth-century novel and what socio-political lessons these novels imply. Pride and Prejudice has the middle-class woman teaching a lesson or two to the wealthier man and, by her marriage to him, infusing the upper classes with new intelligence and wit. North and South, clearly a descendant of Austen's novel, follows a similar path, though in Gaskell's novel the self-made (and then bankrupted) man and the poor girl from the gentry who then inherits a fortune really educate each other even more than in Austen. Knowing the history of Dickens's insecurities, one can see Great Expectations in part as a novel of wish fulfillment in which the poorer man longs for — and may even eventually marry — the wealthier girl (who turns out, of course, to be the daughter of two criminals, one a murderess, raised by a lunatic). Wish-fulfillment — at least Blackmore's — doesn't seem to apply to Lorna Doone, since he was the son of a reasonably prosperous clergyman who attended Oxford.
Why then does the novelist go to such lengths to emphasize the difference in social class between Lorna and John? Is he writing a tale of class mobility, or one about reconciliation of classes at a time when sharp class divisions became especially obvious during debates over the second (or 1867) reform bill? Or does he just wish to urge that the rural population is the moral and political center of an England that is rapidly undergoing industrialization and urbanization?
Blackmore, R. D. Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor. New York: Clarke, Given and Hooper, 1890. [e-text of this edition at Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.
Last modified 8 June 2007