Saturday, 29 September 2012

On Reading: R.D. Blackmore

One of my childhood delights was to tuck up with a book and a box of mint crisps on a cold afternoon. Growing up in Bristol, summer holidays were often spent on the Devon coast, travelling via Somerset and Exmoor. So one of the books I particularly enjoyed was the swash-buckling tale of Lorna Doone, which my mother had in a nicely bound leather edition. Its world of familiar place-names coupled with the sense of historical adventure and romance was a good escape from everyday life. Blackmore's descriptive powers, although definitely somewhat flowery to modern ears, are at their best in describing the natural world and conjured up wonderful pictures in my head of places I had also visited and enjoyed.

At one point I discovered that he was not a 'one-book wonder' and I began to collect his other stories, picking them up in second-hand bookshops as I found them. I managed to acquire quite a shelf-full, mostly in red or green hardback editions published by Sampson Low, like the one pictured here. They included Perlycross, Alice Lorraine, Christowell, Tales from a Telling-House, Erema, Springhaven, Clara Vaughan, Craddock Nowell, Dariel, Kit and Kitty, Mary Anerley, Sir Thomas Upmore, and Blackmore's personal favourite, The Maid of Sker. When I moved to Oxford, I was particularly pleased to find Cripps the Carrier, as it is set in the then rural area of Headington, on the road to London.

Then, in one of my mad moments of clearing out stuff - and for followers of my knitting blog I can tell you that this included at one point getting rid of all my knitting needles! - I decided to sell my Blackmore collection. I think I had the idea of clearing some much needed space on my bookshelves... And to be honest, I can't say that I've thought about them all that much again until this week. A while ago, and caught up in my busy south-east England life, I tried to re-read Lorna Doone in my Kindle edition but I couldn't focus and found its circumlocutory style too hard to get into. But up here on Shetland for the past week, and slowing down to a holiday pace, I picked it up again and have thoroughly enjoyed it - it's a rip-roaring yarn and thoroughly enjoyable escapism. As a result, all those other Blackmore books came flooding back to me and I did wonder why I thought it was a good idea to discard them.

In my defence, the truth is that perhaps the world was right about Lorna Doone being his best work - would not the others have stood the test of time and remained in print if this were not so? Well, the good news is that, thanks to Kindle and other initiatives to put out of copyright books on-line, there is the chance to decide for yourself, with several of the books listed above being available free or at virtually no cost via Amazon or other sites. Including Cripps the Carrier...

There is a paradox here, perhaps: technology as both the enabler and the inhibitor of earlier and slower-paced forms of reading. I've had to make a conscious effort over the last year to give myself time to enjoy the nineteenth century novel again - there are so many riches to be found there but the complexity of language and the slower pace of the writing and unfolding of plot and character can be a challenge. There are regularly expressed concerns about children not reading, not being able to concentrate, not being connected to the natural world. And these concerns are not just expressed by the technophobic: I love all the benefits that new technology brings but have also noticed how it can drive me at times, making the pace of our busy lives even more stressful and fragmented. And yet the digitisation of our cultural heritage is also preserving these treasures for future generations. It is to be hoped that they will cherish them, curling up with their e-books on cold afternoons and getting out into the countryside to appreciate the descriptive powers of an R. D. Blackmore.

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