Blackmore, Richard Doddridge (DNB01)
BLACKMORE, RICHARD DODDRIDGE (1825–1900), novelist and barrister, was born on 7 June 1825, at Longworth, Berkshire, of which parish his father, John Blackmore (d. 1858), was vicar. His father, at one time fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, was a scholar of high classical attainments and exceptional force of character. The novelist's mother, a woman of charm and refinement, was Anne Basset, eldest daughter of the Rev. Robert Knight, vicar of Tewkesbury, a descendant of Sir John Knight 'the elder' (1612-1683) [q. v.], twice mayor of Bristol. His mother's mother, Mercy, was a granddaughter of Philip Doddridge, the non-conformist minister [q. v.], and from this connection the novelist derived his second name. The Knights, his mother's family, had long owned Nottage Court, Newton Nottage, Glamorganshire, which contained many ancient treasures and relics of Dr. Doddridge. There the novelist spent much of his youth, when it was occupied by his uncle, the Rev. H. Hey Knight.
Blackmore had, as he once put it, 'a crooked start in life.' His father took pupils at Longworth to train for Oxford, and three months after Blackmore was born an epidemic of typhus fever in the village attacked the household. His father recovered ; but his mother, her sister, two of his father's six pupils, the family doctor, and all the servants died. The place became unbearable to the elder Blackmore, and he quitted it for a living at Culmstock, near Barnstaple. He finally settled in that of Ashford in the same county. Meanwhile Blackmore came to live with his maternal grandmother, Mrs, Knight, at Newton House, Newton, and after some years his father married again. Richard remained at Newton until a boy of eleven, and then returned to his father, who presently sent him to Blundell's School, Tiverton, where he fared somewhat roughly under the fagging system. He was a proud shy boy, quick-witted, humorous, with a touch of mischief. Among his fellow-pupils was Frederick Temple, now archbishop of Canterbury, who had formerly been a private pupil of his father at Longworth, Blackmore acquitted himself well at Blundell's, He was head-boy for some time, and won a scholarship which took him to Oxford, and, what he esteemed a piece of good luck, to his father's college, Exeter, where he matriculated on 7 Dec, 1843. At Oxford, where some of the happiest years of his life were spent, he was regarded as a sound classical scholar, with distinct ability in Latin verse, and to a small circle of intimates he was known as an enthusiastic angler, a lover of animals, and a keen student of nature. He was also famous for his skill at chess, and there is a tradition that addiction to the game prevented him from taking academic honours.
During a long vacation, while staying at Nottage Court with his uncle, he made his first attempt at fiction with 'The Maid of Sker,' the scene of which is laid in that locality. The novel, however, did not satisfy him, and was thrown aside in a half-finished condition, and only completed in later years. In these days he was very fond of shooting, and many of the rare birds mentioned in Mr. Knight's monograph on Newton Nottage fell to his gun. He graduated B.A. with a second class in classics in 1847 (M.A, 1852), and, after quitting the university, spent some time as a private tutor in the family of Sir Samuel Scott of Sundridge Park, Bromley, Kent. While with a reading party in Jersey Blackmore fell in love with the daughter of the person at whose house he was staying at St. Heliers, Miss Lucy Pinto Leite, a lady of Portuguese extraction, and he married her in 1852, He was afraid to tell his father, as the latter was an uncompromising Anglican, while his young wife was a Roman catholic. For some years Mr. and Mrs. Blackmore lived in lodgings in the north of London in narrow circumstances. At this time he was engaged in educational work, and was also studying at the Middle Temple. Mrs. Blackmore, soon after her marriage, joined the church of England. Always somewhat of an invalid, she died when her husband was at the height of his fame, and he never ceased to mourn her Iciss, There were no children of the marriage, and to the end of his life Blackmore's home was kept as far as possible exactly as his wife had left it.
He was called to the bar on 7 June 1852, and for a short time practised as a conveyancer, a phase of his life which doubtless suggested some well-known passages in 'Christowell.' He had a good chance of succeeding at the bar in the special direction which he had chosen, but he suddenly relinquished his profession for reasons which he never explained, and which scarcely any even of his intimate friends ever suspected. The truth, however, is that a painful form of physical infirmity, to which he was subject all the rest of his life, and which was aggravated by the least excitement, seemed to render this course imperative. It was not less imperative that he should immediately find other employment, and so for a time he turned his scholarly acquirements to advantage and fell back on his old work as a teacher. lie became in 1853 classical master at Wellesley House School, Twickenham Common. His dreams of distinction gathered in those days around poetry rather than prose, and his first book, a thin and scarce volume, appeared in the same year, entitled 'Poems by Melanter,' the most ambitious of which was a drama, 'Eric and Karine,' founded on the fortunes of Eric XIV of Sweden. It was quickly followed—at an interval of a few months—by 'Epullia,' which was also published anonymously. This book contains a felicitous translation from Musæus of the story of Hero and Leander, and an ambitious patriotic ballad on the battle of the Alma. But of more account is the beautiful invocation 'To my Pen'— perhaps the most finished and certainly the most fanciful of Blackm'ore's verse. 'The Bugle of the Black Sea,' a patriotic poem suggested by the war then in progress in the Crimea, appeared in 1855. He also translated some of the idylls of Theocritus, and his renderings were printed in 'Fraser's Magazine.' This was followed in 1860 by 'The Fate of Franklin,' on the title-page of which his name for the first time appeared as of 'Exeter College, Oxon. M.A., and of the Middle Temple.' He wrote the poem in aid of the fund for the erection of a statue of the explorer in his native town of Spilsby.
Shortly before this Blackmore's uncle, the Rev. H. H. Knight, died, and bequeathed to him a sum of money which enabled him to realise one of the dreams of his life— a house in the country encompassed by a large garden. His father, who in his closing years (he died suddenly in the autumn of 1858) was extremely kind to the young couple, took great interest in this scheme, and helped him to carry it into effect. Blackmore, in his walks about Twickenham when a master at Wellesley House, had seen a plot of land at Teddington Avhich he coveted, and he now bought it and built himself, well back from the road—there was no railway in those days—a plain substantial dwelling which he called Gomer House, a name suggested by that of a favourite dog ; and there he remained for the rest of his life, cultivating his vines, peaches, nectarines, pears, and strawberries, in enviable detachment from the world. His knowledge of horticulture was both wide and exact, and he devoted himself, with an enthusiasm and patience which nothing chilled or tired, to the lowly tasks of a market gardener. Unfortunately for himself he had received no business training, and was in consequence somewhat at the mercy of the men he employed, more than one of whom robbed him to a considerable extent. He was an expert in the culture of grapes and exotic plants, and for long years his fruit and flowers, and notably his pears, of which he was especially fond, found their way regularly to Covent Garden market, where, at one time — disgusted by the extortions of the middle men — he set up a stall. Late in life he declared that his garden of eleven acres, far from being remunerative, represented on an average 250l. a year out of pocket. He loved quality in fruit, and would send far and wide, regardless of expense, for choice specimen trees and plants, whereas the English public, he was never tired of asserting, had set its heart on quantity.
After Blackmore's settlement at Teddington, the earliest product from his pen was 'The Farm and Fruit of Old,' a sonorous and happy translation of the first and second Georgics of Virgil, which appeared in 1862. Scholars recognised its merit, but their approval did not sell the book. Disheartened by the languid reception of his work in verse, alike original and in translation, Blackmore sought another medium of expression, and found it in creative romance. His first novel, 'Clara Vaughan,' appeared in 1864, when he had entered his fortieth year, and it marked the beginning of his renown. In spite of the dramatic situations of the book and the remarkable powers of observation which it revealed, 'Clara Vaughan' was regarded as a curiously unequal sensational story, dealing with the unravelling of crime, and yet lit up by exquisite transcripts from nature. It appeared without its author's name, and rumour attributed it at the time to a lady novelist who was then rapidly approaching the height of her popularity. 'Cradock Nowell' — a name suggested by a veritable man so called, who once owned Nottage Court, and whose name is still conspicuous on a tablet in Newton church, which Blackmore said he used to gaze at as a child during the sermon — was published in 1866. 'Cradock Nowell' was described by its author as a tale of the New Forest. It was the only book in which he laid himself open to a charge of a parade of classical scholarship. It gave him a vogue with people who, as a rule, care little for fiction, but its allusions proved caviare to the general, and taxed the patience of the circulating libraries. 'Cradock Nowell,' notvrithstanding this, is one of the best of Blackmore's heroes, and in Amy Rosedew he gave the world one of the most bewitching of heroines. It was in 1869, with his third attempt in fiction, that Blackmore rose suddenly to the front rank of English novelists with the publication of 'Lorna Doone.' Some of the critical journals, he used to say, damned the book at the outset with faint praise ; but it eventually took the great reading world by storm, for Lorna herself was resistless in her beauty and grace, and John Ridd was made to tell his own story with manly simplicity and dramatic force. The novel of manners was in ascendency when 'Lorna Doone' appeared, and Black- more was the pioneer of the new romantic movement, which, allying itself more or less closely with historical research, has since won a veritable triumph. Blackmore did for Devonshire what Scott did for the highlands, by conjuring up the romantic traditions and investing the story of old feuds and forays with his own imagination and fancy. He used to say that 'Lorna Doone' drove him out of his favourite county, for he found himself the object there of embarrassing attentions from admirers of his book. No less than twelve novels followed 'Lorna Doone.' 'The Maid of Sker' was published in 1872, and it was followed in 1875 by 'Alice Lorraine,' which had long been in process, and at an interval of a year by 'Cripps the Carrier.' Blackmore has drawn few more realistic portraits than that of Davy Llewellyn in 'The Maid of Sker,' while the child Bardie, it is interesting to learn, was suggested to the novelist by a niece.
'Alice Lorraine' takes the reader at once to the South Downs, and some of the characters in its pages, especially the Rev. Struan Hales, a squarson of the old sporting school, are inimitable. In 'Cripps' Blackmore not only girds mischievously at his old profession, but puts into the lips of the carrier his own homely philosophy of life. The scene of half of the story is Oxford. His other novels were : 'Erema, or My Father's Sin,' 1877 ; 'Mary Anerley,' 1880; 'Christowell,' 1882; 'The Remarkable History of Tommy Upmore,'1884; ' Springhaven,' 1887; 'Kit and Kitty,' 1889 ; 'Perlycross,' 1894 ; 'Tales from the Telling House,' 1896 ; and 'Dariel,' 1897. They all bear the unmistakable marks of his own attractive and unconventional personality, though in point of merit and power of appeal they are curiously unequal. 'Christowell' perhaps gives the best picture of himself, though in every book he has written his own individuality leaps to light. The clergyman in 'Perly-cross' he admitted was a portrait of his own father. 'Kit and Kitty' enabled him to use with enviable skill his knowledge of market gardening, while 'Springhaven,' which is undoubtedly one of the most am- bitious of his books, allowed free play for his hero-worship of Nelson. The opening pages of 'Tales from the Telling House' contain some reminiscences of his childhood. His novels bear witness to his sincerity and strength, his generous interpretation of his fellow-men, his chivalrous devotion to girls and women, his keen appreciation of the beauty of nature, his lofty outlook on life, and the shrewd humour, luminous imagination, and delicate sympathy which he brought to the interpretation of the common round. Blackmore did not share the prevailing view that his rank as a novelist would be inevitably determined by 'Lorna Doone,' and by that romance alone. When asked by the present writer which of his novels he himself regarded as the best — both as an expression of his own personality and in point of workmanship — his reply was instant and emphatic, 'The Maid of Sker,' and next to it in point of merit he placed 'Springhaven' — an historical romance — relegating 'Lorna Doone' to the third place.
At the age of sixty Blackmore returned to his first love by the publication of a volume of verse, 'Fringilla,' which was published in 1885. In a characteristic preface he called himself a 'twittering finch' that long ago had been 'scared by random shots' and knew too well that it could not 'sing like a nightingale.' 'Fringilla,' in spite of a certain dainty freshness of phrase, cunningly linked to an antique flavour of culture, justified the adverse critics. One of the avowed but unfulfilled ambitions of his life was to write a play.
Blackmore died at Teddington, after a long and painful illness, on 20 Jan. 1900, the same day as Ruskin. He kept a journal, but in deference to his instructions it will remain unpublished.
Personally Blackmore was proud, shy, reticent, and by no means easy of access Like John Ridd, he liked to have everything 'good and quiet.' He was strong-willed, autocratic, sweet-tempered, self-centred. He loved girls in their teens when modest and gentle. His fondness for animals, especially dogs, never failed. He was an uncompromising conservative, in the social even more than in the political sense, and he cherished a scorn of all self-advertisement. His outlook on life was singularly independent; his judgments of men sometimes caustic, but more often tender; his speech kindly, picturesque, and above all shrewd and humorous. He had scarcely any intimates; one of the most trusted of his associates was Professor (Sir) Richard Owen, with whom he had much in common beyond the game of chess. All his novels, except 'Clara Vaughan' and part of 'The Maid of Sker,' were written in his plain brick house at Teddington. His day was divided between his garden and his manuscript. The morning was held sacred to the vines and pears, the afternoon and early evening to the task of composition.
He detested London, and in later life seldom went beyond his own grounds, except once a week to church. His favourite poets were Homer, Virgil, Milton, and among modern men Matthew Arnold. His skill with the lathe was quite out of the common, and he carved some ivory chessmen delicately and curiously. He was a keen judge of fruit, and often gave his friends delightful and quite unpremeditated lessons in its culture. Blackmore was a tall, square-shouldered, powerfully built, dignified-looking man, and was the picture of health with fair complexion and high colour.
[Personal knowledge and private information.]