Portrait of Richard Blackmore
Public DomainPortrait of Richard Blackmore

Richard Doddridge Blackmore, known as R.D. Blackmore, was born on 7 June 1825 in Longworth, Berkshire.  His father, John, was Curate in Charge of the local parish. His mother, Anne, died of typhus when he was three months old.  Richard was entrusted to the care of his aunt, Mary Frances Knight, who subsequently moved with him to Elsfield Rectory near Oxford.  Richard often travelled south to visit his father and paternal grandfather in Devon.  In 1831, when he was six years old, his father re-married and Richard returned to Devon to live with him. He spent much of his subsequent childhood on Exmoor and along the Badgworthy Water – where the novel Lorna Doone is set. 

Blundell's School
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeBlundell's School - Credit: Sarah Charlesworth

In 1837, Richard entered Blundell’s School in Tiverton.  He excelled in classical studies, and won a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford University, where he earned a Classics degree in 1847. During a university vacation he made his first attempt at writing a novel – this was to become The Maid of Sker, but it was not completed until many years later.

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. Epilepsy, however, prevented him from continuing with law as a full-time occupation.  In 1854, he took the post of classics master at Wellesley House Grammar School in Twickenham.  

At the age of 28, Blackmore married Lucy Maguire, apparently without his father’s knowledge (his father would have disapproved of Lucy's Catholicism).  Lucy was 26.  The couple never had children of their own, but they were close to Lucy’s sister Agnes’ four children and often had them to stay. They adopted one of Agnes’ children, Eva, when she was 7.

In September 1857, Blackmore’s uncle died and left him a substantial sum of money. With it, he bought a 16-acre plot at Teddington, which he had admired for some time. He was to live in the house he built there for the rest of his life. He called it ‘Gomer House’ after one of his favourite dogs, a Gordon Spaniel. In the grounds he created an 11-acre market garden specialising in the cultivation of fruit. Despite his extensive knowledge of horticulture, his lack of business skills prevented the garden from becoming a profitable business.

While neighbours in Teddington described him as unsociable, "wedded to his garden in summer and his book writing in winter,” other accounts indicate that Blackmore had many close friends with whom he met regularly, including fellow novelist Thomas Hardy.

Blackmore wrote essays, articles and stories on the subject of fruit growing. His works include The farm and fruit of old: a translation in verse of the first and second georgics of Virgil, by a market gardener (1862).  He published many of his first works of verse under the pseudonym Melanter (Greek for ‘more black’) including Poems by Melanter (1853), Epullia (1855), and The Bugle of the Black Sea (1855) about the Crimean War. His first novel, which was largely autobiographical, was Clara Vaughan (1864). This was followed by Cradock Nowell (1866).  Lorna Doone was published in 1869.

Princess Louise and John, Marquess of Lorne
Public DomainPrincess Louise and John, Marquess of Lorne - Credit: Royal Photographers W & D Downey

The first edition of what was to become his most famous novel was published as a three volume edition, but it sold poorly.  500 copies were printed; only 300 were sold. The remaining 200 were sent to Australia.

The publication of the second edition, as a single volume, coincided with the announcement of the engagement of the Marquess of Lorne to Queen Victoria's daughter Louise.  When rumours spread that the book was about the Marquess' family, its popularity soared.  Blackmore wrote subsequently, "It is the merest fluke that Lorna Doone was ever heard of any more."

Blackmore published a number of books in the 1870s including The Maid of Sker (1872), Alice Lorraine (1875), Cripps the Carrier (1876), and Erema. His novels are characterised by detailed observation of, and reverence for, Nature. 

Lucy, who had never enjoyed good health, became very ill in January 1888, and died within weeks.  After her death, Blackmore was looked after by his adopted daughter Eva and one of her sisters.  

He published a number of works after Lucy's death, including Kit and Kitty: a Story of West Middlesex (1890), Mary Anerley (1880), Christowell (1882), and a naval tale based on the Napoleonic wars, Springhaven (1887).  Blackmore died at Teddington on 20 January 1900, after a long illness. In April 1904, a memorial was established in Exeter Cathedral.

While Blackmore was very popular in his time, his works have since been largely ignored and are mostly out of print.  Lorna Doone is the exception: the story has enjoyed enduring popularity, and has inspired more than ten movies and television programmes over the years.