I still remember the incident quite well. I had been tucked up on the couch one afternoon, watching Lorna Doone on A&E. I had never read the book and knew nothing about the story, but was (and still am) all about the costume dramas. (Can I hear an Amen?) It came to a crucial scene right before a commercial break. As often happens at the most inopportune moments of my life, my dad happened to walk in and sit down to watch about forty seconds before that thing happened. For those of you who have seen Lorna Doone, you know what I’m talking about. The big twist shortly before the end. For those of you who haven’t seen it, hustle your period drama loving self to the nearest streaming platform and watch it, because it’s epic. But it happened, and I sat there with my jaw on the floor, and my father, in all his eloquence, said, “Well, that’s a heck of an ending.” He hadn’t seen more than ten minutes of it, but I still laugh about it to this day.
Fortunately, the story didn’t end on that scene. It continued onward. But every time I rewatch it, that enters my head and I smile, Because it’s true, Lorna Doone is a heck of a story. The 2000 film adaptation is different from the book, but still one of my favorite costume dramas. In its shocking opening, young John Ridd witnesses his father’s murder by the notorious outlaw family, the Doone clan. He doesn’t know who fired the bullet that takes his beloved father away, but he remembers Carver’s face. And he wants revenge. A few days later, his mother (one of the strongest women I’ve ever seen) finds him practicing shooting in the barn. Her words slap some good sense into him. Does she need to lose him too? Killing only brings on more killing, John Ridd. Rise above it. In a supreme act of courage, she marches into the Doone valley to confront Sir Ensor Doone with her husband’s murder and demand restitution. He pays her enough to make up for her financial loss, but she can never recover from the wrench in her heart. And to her loved ones.
Around that same time, John has an accident in a stream and winds up washed downstream. He almost drowns, but a pretty girl drags him up on the shore. They share a quiet, fun moment together, before she hears Carver’s voice in the distance and bids him make haste for home. Many years later, John comes upon her again. Her name is Lorna, and he becomes infatuated with her beauty. But she tells him that she is a Doone, destined to marry her cousin Carver, and become “queen of this little den of violence.” John tries to hate her, but cannot. His heart overrules his head. He’s drawn back to her again, and through his love for her, begins to unravel a sinister story of rivalry, abduction, and murder, that plays out against Carver’s obsession with the idea of ‘possessing’ Lorna. In his own words, “if I cannot have you, no one else will!”
If you want to discover the story without spoilers for yourself, stop here, because I’m about to reveal what I love most about this story and it does involve a few plot spoilers. The story is one of a sweet and innocent, good-hearted young woman caught between two very different men—one who loves her so much he would endanger his own life (and, somewhat foolishly, the lives of his mother and sisters) to rescue her from a life of forced marriage to her abusive cousin. The other one is Carver himself, a fearful, violent, unstable young man who sees her as a possession that he can do with as he pleases. When charm and persuasion do not warm her up to him, he tries force.
Carver’s obsessive preoccupation for her lasts through the loss of his own family, when he foolishly chooses to side with the Duke of Monmouth in the Rebellion of 1685, The king’s men invade his valley and kill everyone they find, but Carver flees from the scene. John thinks they have seen the last of him, until he turns up at their wedding and shoots Lorna. (Cue my father’s horrified reaction and me hanging on the edge of my seat.) Throughout the story, John has been a virtuous man. A chivalrous man. He started out as an angry boy who learned from his mother’s words to hold fast to courage and goodness. He became an honorable man who stubbornly loves Lorna even though his sisters are incredulous that he could forgive her family for their father’s murder. “Lorna isn’t like them,” he gruffly asserts. Because of course, she isn’t. Lorna is all goodness and sweetness also, a girl caught up in circumstances beyond her control. Lorna has every reason to hate Carver, but she won’t allow John to kill him when he has the chance. Carver has invaded the farm, set fire to their barn, and shot through the windows of the house with his goons in an attempt to recover her. But she pulls John’s hand away from the trigger, and pleads with him not to do this, not to kill anyone. She wants him to be different from the men who have raised her, and he is.
Infuriated and heartbroken, believing his brand new wife dead, John chases his enemy through the woods. Their violent brawl ends with Carver falling into a sinkhole. With a raw, guttural outcry of angry grief, John attempts to save his life, to be the man Lorna has fallen in love with. But Carver pushes him away, stubbornly and proudly refusing his help. He would rather die than let John save him.
But John still tried.
That shook me then and it inspires me now, because it’s not often a theme you see played out in fiction. A lot of stories revolve around themes of revenge, of recovering what is theirs or forcing the villain to atone for his sins. I often enjoy those stories too, even if I find them morally dubious. But this is the first time I encountered a man so good, he would try to save the life of the man who just shot his wife. That’s unfathomable. It’s idealistic. It’s virtue played out not only in word, but in action. It’s the embodiment of my Christian faith, to learn to forgive those who have wronged you. If Jesus could do it on the cross, so too can we do it. As John proves with his painful cry, as he realizes what he must do, what he feels compelled to do, save the life of the man who has taken everything from him, it is never easy. But it is the path to goodness.
Stories throughout history have been about higher ideals. This one is no different. John and Lorna are almost unbelievably “good,” but that is the point. Some stories drag you into the dirt, and others are meant to inspire you. Lorna Doone was written in a time when authors wrote characters who aspired to divine traits; in a way, the characters are a little unrealistic in their goodness, because they are meant to inspire the reader to strive for their best self. They embody the virtues their writer most admires. It’s a theme I have often carried into my own books, that of someone facing a hard choice to forgive, to take the higher road, to embrace the freedom that comes from doing what is right, even if it is not easy. And I can say that this beautiful little film, though it be not perfect, is where it started. It planted a seed in my teenage soul that continues to grow and flourish in hope that goodness still exists. That it is worth fighting for. And something to believe in.
Oh, and in case you are wondering? Lorna lived that day. She awoke to find the man she loved and married beside her bed. A man who chose the high road. A man who in the end, was not a murderer.
I wrote this post for the Valentine’s Day Period Drama Blog Party. Please click the below link to see more entries.