The Maid of Sker
Frontispiece to the 1893 edition
|Author||R. D. Blackmore|
The Maid of Sker is a three-volume novel by R. D. Blackmore published in 1872. Set in the late 18th century, it unravels the mystery of a foundling child washed ashore upon the coast of Glamorganshire. It was Blackmore's next novel published after Lorna Doone although he had begun writing it 25 years earlier. Blackmore considered The Maid of Sker to be his best novel.
Title and writing
The title of the novel comes from a Welsh ballad known as The Maid of Sker (Welsh: Y Ferch o'r Sger), although the content of the ballad bears little relation to the plot of the novel. Blackmore was also familiar with Sker House near Porthcawl. Blackmore's mother, Anne (née Knight), was from Nottage Court near Porthcawl, Glamorgan, and Blackmore spent part of his childhood with his aunt in Nottage. The stark form of Sker House is a central image for Blackmore. Blackmore began writing the novel while he was still a student at Oxford University. He graduated in 1847, but the book was not completed and published until 1872, three years after Lorna Doone.
The Maid of Sker is set at the end of the 18th century, and the story is told by Davy Llewellyn, an old fisherman. The story concerns a two-year-old girl who drifts in a boat onto a beach in Glamorganshire in the calm before a storm. The little girl calls herself Bardie. Llewellyn is tempted to keep the girl, but decides to give her up and keeps the boat for himself. He quarters the pretty child in a simple, but well-to-do, household in his neighbourhood. As she grows up he dotes upon her so far as he can. He watches anxiously over her fortunes, partly or principally because he thinks his own may be bound up with them. It is clear from the refinement of the girl's manners, and from the fineness of her clothes she was washed ashore in, that she is no common child.
Davy joins the crew of a ketch trading between Barnstaple and Porthcawl. Whilst in Devon, he encounters several characters who hold the key to solving the mystery of the maid of Sker. These include Sir Philip Bampfylde who spends most of his time looking for his two grandchildren who have mysteriously disappeared; Parson Chowne, a parson of demoniac wickedness and craft who works his will for many years in the north of Devon, defying God, man, and the law; and Captain Drake Bamfylde who is under suspicion of having made away with the children of his elder brother, and heirs to the family property. Old Davy gradually unravels the mystery and sets matters right, although many distractions delay him including an extended period at sea in which Blackmore gives a graphic account of the Battle of the Nile.
The novel received fairly good reviews. The Saturday Review stated that "the book is exceedingly able, and strikingly original ... there is much powerful writing in it, a great deal of dry humour, with some touches of rare pathos." The Spectator regarded it as "in our opinion a genuine success, one of the few good novels that has been written for many years", although it also noted that it "is here and there just a little difficult to follow ... the story must run over a course of years which it may tax even the author of Waverley to render interesting."
Blackmore himself regarded this as his best novel, both as an expression of his own personality and in point of workmanship.
- "The Maid of Sker": English version, Welsh version
- Max Keith Sutton (1979), R. D. Blackmore, page 64. Twayne Publishers
- John Davies, (2009), Lyrics and Limericks, page 105. Pneuma Springs
- The Maid of Sker, The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, 24 August 1872, page 256
- The Maid of Sker, The Spectator, 28 September 1872, page 21
- "Blackmore, Richard Doddridge" entry in Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement