An Eye for an Eye, Anthony Trollope
It was a pleasant shock to come across this at Half Price Books. Luckily no one else was reaching toward the shelves as I lunged for it. This wasn't a title that I remembered, though when I looked back at Victoria Glendinning's Anthony Trollope I found several references to it. My copy is part of the "Penguin Trollope" series, a uniform edition of all his novels as well as his autobiography and selected short stories, published in the early 1990s. I love this series, which features a sketch of a benevolent-looking author on the cover, even though they lack the notes and additional materials of the Oxford or Penguin Classics.
Reading this book made me think that as much as I love Trollope, I may have begun to pigeon-hole him, in Barchester and among the Pallisers, forgetting that writers like other artists may choose to experiment, to turn their talents in different directions. I already have on the TBR stack (Trollope section) two of his experimental novels, Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel, published anonymously. I don't know that An Eye for an Eye was an experiment, but it is certainly different from his other novels that I have read. It is a short book that moves very quickly, covering six or seven months. As the title suggests, it is a story of vengeance that approaches pure melodrama, particularly in its conclusion. There is very little of the humor I've come to expect in his stories and in his narrative voice. And while I have always thought that one of Trollope's greatest gifts as a writer is the life he gives his characters, here they lack depth. I felt like he introduced his characters, and told us about them, but hardly gave them time or space to make them real to us.
I don't mean to say that I didn't enjoy this book, because I did, melodrama and all. In fact, I read it in one day - something I never expected to be able to say about a Trollope novel!
An Eye for an Eye opens with an "Introduction" to a woman living in a private asylum in the West of England, who spends her days constantly proclaiming the words of the title, asking, "Is it not the law?" Confined there for life, she has no friends or family, but the charges of her very comfortable maintenance are paid by the Earl of Scroope.
The first chapter then takes us to Scroope Manor in Dorset, the home of the old Earl and his second Countess. The Earl's life has been overshadowed by the deaths of his first wife and daughter, and the wild career of his son, who married a French courtesan but died himself before leaving an heir. The next heir to the earldom is a nephew, Fred Neville, who is invited to the Manor to take his place in the family. But Fred, who never expected to inherit, has joined a cavalry regiment. He is determined to enjoy a final year of freedom before settling down to his new position. His uncle reluctantly agrees, and Fred sets off to join his regiment in Ireland.
His military duties in County Clare leave him with a lot of free time, which he spends hunting, taking a small boat out around the cliffs of Moher to shoot seals. There he meets the O'Haras, a mother with a beautiful young daughter, Kate, who live in an isolated cottage on the cliff side. Mrs. O'Hara is an Englishwoman, married to a Wickham-like army captain who left her and their daughter all but destitute. However rough their life, they are ladies, but they are also Roman Catholics. Fred enjoys their company, particularly Kate's. She is beautiful and innocent and good, and it is not long before she falls deeply in love with him (like Anne Elliot, she has hardly anyone else to love). As rumors of his intimacy with them spread, a friend of Lady Scroope's writes her the full details of the women's ineligibility, their poverty, their religion, and their low social status. Fred is summoned back to England, where his aunt and uncle demand promises that he will not marry anyone who would disgrace their noble family. He travels back and forth between England and Ireland, between the Earl and Kate, torn between love and pride. But he has made promises to Kate, on those promises he has seduced her, and suddenly Mrs. O'Hara is standing by to force him to keep those promises, to save her from ruin.
Fred is one of Trollope's rather weak young men. He yearns for adventure and freedom, realizing only too late how he has wasted the gifts and opportunities he has been given. He vacillates between Scroope and Kate, his position and his love - physically in his travels back and forth, as well as in his emotions and thoughts. His younger brother Jack, an officer in the Engineers, is presented as a complete contrast:
"When Jack came [to Scroope] he was found to be very unlike the Nevilles in appearance. In the first place he was dark, and in the next place he was ugly. He was a tall, well-made fellow, taller than his brother, and probably stronger; and he had very different eyes, - very dark brown eyes, deeply set in his head, with large dark eyebrows . . . His features were hard, and on one cheek he had a cicatrice, the remains of some misfortune that happened to him in his boyhood. But in spite of his ugliness, - for he was ugly, there was much about him in his gait and manner that claimed attention."
After that, I wanted to know more about Jack, who seemed cast in a heroic mold.
I think of seduction and betrayal as tropes of Victorian melodrama, but I was surprised at the increasingly frank discussion of Kate's situation. At one point, the village priest says to him, "Have you no thought of the life of that young girl who now bears in her womb the fruit of your body?" Trollope also used this story to explore sexual double standards, where Fred is "sowing wild oats" and Kate is ruining herself. He believed that women were by far the harsher judges of their own sex:
"It is as though a certain line were drawn to include all women, - a line, but, alas, little more than a line, by overstepping which, or rather by being known to have overstepped it, a woman ceases to be a woman in the estimation of her own sex."
I wouldn't recommend this to a new Trollope reader, but I did enjoy it, for the story and also for the different slant it gave me on his work.