Eye for an Eye, An
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Introduction by Maeve Binchy
London, Chapman and Hall, 1879.2V.
Originally published in The Whitehall Review, Aug. 24, 1878-Feb. 1, 1879.
Trollope wrote this haunting tragedy in the late Autumn of 1870, but left it in his desk drawer until its publication in January 1879.
An Eye for an Eye continues his fascination with the single moral dilemma, explored through to its inevitable conclusion. The plot is a model of simplicity concerning a feckless, self-regarding young Englishman (Fred Neville) and his attempt to reconcile his duty – as the heir to the Earl of Scroope – with his moral obligations towards Kate O’Hara, a beautiful Irish girl he seduces whilst stationed with the cavalry in Ireland.
The story’s theme is announced early on with a vivid, intense description of the gloomy, barren Scroope Manor in Dorset, with its huge dusty rooms, and a library where ‘not a book had been added to since the commencement of the century, and it may almost be said that no book had been drawn from its shelves for real use during the same period’. The reason for Fred’s initial reluctance is easy to understand, as are his pleas for a year’s ‘sabbatical’, and his longing for an ‘adventure’ in Ireland before he takes up his duties on the estate.
In harsh contrast to gloomy Scroope Manor, Kate O’Hara lives in a secluded cottage on top of the huge Moher cliffs in Co. Clare, in the West of Ireland: ‘most unlike that sort of cottage which English ladies are supposed to inhabit …Everything about it was impregnated with salt.’ With Kate now carrying his child, Fred is hemmed in by a promise to the dying Earl not to marry a Catholic, but desperate to try to do the right thing. He offers a morganatic marriage to Kate, but his proposal to the girl and her powerful mother leads to tragedy.
The tale unfolds effortlessly, bolstered with a set of vivid supporting characters: the ascetic Lady Mary, second wife of the Earl, whose interference partly precipitates the horrific outcome; Father Marty, the priest who equally misguidedly counsels the O’Haras; the beautiful Sophia Mellerby described by Trollope as having ‘the intellect …sufficient to enable her to make use of it’; and Kate’s shadowy father, a fugitive convict.
The narrative power of An Eye For An Eye derives in part from its form, a small chamber piece in which the tone of the music is set by a mysterious madwoman’s muttered refrain from an asylum somewhere in the west of England: ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Is it not the law?’