From a group conversation on An Eye for an Eye, Chapters 17-20: Turning the Novel Inward through Letters; Dramatic Scenes, or How to Skim a Trollope Novel

To Trollope-l

Re: An Eye for an Eye: Turning the Novel Inward through Letters; Dramatic Scenes

Date: Thu, 6 Dec 2001

This is another of Trollope's novels to use letters in significant and interesting ways. Letters keep the Scroopes informed; bring Fred back and forth between England and Ireland; letters reveal the inner life of the characters and are juxtaposed to make for ironies.

This is a short novel and its about people who don't write as a matter of course. They are non-writing people: this is typical of Trollope's short stories and all the Irish books. Nonetheless, in a miniature you can trace the story of the novel and the significant crisis points of the novel simply by jumping from letter to letter and there are a large number of them proportional to the omniscient text. This is very Trollopian.

If anyone ever asks how to skim-read a Trollope novel, tell them turn from letter to letter: the only difficulty will be that after Dr Thorne, they are interwoven into the text as well as dropped in, so they are not as easy to spot as in most partly epistolary novelists.

If anyone wants to try the effect quickly and has the Oxford I've pulled out the pages of just the 10 dropped-in letters, the ones which leave a space between the text of the the book and have a salutation and signature:

1) pp. 15-17(Oxford Classics An Eye for an Eye, ed JSutherland), Lady Mary Quirk to Lady Scroope 68-69 , : she is spying on them, has ugly mind-set, suspicious, narrow. The kind of mind that hierarchies depend upon.

The letter places what might be beautiful privately in the harsh light of mercenary point of view and status.

2-4) Dramatic conversation through letters. When authors do this, the novel turns into a sort of play inside the mind.

It's p. 78: Fred to Kate, pp. 86-7: Kate to Fred; and then p. 103 Fred to Kate again: Fred is nonchalant, but he is not lying, and speaks directly, not a manipulator, not a hypocrite; this is not a Lothario, Don Juan. She too is simple, open, yearns for him. In fact she's too open. In reply he is eager, but he is a boy rebelling

5) Countess interrupts. She has read first letter. p. 107: Her approach is based on twisting emotions; what he owes to the uncle: "Oh, Fred don't break our hearts"

Moral question brought up in letter: what do we owe to people? Which ones? Their demands are often in conflict. Who shall  we hurt? Why is there this conflict?

6) The appearance of the captain important and he appears through a letter: p. 114: Captain's letter: he wants money. The interesting thing about this letter is Trollope writes it so the reader can see the distance between the rhetoric and the purpose. Really the words are irrelevant. No need to read his words.

7) Drumbeat begins. P. 124, from Mrs O'Hara. This one tells us of the central act of the book which changes all: sexual intercourse, Kate's pregnancy. It is a deeply emotional one, and by contrast to the captain, the words do count. What does she say: you must marry her, and she doe say it's for her safety.

8-10) Last three: Kate to Fred, pp. 152-53: deeply vulnerable girl, touching, hurt, will be damaged forever; again the mother calling on him, p. 154: his last; he hates signing his title. Yet he does not promise marriage.

Even this easy pull-out shows the pivotal instinctive nature of Trollope's imaginative letter writing.

Now if you count letters described, letters quoted, notes which move back and forth, dispatches and letters described from the past and also planned, there are 29 letters altogether in An Eye for an Eye For example, when we are told how the Earl of Scroope wooed the Countess, we are given part of one of his letters and it is embedded in significant detail:

Earl of Scroope wooed Lady Mary Wycombe by a letter: 'asking her to share his gloom'; happened three years before the heir died; his daughter died around time that heir told him he was married to a 'painted prostitute from France'. Second wife as poor as Charity .. very proud of her blood

At another point, when Fred is told his uncle is ill, it is done through a "dispatch:"

A dispatch from Lady Scroope to Fred marked 'Immediate': 'Your uncle is very ill - dangerously ill, we fear. His great desire is to see you once again. Pray come without losing an hour', p 67; this is brought in again to show scenes which gave rise to it, pp 69-70;

The method of these interwoven letters is to give a letter, then the scene which gave rise to the letter or which surrounds the reading of it. So there are a number of short letters from the Captain; of one we are told that Mrs O'Hara has got it and is readintg it. In one of these Father Marty is brought forth and we see his thoughts and how he grasps what is to come quickly, but too late:

He wants money, I suppose'. 'Just that, Mr Neville' 'It makes a difference - doesn't it? 'How does it make a difference?' ' Well; it does. I wonder you don't see it. You must see it'. From that moment Father Marty said in his heart that Kate ... had lost her husband ..., p 115.

Father Marty is also the near recipient of a letter Fred plans and thinks about (so part of the feel of the text is in Fred's thoughts), but does not send also plans but does not send. Fred thinks to himself that he will explain

in the ordinary sense of the word he could not and would not marry Miss O'Hara, but that in any way short ... he would be true to her for life. He would make any settlement ... explain obligation to his uncle ... [he'd use] excuse of not having been informed of Captain O'Hara ... [but it] seemed to him ... poor & mean, cringing & at the same time false ... he must go back, tears it up (p. 155).

The torn up and planned letters are the most interesting of all Trollope's types. Johnny Eames does this sort of thing a number of times. I wonder if Trollope himself did. It is perfect to have this for Father Marty who himself a planner, a hesitator, a well-meaning but inadequate and failed manipulator. Fred is not; he is transparent, but he approaches Father Marty instinctively in a way appropriate to Father Marty's character.

The effect of all these interwoven letters is to turn outward narrative into inward.

Letters dramatize much that is significant in this novel; you can, if you will, pick out the bold bones of the book this way.

In other of Trollope's mid-, and later novels the technique is similar, only the content of the story and letters (mood, vision) is different and there may be many many more because the text is so much more complicated (more stories, more characters, more hinge-point scenes).

When I was looking into Victorian novelists for their uses of letters for my talk to the Trollope Society at the Reform Club, Partly Told in Letters: Trollope's Storytelling Art, I discovered that novelists who rely heavily on imitations of psychological reality to move their story along and are good at dialogue (naturalistic talk) use letters frequently. Perhaps not as heavily as Trollope, but still centrally and effectively. Among these are Elizabeth Gaskell. A couple of the stories in Cranford are just about comprised of letters. Gissing has yet fewer letters but they are effective and important. Thackeray can do letters very well, but he eschews them: that's revealing.

Novelists who do not use imitations of psychological reality, do not delve into characters' meditations and whose dialogue is not realistic but rhetorical use few letters. Dickens typically has few to no letters for long stretches of time; when a letter appears he does not invent a characteristic idiolect that persuades the reader immediately we are in a given characters' mind. Often we have to look at the signature to see who wrote it.


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