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A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901

A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901

Title: A Life for a Life

Author and Title: Dinah Marie Craik. A Life for a Life

First Edition: London: Hurst and Blackett, 1859. 3 volumes, post 8vo., 31s. 6d.

Summary: The novel is told through two diaries, the first written by Theodora ("Dora") Johnston (labeled "her story") and the second by the army doctor Max Urquhart (labeled "his story"). Dora is the middle daughter of a poor Surrey clergyman. Now aged twenty-five, she believes she will never marry. Her eldest sister, Penelope, has been engaged ten years to Francis Charteris, a government functionary and nephew of Sir William Treherne, who awaits either salary or inheritance to maintain a wife. Dora's younger sister, Lisabel, gains the attention of Captain Augustus Treherne, an army officer, veteran of the Crimea, and only son of Sir William. Through Capt. Treherne, Dora meets his Scottish friend Urquhart, a medical doctor and also a veteran of the Crimea. The latter acts to facilitate the marriage between Treherne and Lisabel, which occurs at the end of volume one. A road accident by Dora's father, who is attended by Urquhart, cements the relationship between Dora and the doctor. Without many words, the two consider themselves married in spirit, if not legally. Before he can ask her, however, he confesses a secret from his past: at the age of nineteen, he became drunk in the company of a older man who encouraged the younger man's debauchery. The two came to blows and when Urquhart awoke from his drunken slumber he found the older man dead. (In the first edition, the murder is fully accidental; in a later edition, the murder is presented as manslaughter.) The crime goes unsolved and Urquhart lives a selfless and blameless life from that moment in reparation. Only in the present does he realize the man he killed was Dora's brother. The crime does not affect Dora's love and she forgives him. Her father, after hearing his confession, also forgives the doctor after much anguished soul-searching but banishes the doctor from his home. Urquhart sells his commission and goes to work as a surgeon at a Liverpool gaol. Meantime, Charteris is offered a governor's position in the West Indies. Before they marry, Penelope discovers he has a mistress and child and she refuses his offer. Stricken with guilt, Urquhart confesses his murder to the authorities. After a brief trial, he is sentenced to three months in prison. Dora and Urquhart marry and emigrate to Canada. The novel has a strong temperance theme and deliberation on Christian forgiveness. (TJB)

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References: BL; EC