by Dinah Craik
Published in 1859, two years after her greatest success, John Halifax, gentleman, this novel did not enjoy the same success. But not only was it her personal favourite, it was, according to Mrs. Craik, her best book. It is written in the form of alternating entries from the diaries of Theodora Johnston and Max Urquhart, through which we trace the development of their relationship, and the complications of the story.
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At her first meeting with the conscientious and reserved Max Urquhart, Theodora Johnston unwittingly touches a very raw nerve.
Nay, however it may be glossed over and refined away, surely, in face of the plain command, 'Thou shalt not kill,' military glory seems little better than a picturesque form of murder.
Guilt and reparation are the main themes of the novel, echoed in the parallel story of Lydia Cartwright and Francis Charteris. In their story, which also involves Theodora's sister Penelope, Dinah Craik emphasises her strongly-held belief that men and women should enter marriage as equals.
In the first edition of A life for a life, the death of Henry Johnston was accidental:
Not with intent, God knows. So little idea had I he was dead, that I shook him as he lay, told him to "get up and fight it out:"
But when she revised the novel, Mrs. Craik made the murder intentional:
Now you see how it was. I killed him; I meant to kill him, or at least to injure him. But only at the instant, God knows! and out of that blind fury which for the time being is utterly reckless of consequences.
No doubt Mrs. Craik realised that many of her readers would reject the idea that a sinner who paid the price for their sin should be redeemed to society, and indeed the reviewers were divided on the question. But although Max and Dora eventually leave for Canada because there is no place for them in English society, it is clear that they are rejecting society as much as it is rejecting them.
Page created 27 November 2002 and last
updated 27 November 2002
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