Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds. Oxford World’s Classics, 1983. First published as a serial, 1871; as a book, 1872
The Eustace Diamonds is the third in the Palliser series of novels. They deal largely with the urban worlds of politics and social ambition. The Barchester series, which preceded the Pallisers, focused more on the parochial worlds of the country gentry and clerics.
The central themes of this novel are familiar: the struggle between head and heart of promising but hard-up young men, who need to ‘marry money’ in order to finance their political and/or social ambitions, but who fall improvidently in love with penniless young women.
The flip side of these narratives is the career of Lizzie Eustace, a Becky Sharpe type of character: beautiful, scheming and a serial liar (she cheerfully admits that she prefers lies to truth – they’re more interesting and exciting). Aged just 19 she snares the dissipated, dying Sir Florian Eustace, a man of immense wealth and minimal morals. No sooner are they married than he discovers Lizzie’s true nature – she’d borrowed money on the basis of her impending marriage, and he’s saddled with her huge bills.
Trollope tries hard to condemn ‘this selfish, hard-fisted little woman’, but can’t prevent himself from presenting her as the most attractive character in the novel – even if she is called, at various times, a ‘vixen’; ‘”I do not think Satan himself can lies as she does,”’ says another character of her. Lovable rogues are always more endearing than prudish goody-two-shoes. Aren’t they?
Sir Florian promptly does the only decent thing and dies. Much of the rest of the novel deals with Lizzie’s efforts to hang on to the titular diamond necklace (worth a fabulous £10K – a huge amount at that time) as part of the estate he’d generously left her. His lawyers insist it’s an heirloom, and therefore not hers – it belongs to the Eustace family heirs. Lizzie insists, knowing she’s lying, that he’d given it to her. This legal tussle is the central thread of the narrative, but there are numerous others.
These mostly involve fairly similar on-off love/money matches. There’s Trollope’s customary hunting scene, too. This time for once it’s quite interesting, and serves to develop characters and plot.
Frank Greystock, another of Trollope’s unheroic, flawed heroes (like Phineas Finn in the previous novel in this series), struggled to engage my interest or sympathy. He wants to do the right thing, having rashly proposed to his Jane Eyre-ish governess sweetheart, Lucy – the penniless young woman I mentioned at the start – and marry her; but he’s also unable to resist Lizzie’s smouldering, scheming charms. Unlike the dowdy, prim, plain Lucy, Lizzie has beauty, brains and wit – and pots of money and a castle in Scotland. All his family and friends tell him to think of his rising career as a new Tory MP and lawyer; he needs Lizzie’s wealth to support his lavish, overspending lifestyle and vaulting ambition. Where do you think this will end?!
The novel is, as usual with Trollope, over-long, and at times there are diversions and new characters and plot developments that feel like padding. But there are also several set pieces and exchanges between the warring characters that make this a rewarding reading experience. Some of the best of these involve Lucinda, a fiery misandrist who gives her fiancé a torrid time. The only way she can escape his creepy clutches is to go mad. Trollope always finds it hard fully to endorse his feisty proto-feminists.
I particularly liked the political elements in the novel. Although The Eustace Diamonds is seen as one of the least political of the Palliser novels, the politics is still lurking just beneath the surface all the time. As in previous novels in the series, parliamentary politics is portrayed as a cynical game, a chess match played by chancers who don’t have any firm political or ethical convictions; they just do what’s expedient to benefit their own party, which in turn will advance their own careers.
Here’s how Trollope introduces us to Frank’s party at the start of his parliamentary career:
His father was a fine old Tory [ie Conservative] of the ancient school, who thought that things were going from bad to worse, but was able to live happily in spite of his anticipations. The dean [his father] was one of those old-school politicians…who enjoy the politics of the side to which they belong without any special belief in them. If pressed hard they will almost own that their so-called convictions are prejudices. But not for worlds would they be rid of them…They feel among themselves that everything that is being done is bad, — even though that everything is done by their own party…These people are ready to grumble at every boon conferred on them, and yet to enjoy every boon.
There’s much more in a similar ironic vein.
Things aren’t so very different today in Britain. Our beleaguered, amoral Prime Minister has just leaked to the media a series of initiatives intended to encourage the electorate to forgive his history of egregious mistakes, hypocrisy, narcissism and mendacity. Nothing to do with making things better – except for him. Trollope would have rolled his eyes and shrugged – just as he does when Frank speaks passionately against a Liberal political decision in a parliamentary debate, then adds slyly that Frank would have been just as vehemently opposed if their respective positions had been reversed.
Here to end – a picture of the first wild daffodils of the year, seen by a country lane on this morning’s walk (Monday) on a beautiful sunny day in Cornwall.