Anthony Trollope. The Eustace Diamonds. 1872. Amazon.com. 12 May 2012. E-book.
I had to read this book. I believe it was the most frequently mentioned work in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Trollope is sometimes considered more dated than other Victorian writers because his novels are so directly focused on the ins and outs of British society, especially the upper classes of his day. Some might say he was a British Sinclair Lewis. One of his book simply goes by the title of The Way We Are Now.
When compared with approach, probably the closest writer to Trollope is Henry James. Both men focus on what the main characters are thinking. Trollope’s characters may not have the depth of James’s. Perhaps that is because Trollope is not as good a writer, or it may be that his characters are just more shallow. In both writers a lot of the action is at the social level.
The Eustace Diamonds is one in a series of six novels in the Palliser Chronicles, but the Pallisers are truly minor characters in this one. Each novel is a tale by itself, so it is not necessary to read them in order or to read them all.
It is also no exaggeration to say that the Eustace Diamonds, that is, the literal diamond necklace owned by the Eustace family, are one of the main characters in the book. Unlike the Hope Diamond or the Moonstone, there is nothing spooky or accursed about the necklace. However, one could make a case that the Eustace Diamonds are the tragic character in the story. Of course, all diamonds have tiny flaws…
Most of the human characters in the novel are pretentious aristocrats or aspiring social climbers. Lady Elizabeth Eustace, or Lizzie, the young widow of Sir Florian Eustace is a bit of both. The educated and beautiful Lizzie married a Lord who conveniently died in a year leaving her a nice legacy of £4,000 a year and a baby son who would eventually become the next Lord. He also—depending on whom you believe—left her the diamonds.
The Eustace family lawyer, Mr. Camperdown, is convinced she possesses the diamonds illegally and becomes her Javert, tormenting her throughout the book. But, please understand, Lady Eustace is no Jean Valjean. She is calculating and manipulative, charming everyone but liked by no one, a Becky Sharp or a British Scarlett O’Hara. At least four men in the novel consider marrying her—but, beautiful as she may be, they only consider it for her income and her interest in the near-gothic Portray Castle of the Eustaces on the Scottish coast.
Like a James novel, The Eustace Diamonds takes its time. There are many conflicts and surprises before the tale completely unwinds. Will the honest but penurious Member of Parliament Frank Greystock, cousin and childhood friend of Lizzie, follow his heart or his ambition? Will Lord George (if he really is a lord) be the “Corsair” to sweep Lizzie off her feet? (Like Rhett Butler?) Will ________ (fill in the blank with any number of characters’ names) quit acting like a jerk? Or is it simply that everyone is interested in money but pretends otherwise?
Lucinda, an American with a British aunt, comes to England with the express purpose of finding an aristocrat for a husband—at least that is what her aunt thinks. Some of the other characters see her as a “grasping” American who has no business in their society. But she is one of the frankest characters in the story. No, she is not pleasant or sympathetic, but she speaks her mind and ultimately acts on her own instead of bowing to social expectations.
Drop the titles, add a little more technology in the background, and this could be set in modern America or China. The only difference is that women were expected to be treated with respect, and for the most part men did so.
While Trollope does spend time analyzing many of the characters, the story is plot-driven. The writer seems to be most exuberant when there is action—not Rafael Sabatini swashbuckling action, but when people are trying to handle conflict. There are two chapters near the end of Volume 1 that describe a lively fox hunt. This British tradition I knew little about. I had a college friend who doused himself with fox scent on Saturdays and worked as an ersatz fox for riders of a nearby hunt club to chase, but that was about it. On the many acres of Eustace land in Scotland, Trollope’s excitement is contagious. Now I get it! Even you do not read the whole book, read those chapters to get an appreciation of the fox hunt. Now if only Trollope had written in the same way about cricket, perhaps we poor Americans could begin to appreciate that…
As a postscript, to give a sense of Trollope’s social commentary, here are some quotations from The Eustace Diamonds (references are Kindle locations, not pages).
Lady Linlithgow would cheat a butcher out of a mutton-chop, or a cook out of a month’s wages, if she could do so with some slant of legal wind in her favour. (170-171)
How few there are among women, few perhaps also among men, who know that the sweetest, softest, tenderest, truest eyes which a woman can carry in her head are green in colour! (365-367)
Of listeners she was the very best, for she would always be saying a word or two, just to help you,—the best word that could be spoken, and then again she would be hanging on your lips. (464-462)
Some vague idea has floated across his brain that the world is wrong in supposing that such friendship cannot exist without marriage, or question of marriage. It is simply friendship. And yet were his friend to tell him that she intended to give herself in marriage elsewhere, he would suffer all the pangs of jealousy, and would imagine himself to be horribly ill-treated!(559-562)
To be alone with the girl to whom he is not engaged is a man’s delight;—to be alone with the man to whom she is engaged is the woman’s. (2484-85)
And a man captivated by wiles was only captivated for a time, whereas a man won by simplicity would be won for ever,—if he himself were worth the winning. (2841-42)
“It is good to be merry and wise,
It is good to be honest and true,
It is good to be off with the old love
Before you are on with the new.” (4572-74)
She could not disbelieve it all, and throw herself back upon her faith in virtue, constancy, and honesty. She rather thought that things had changed for the worse since she was young, and that promises were not now as binding as they used to be. She herself had married into a Liberal family, had a Liberal son, and would have called herself a Liberal; but she could not fail to hear from others, her neighbours, that the English manners, and English principles, and English society were all going to destruction in consequence of the so-called liberality of the age. Gentlemen, she thought, certainly did do things which gentlemen would not have done forty years ago; and as for ladies,—they, doubtless, were changed altogether.
Young or old, men are apt to become Merlins when they encounter Viviens. (8439-40)
It is only when we read of such men that we feel that truth to his sweetheart is the first duty of man. I am afraid that it is not the advice which we give to our sons. (9837-38)