There’s no denying that young Lizzie Greystock did rather well for herself, though as a girl she didn’t have a penny to her name. First, she married Sir Florian Eustace, and he died within a year, leaving her a wealthy widow and mother — left her four thousand pounds a year and the use of Portray Castle for her life! But she wasn’t content with that. She was in possession of an immensely valuable diamond necklace, belonging to the Eustace family, and when Mr. Camperdown, the family lawyer, suggested to her that she should give it back when Sir Florian died — well, Lizzie flatly refused. She claimed the necklace was hers by right, and that she would never give it to anyone — that she would sell it sooner. The increasing legal pressure and the scandal did nothing to dissuade her. And then, when the necklace was stolen from her hotel room…
The Eustace Diamonds is a tremendously entertaining book by Anthony Trollope. Lizzie Eustace, whose greed, lies, selfishness, falseness, and other exploits are at the center of the story, is a wonderful character, and the several subplots are never less than fascinating. Will Frank Greystock come to his senses and marry the delightful, but penniless, Lucy Morris, or will he obey the very real needs of his pocketbook and marry the dreadful, but rich and seductive, Lizzie? Will the forthright Lucinda Roanoke allow herself to be bullied into marrying the unpleasant Sir Griffin? And what will happen to all the hired wedding-presents, if not?
Early in the book, Trollope lets us know clearly that Lizzie, though she is at the center of the action, is not meant to be at the center of our sympathy:
Although the first two chapters of this new history have been devoted to the fortunes and personal attributes of Lady Eustace, the historian begs his readers not to believe that that opulent and aristocratic Becky Sharp is to assume the dignity of heroine in the forthcoming pages. That there shall be any heroine the historian will not take upon himself to assert; but if there be a heroine, that heroine shall not be Lady Eustace. Poor Lizzie Greystock!—as men double her own age, and who had known her as a forward, capricious, spoilt child in her father’s lifetime, would still call her. She did so many things, made so many efforts, caused so much suffering to others, and suffered so much herself throughout the scenes with which we are about to deal, that the story can hardly be told without giving her that prominence of place which has been assigned to her in the last two chapters.
Nor does the chronicler dare to put forward Lucy Morris as a heroine. The real heroine, if it be found possible to arrange her drapery for her becomingly, and to put that part which she enacted into properly heroic words, shall stalk in among us at some considerably later period of the narrative, when the writer shall have accustomed himself to the flow of words, and have worked himself up to a state of mind fit for the reception of noble acting and noble speaking.
So our two main female characters are not to be our heroines. (Much, much later, Trollope offhandedly tells us that a child in someone’s house used to refer to Lucinda Roanoke as “the heroine,” but she hardly fits the bill.) He is playing with our sympathy here. Over and over, just when Lizzie has done something intolerable — told a terrible lie, or perjured herself, or done a bit of nasty play-acting, or tried to bribe an honest person — he says, “Poor Lizzie!” just as he does in the passage above. Trollope creates an atmosphere in which it’s impossible to hate the most hate-worthy person in the novel. She’s weak, yes; she’s false, yes; she is abandoned to her own interest — but in the end, poor Lizzie!
The same ideas are at play with the lawyers and lords in the case. Trollope does a great deal with the idea of what is false — paste — and what is real, like the diamonds themselves. If a lord like Lord Fawn is weak and malleable, more interested in what the world says of him than in what is truly right, than is he more to be esteemed than the lawyer Dove, whose keen insight into the morality of the law gives him the respect of every man?
When I read He Knew He Was Right, I found it a thoroughgoing examination of the married state, from almost every angle. Here, Trollope examines what is real and what is false, and how scandal and even madness may be created either by the real or by the false. As is usual with him, most of his characters get more or less what they deserve, but the question of true and false is left hanging — and his final words promise more to come about our poor Lizzie. This was a wonderful read, and remarkably fast-paced — another reliably good Trollope down, and about forty to go.
Note: I didn’t find out until about three-quarters of the way through the book that this is a Palliser novel. I’m actually also reading the Barchester novels, and didn’t start this on purpose, but it works great as a stand-alone book.