The Eustace Diamonds

I’m never going to be a huge, huge Trollope fan — George Eliot will probably always remain my favorite Victorian novelist — but I’m very glad there are all those Trollope novels out there for when I’m in the mood for a good long story.  Sometimes I want nothing more than to immerse myself in a novel that will take two or three weeks to read, and it’s just fine that that novel isn’t written by my favorite Victorian novelist.  Too much George Eliot could weigh a person down after a while.

As I think about The Eustace Diamonds, I’m struck by how much it had to say about the darker side of human nature.  There aren’t many characters worthy of admiration, and those who are worthy of admiration are dull.  Lucy Morris is an absolutely angelic character, of the sort you see a lot in eighteenth-century novels where having an angelic heroine was practically a requirement — for respectable novelists at least — but Lucy is by no means the center of attention.  She is a foil for the more complicated female characters and a plot device that highlights the foolishness of her love interest, but she is hardly interesting in and of herself.

The true center of the novel is Lizzy Eustace, a young woman who, the narrator makes clear, should never, ever be trusted.  She is beautiful and charming, but she tells lies and manipulates people and deceives even herself.  Her husband, Sir Florian Eustace, has died, leaving her in possession of the extremely valuable Eustace diamonds.  The Eustace family says that the diamonds belong to the family as an heirloom and they would now like them back, but Lizzy doesn’t want to return them, and so she claims, falsely, that her husband gave them to her as a gift.  When she learns that he bequeathed her everything in his home in Scotland, she claims, again falsely, that he gave them to her while they were in Scotland and so they are part of her inheritance.

And thus begins a struggle between Lizzy and the Eustace family lawyer that will take up the rest of the book.  In one extraordinary scene, Lizzy travels to London carrying the diamonds in a heavy, cumbersome safe.  While she and her traveling party are staying overnight in a hotel, the safe is stolen, but what Lizzy doesn’t tell anybody is that she had taken the diamonds out of the safe and hidden them under her pillow.  At first her reasons for keeping this secret are relatively innocent — she is initially confused and then she feels silly for carrying around an empty safe — but she quickly realizes that she might benefit by making people believe that her diamonds had been stolen.  This might be a way to win the battle with the Eustace family.  So she keeps her secret and her deceptions become worse and worse.

Lizzy’s deceitfulness is only the worst example of flawed humanity in a book that’s full of such examples.  Lizzy’s so-called friends take advantage of her as much as she takes advantage of them.  Lucy Morris’s lover finds himself almost irresistably drawn toward Lizzy and is in danger of betraying the woman he has asked to be his wife.  And in one of the novel’s most interesting subplots, a penniless young woman who would like nothing more than to never marry anyone ever, is pushed and threatened and badgered into an engagement that drives her insane, literally.

In the world of this novel, unless you are an angel like Lucy, you are most likely hopefully foolish, heartlessly mercenary, or stupidly obedient to the dictates of a corrupt society.  There are hardly any happy marriages or true friends in this book.  Lucy Morris’s example only highlights everyone else’s corruption.

I prefer to think that the world is not as Trollope describes it, and that if people like Lucy don’t often exist, as least people like her lover, who does show signs that he can overcome his foolishness and selfishness, are common enough.  But I’m uneasily aware that I can be a little naïve.  I don’t want to become jaded and cynical, but The Eustace Diamonds is a good reminder that there are plenty of reasons to be a little mistrustful now and then.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

6 responses to “The Eustace Diamonds

  1. How interesting – I wonder whether Trollope has two modes of writing, one concerned with cities and politics and aristocrats and one more pastoral and provincial and obsessed with respectability? I’ve read Doctor Thorne and Rachel Ray and both were incredibly sweet novels, almost a bit too sacharine, except of course there were awkward, cunning and manipulative characters too, who all got their comeuppance in the end. Or maybe Trollope has lots of modes of writing – really what am I saying? I can hardly judge on three books out of the dozens he wrote! Okay I’ll wrap this up and say I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  2. This could have been a Balzac plot, with almost no change, although the Trollope’s tone and style could hardly be more different. Both writers are very sharp – insightful – about money.

    Writers, even realists, create fantasy worlds. So I know what you’re talking about in your last paragraph. How do you translate the people who live in Trollope-world into our world? It’s not as easy as it appears.

  3. I think my favorite Victorian novelist is Wilkie Collins (I’ve not yet read enough George Eliot), but there are so many excellent authors from this period I am looking forward to reading more of them. The Eustace Diamonds does sound good despite all the deceitfulness. Since this is a Victorian novel, is it meant to be a morality tale? Now I’m curious to know whether Lizzy gets away with it all. Sweet characters seem to be the most boring, don’t they? This makes me want to read a Trollope novel now.

  4. Mr W

    Responding to what Litlove says — this is book 3 of Trollope’s Palliser series, which is his “politicial” sequence of books. As such, it is more cynical (realistic?) than his more popular Barsetshire series. As Dorothy says, almost everyone in these books is corrupt, or at least corruptible, which can make for a bleak read. Sidenote: The further adventures of Lizzy Eustace appear as a subplot in the next volume in the series, Phineas Redux.

  5. Oh, this sounds delightfully nasty in spite of the bleankness that you describe. Sometimes deceitfulness and wickedness can be fun reading. Did you find it fun or was it really a downer?

  6. Litlove — I’m glad Mr. W. came along and answered your question because I don’t know enough about Trollope yet, but his description makes absolute sense to me; everyone except Lucy in this book is in danger of corruption at least, if not out and out corrupt. I’ll have to try the Barsetshire series at some point to see the difference for myself.

    Danielle — I think you would enjoy Trollope (and I need to read more Collins!). I’m not sure whether I would call this novel a morality tale — it seems more about how corrupt society is and untrustworthy people are rather than about how we should all learn to behave better. I’m not sure there’s much hope that people will improve.

    Mr. W. — thank you for the explanation, and I will have to read Phineas Redux at some point to found out what happens to Lizzy …

    Stefanie — I did find it fun and not a downer. I think the narrator made the difference — the narrator was friendly and companionable and reasonable and made it easier to deal with all the darkness.

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