Today is Anthony Trollope’s 200th birthday! When I saw that Karen of Books and Chocolate was hosting a special Trollope Bicentennial Celebration this month, I knew I wanted to take part and I knew exactly what I would be reading. Having read and enjoyed Trollope’s first two Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her? and Phineas Finn, it made sense to continue with the third in the series – The Eustace Diamonds.
Unlike Trollope’s other set of six novels, the Chronicles of Barsetshire, which revolve around a cathedral town and the lives of the clergy, the Palliser novels have plots involving politics and featuring the Palliser family – the politician Plantagenet Palliser, his wife Lady Glencora, and his uncle, the Duke of Omnium. In The Eustace Diamonds, though, these three characters are pushed into the background. Our heroine this time (although, as Trollope himself tells us at the beginning of the book, ‘heroine’ is maybe not the right way to describe her) is Lizzie Greystock, who quickly becomes Lady Eustace when she marries the wealthy Sir Florian.
After less than a year of marriage, Sir Florian dies, leaving Lizzie a rich widow in possession of a valuable diamond necklace which she claims her husband had given to her before his death. However, the Eustace family lawyer, Mr Camperdown, insists that the diamonds belong to the Eustace estate and that Lizzie has no legal right to them. The question of the ownership of the necklace forms the central plot of the novel, as the people around Lizzie are forced to take sides. Her cousin Frank vows to support her no matter what, while Lord Fawn, who has recently proposed to her, is horrified by the scandal surrounding his fiancée and searches for a way out of the marriage.
Lizzie is selfish, she tells lies, she manipulates people and situations to her own advantage and her own aunt describes her as “false, dishonest, heartless, cruel, irreligious, ungrateful, mean, ignorant, greedy, and vile”. She is a difficult character to like (and I was sorry that Trollope doesn’t give her more redeeming features) but she is a fascinating character to read about and I loved following the twists and turns of her story.
But The Eustace Diamonds also follows other characters and other storylines. There’s Lucy Morris, a governess in the service of Lord Fawn’s mother, who is love with Lizzie’s cousin, Frank Greystock. Frank, however, is preoccupied with Lizzie and her ordeals, and it seems he is unable to give Lucy the commitment she deserves. And there’s also Lucinda Roanoke, a young woman with strong views of her own on the subject of marriage – views which don’t always agree with those of her aunt, Mrs Carbuncle.
I’m finding it difficult to decide exactly what I thought of The Eustace Diamonds. In some ways I loved it even more than the previous two Pallisers, but in others I found it the weakest of the three. I struggled a little bit with the amount of political detail in Phineas Finn, but in this book there is far less focus on politics. Instead, Trollope concentrates on relationships, on marriage, on the law, and on attitudes towards money, property and reputation. In the middle of the book, the dispute surrounding the jewels begins to go in a more sensational direction, which I did find interesting, but I couldn’t help thinking that this type of plot might have been better suited to an author like Wilkie Collins rather than Trollope.
At 800 pages I did think the book felt too long for the story that was being told. Most of Trollope’s novels are long, of course, but I’m not usually conscious of the length while I’m actually reading; this time I was. Despite being absorbed in the story, I found the plot very repetitive at times and the controversy over the ownership of the diamonds seemed to go round in circles for a while – maybe a result of the novel originally being published as a serial and needing to be drawn out over a long period of time.
I did enjoy The Eustace Diamonds overall, though – and can honestly say I haven’t read a Trollope novel yet that I haven’t enjoyed. Now I’m looking forward to catching up with Phineas Finn again in the fourth Palliser novel, Phineas Redux.