The Eustace Diamonds is the third novel in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser Series. This is a huge book with lots of characters and multiple plot threads. At its center is the impressive literary creation of Lizzie Eustace. Though in some ways similar to other Trollope novels, I found this book to be much more cynical and dark when compared to the author’s other efforts.
Lizzie is a beautiful young woman who marries the wealthy Sir Florian. When her husband dies, a dispute arises over the disposition of the very valuable Eustace Necklace. Sir Florian’s family claims it as a family heirloom and considers it the property of the family. Lizzie, on the other hand, wants to keep the jewels for herself.
A good part of the narrative concerns itself with Lizzie’s battles against the Eustace family for control of the necklace. It also encompasses Lizzie’s many romantic entanglements. There are multiple additional plot threads that become entwined with Lizzie’s life. One particularly important one is the troubled engagement between Lizzie’s cousin, Frank Greystock, and the poor, unassuming but virtuous Lucy Morris.
Lizzie is not a typical Trollope heroine nor is she a typical Trollope character. Though often presented in a humorous way, Lizzie can be described in modern terminology as a sociopath, a narcissist, a hypocrite, a manipulator and a pathological liar.
Lizzie cheats people out of property, commits fraud, manipulates people around her, tries to seduce multiple men at the same time and is vengeful, to just name a few of her faults. She tells lie after lie after lie. She lies to inflate her own importance. She lies for personal gain. She lies to make herself seem like a victim. She lies for revenge. She even admires others when they lie well.
At one point she ponders,
“She liked lies, thinking them to be more beautiful than truth. To lie readily and cleverly, recklessly and yet successfully, was, according to the lessons which she had learned, a necessity in woman and an added grace in man. “
Despite her villainy, Lizzie is interesting and amusing to read about. Her confrontations with other characters range from serious drama to hilarious clashes. She tries to dominate most of the people around he, but she is also attracted to dominant and reckless men. She extolls the qualities of poetry, but her appreciation for it is superficial at best.
Lizzie is an expert manipulator. Though some of the characters see right through her, others are fooled into believing that it is she who is a victim. She flirts and enchants a series of men. She is constantly pursuing Frank Greystock, despite the fact that they are both engaged to other people. One interesting thing about Frank is that he mostly recognizes Lizzie’s flaws, but he cannot help himself as he is still enticed and tempted by her. This is typical of Lizzie’s skills of influence. Throughout the book, he is fighting her pull.
In the below passage Lizzie feigns distress and tears,
“He dried her tears and comforted her, and forgave all the injurious things she had said of him. It is almost impossible for a man,— a man under forty and unmarried, and who is not a philosopher,— to have familiar and affectionate intercourse with a beautiful young woman, and carry it on as he might do with a friend of the other sex. In his very heart Greystock despised this woman; he had told himself over and over again that were there no Lucy in the case he would not marry her; that she was affected, unreal,— and, in fact, a liar in every word and look and motion which came from her with premeditation…he knew her to be heartless and bad. He had told himself a dozen times that it would be well for him that she should be married and taken out of his hands. And yet he loved her after a fashion, and was prone to sit near her, and was fool enough to be flattered by her caresses. When she would lay her hand on his arm, a thrill of pleasure went through him.”
I have read Trollope’s entire Chronicles of Barsetshire, The Fixed Period and the two prior books of this series. Lizzie is different from any other character that Trollope presents in the other books. Almost all of his fictional personas have shades of good and bad. Lizzie is different in that she is irredeemable. Even the incredibly domineering, controlling and hypercritical Mrs. Proudie of The Chronicles Of Barsetshire showed some humanity.
This work is darker in other ways. Most other Trollope books portray some characters doing terrible things. The author has created some very unlikable characters in many of his books. However, those works do not contain as many immoral people with such intense flaws as are in this novel. Lizzie is surrounded by opportunistic and narcissistic people. One example is the engaged couple of Lucinda Roanoke and Sir Griffen Tewett. The pair decides to marry for reasons of personal gain. The moody, sarcastic and cynical Lucinda hates the boorish and nasty Sir Griffen. The two display open contempt for each other as their marriage plans proceed. They fight like cats and dogs and even manage to assault one another prior to their wedding day.
All of this sounds like a dark story. Thematically it is. However these situations, while presented as being ultimately serious, are more often than not presented in a humorous and, at times, hilarious manor. As this cast of bizarrely flawed characters clash and conflict with one another and with the world at large, their antics provide one entertaining anecdote after another. Trollope displayed some cynical wit in the other books that I have read, but never to the degree that it is displayed in this book. This is a very funny work.
Trollope’s books all contain a moral center. Despite the turn to darker themes here, this core is still present. Here, morality is mostly represented by Lucy Morris. She is a virtuous and ethical woman. Her fiancé, Frank Graystock, neglects her terribly. Lucy is hurt by this treatment but continues to act with nobility and grace. Near the end of the book a confrontation between herself and Lizzy reinforces Trollope’s ethical view of the world.
With all of the terrible behavior displayed by so many of the characters, and the unblemished virtue of Lucy, I found the characters in this book to be more simplistic than the usual Trollope fare. Frank Graystock, who is very flawed but who does the right thing in the end, is this novel’s most complex character.
As nasty as some characters in this book are, they are still unique, interesting and often very funny. However, in the end, I thought that this work was less nuanced than other Trollope books that I have read. What it lacks in complexity, it partially makes up in humor however. This is the funniest Trollope novel that I have read so far.
As noted above, this novel is a little different from many other Trollope books. Nevertheless, it is infused with Trollope’s superb writing traits, including his trademark meta-fiction style, interesting and funny characters, great dialogue and many other things to earn recommendation. While it can be read as a stand alone book, I recommend at least reading the first two Palliser books first for full effect (There are crossover characters between these books and The Chronicles of Barsetshire, thus the two series together can be viewed as one giant series. My recommendation, for completeness, is to read both of the series, in order). Ultimately, this is an extremely entertaining novel that I highly recommend for both Trollope fans and general fans of Victorian literature.
My commentary on the first book of the Palliser Series, Can You Forgive Her? is here
My commentary on the second book of the Palliser Series, Phineas Finn is here