It was interesting reading Harriet Devine's thoughts on Trollope's 'The Prime Minister' a few days ago because they came close to my own reaction to 'The Eustace Diamonds'. If I hadn't been determined to finish it I would possibly have given up in the first quarter of the book - which would have been a loss because in some ways this is my favorite Trollope yet, on the other hand it's the first time I've really come to grips with his misogyny and anti-semitism; the first time that I've thought of him as a man I might really have quite disliked if I'd met him and it was a bit of a shock.
The plot centers around the machinations of one Lizzie Greystock, soon to be Lady Eustace. Lizzie is the daughter of a spendthrift and disinterested admiral who dies leaving her penniless and basically friendless. She settles on life with an exceptionally unsympathetic and poor relation because she's a Countess with a townhouse and this will give Lizzie her best chance of finding a husband. In due course she lands her man, Sir Florian Eustace, Sir Florian is youngish, handsome, exceptionally wealthy, and generous with it, but is perhaps not a very intelligent man, nor does he enjoy the best of health. Trollope soon disposes of him - one assumes a mixture of hard living before his marriage and a broken heart after it dispatches him to an early grave leaving Lizzie as a well endowed widow with a child on the way and £10,000 pounds (almost half a million in today's money) worth of diamonds in the form of a family necklace.
Now Lizzie is unwilling to let go of the diamonds despite knowing that they don't really belong to her. The Eustace family lawyer is however determined that he will get them off her come what may. Lizzie in turn seeks a husband who she hopes will protect her and her interests, the serious contenders are Lord Fawn who proposes to her and then tries to back out when the question of the diamonds seems likely to embroil him in scandal, her cousin Frank who is both a barrister and a member of parliament and would find her money most useful, and a Lord George who Lizzie feels might share her piratical nature. All the men who pursue her are primarily interested in her money.
Inevitably the diamonds are stolen and from that point on the tissue of lies that Lizzie has woven are likely to be exposed in such a way that social ruin seems inevitable for Lizzie and likely for anyone closely associated with her. My problem is that I liked Lizzie and Trollope clearly does not. My previous experience with him, and the source of a great deal of his charm as a writer, is that he finds redeeming features and sympathy for even the blackest of his villains - not so poor Lizzie Eustace, he constantly reminds the reader that she's manipulative, dishonest, a compulsive liar, a thief, and generally a degraded sort of woman.
Perhaps by Victorian standards Lizzie's actions deserve a harsher judgement but for this reader it was hard to understand. As a girl she'd clearly had a poor example set by her father, left penniless she pawns some jewelry that hadn't been paid for (this must technically have been her fathers debt as I doubt an under age girl would have been allowed to run up a serious bill on credit with a jeweler) so that she can pay her maid and for some other basic necessities not available on credit. That her husband didn't take the time or trouble to learn more about his wife's character before he married her should surely reflect on his character rather than hers, and indeed many of Lizzie's 'lies' are unwittingly made when she doesn't understand what she's talking about - especially when she's talking about the property her husband left her and the conditions attached to it. True it's not very admirable that Lizzie marries a man purely for his money, but none of the men who consider Lizzie for the much smaller fortune she will bring with her as a widow are criticized quite so much, not even cousin Frank who neglects to tell her that he's engaged to another woman whilst definitely encouraging her affections. Trollope makes a few excuses for Frank, but seems to regard it as perfectly acceptable that his family should encourage him to court Lizzie who they do not like whilst he's engaged to a girl they do like, but don't consider good enough for lack of cash. And really - who would want to give up a fortune in diamonds once they had their hands on them? Especially diamonds one arguably had a right to wear of not dispose of...
Just occasionally it feels like Trollope might be relenting towards Lizzie, I think if he'd relented just a bit further, or had made it harder for me to sympathize with her (loving parents who had left her well provided for and a few friends to offer support would have made the lies and fraud harder to overlook) this would be an undisputed masterpiece. As it stands it's certainly Trollope at his most readable - so much is happening that there's very little room for page filling repetition, and so much of it is interesting. The double standards between acceptable behavior for men and women is fascinating - Wilkie Collins would have made this the center of the novel, I'm not sure Trollope is even really questioning them which speaks volumes about the society he's portraying.