Monday, 5 December 2011

Diamonds Are A Girl's Worst Enemy

After a hard month reading and reviewing German literature, it's time to kick off my shoes and slip into something a little more comfortable, and those of you who have been around my blog for a while will know that there's little I find as comforting as a reread of some of my favourite Victorian literature.  So today, for the third time this year, we're heading back into Anthony Trollope's Palliser Novels for a little R & R - slippers please...

The Eustace Diamonds is the third of Trollope's 'political' Palliser novels, but it is perhaps the least political of them all.  The story centres around Lady Elizabeth Eustace (known to her friends as Lizzie), a young, beautiful widow, who has made her fortune by capturing the hand of a Lord, shortly before his death through dissipation.  Not content with being left money, property and a regular income in her husband's will, Lizzie decides to appropriate a diamond necklace which is in her possession at the time of her husband's death - an ornament which the family lawyers are not prepared to let her have.

Lizzie, attempting to brazen out the situation, decides that her case will be better served by finding a new partner to fight her battles for her; the only problem is that the men she considers as potential partners all want her to give the diamonds back.  As the cunning Lady regards her potential beaus (the dull but steady Lord Fawn, her manly barrister cousin Frank Greystock, and the slightly dangerous Lord George de Bruce Carruthers), she continues to fight off the best attempts of the lawyers to seize the jewels.  Until, that is, someone else takes an interest in the precious stones...

I'll get it out in the open at once - The Eustace Diamonds is one of my least favourite Trollope books.  I had that feeling before starting it this time, and my opinion certainly hadn't changed by the time I got to the last page.  Although the Pallisers are mentioned several times over the course of the two volumes, the reality is that this is a stand-alone novel, and one which (in my opinion) overstays its welcome.

The key to the novel is the character of Lizzie Eustace, a no-good, cunning, treacherous gold-digger, who would remind any well-read Victorian of Thackeray's own villainess, Becky Sharpe.  To succeed in her intrigues though, Lizzie needs the men surrounding her to be almost as bad as she is, and this is where Trollope falls down a little in this book.  The world seems incapable of doing anything about Lizzie's antics, and despite Trollope's constant explanations as to why people are content to have the wool pulled over their eyes, it feels like a bit of a hollow argument.

Of course, it's not all bad (I wouldn't be reading it if it was...).  Lizzie is gradually worn down over the course of time by the pressure of having to fight for 'her' diamonds, and the writer describes Lizzie's psychological ordeal perfectly.  In fact, the diamonds almost become a character in their own right, one whose whereabouts are of pivotal importance to the story.  The idea of an item of great value becoming a burden not worth keeping, but equally something which you cannot part from, is not exactly unique in literature (my precious...), and Trollope almost makes you pity poor Lizzie - but not quite ;)

As always, Trollope also has a keen eye for the problems of Victorian women in their quest to be well married and less of a burden for those who must support them.  Quite apart from Lizzie's own need for a husband, there are several other marriage sub-plots, not all of which end well.  In particular, the frightening engagement of Lucinda Roanoake, a beautiful young American, and Sir Griffin Tewett, a brutal aristocrat, a 'romance' which ends with suspected mental illness, is one to put you off marriage for life...

At the end of the day though, I was very glad to get to the end of the novel, anticipating happier times when the series moves on to the next stop, Phineas Redux, featuring the return of our Irish friend Phineas Finn.  And, coincidentally, it was a character from Phineas Finn, Lord Chiltern, who best summed up my feelings about The Eustace Diamonds on the very last page:
"I never was so sick of anything in my life as I am of Lady Eustace.  People have talked about her now for the last six months... And all that I can hear of her is, that she has told a lot of lies and lost a necklace."
I couldn't have put it better myself  :)