Lizzie Greystock is a scheming, lying minx who persuades Lord Eustace to marry her; he soon dies having fathered a son. She is left the income (£4,000) from the Scottish estate for life and, so she claims, a £10,000 diamond necklace. But lawyers for the estate claim that the necklace is an heirloom. All is set for a legal battle in which possession is nine-tenths of the law.
She also wants to marry again, to gain a protector. She catches penniless Lord Faun in her wiles but he then wants to withdraw from the engagement because of the potential scandal about the necklace. So she then sets her cap at her cousin, barrister and MP (and also penniless) Frank Greystock. But he has pledged himself to governess Lucy Morris though all his friends tell him that he must break off this engagement because he cannot afford to marry on his barrister's income whilst still having the expenses that accrue to an MP (unpaid in these days). Every man who comes close to Lizzie is captivated by her beauty and turned inside out by her verbal dexterity in which she recasts all their honourable motives as bad and makes them believe that the only thing that they can do is to marry her; if she will have them.
About half way through the book, after a glorious invocation of the joys of fox-hunting, we meet a set of penniless adventures Lord George, Sir Griffin, Mrs Carbuncle and her daughter Lucinda Roanoke, and the preacher Mr Emilius (a rather racist portrait of a foreigner from somewhere to the East who is both stereotypically greasy and insinuating but simultaneously stereotypically sexually enticing). With the arrival of this crew the story really takes off and the plot begins to develop.
What is remarkable is how well Trollope portrays the central character of Lizzie: she is hypnotically awful; we hate her but we realise that she is clever and manipulative. The way that she keeps justifying herself with the mantra that the diamonds were hers is beautifully done. The tension about Frank (will he be honourable and marry poor Lucy or will he be a rat and fall into Lizzie's snares?) had me hooked from very early on. And the other characters are brilliantly drawn: this is a social comedy driven by character and in this sense is superior to Dickens. Whilst deploring the racism (but that means reading using hindsight) I was impressed by the way Trollope made it clear that Mr Emilius, though a liar to equal Lizzie, is sexually magnetic. Dickens is so black and white but Trollope makes you see the weakness in his heroes (even goody two shoes Lucy can get snappy) and the humanity in his villains.
Yes, it could do with some editing. The first half is too long and too dry. But the second half rattles along. This is a great novel.
Also on this blog, the next novels in the Palliser series:
- Phineas Redux: in which Phineas is tried for murder
- The Prime Minister: another unscrupulous foreign adventurer seduces another English gentlewoman for her father's money
- The Duke's Children: Can Mr Palliser apply his political principles to his own family as his children threaten to make yet more unsuitable marriages?
But The Eustace Diamonds has easily the best female character of the series.
August 2015; 687 pages