I’m never going to be a huge, huge Trollope fan — George Eliot will probably always remain my favorite Victorian novelist — but I’m very glad there are all those Trollope novels out there for when I’m in the mood for a good long story. Sometimes I want nothing more than to immerse myself in a novel that will take two or three weeks to read, and it’s just fine that that novel isn’t written by my favorite Victorian novelist. Too much George Eliot could weigh a person down after a while.
As I think about The Eustace Diamonds, I’m struck by how much it had to say about the darker side of human nature. There aren’t many characters worthy of admiration, and those who are worthy of admiration are dull. Lucy Morris is an absolutely angelic character, of the sort you see a lot in eighteenth-century novels where having an angelic heroine was practically a requirement — for respectable novelists at least — but Lucy is by no means the center of attention. She is a foil for the more complicated female characters and a plot device that highlights the foolishness of her love interest, but she is hardly interesting in and of herself.
The true center of the novel is Lizzy Eustace, a young woman who, the narrator makes clear, should never, ever be trusted. She is beautiful and charming, but she tells lies and manipulates people and deceives even herself. Her husband, Sir Florian Eustace, has died, leaving her in possession of the extremely valuable Eustace diamonds. The Eustace family says that the diamonds belong to the family as an heirloom and they would now like them back, but Lizzy doesn’t want to return them, and so she claims, falsely, that her husband gave them to her as a gift. When she learns that he bequeathed her everything in his home in Scotland, she claims, again falsely, that he gave them to her while they were in Scotland and so they are part of her inheritance.
And thus begins a struggle between Lizzy and the Eustace family lawyer that will take up the rest of the book. In one extraordinary scene, Lizzy travels to London carrying the diamonds in a heavy, cumbersome safe. While she and her traveling party are staying overnight in a hotel, the safe is stolen, but what Lizzy doesn’t tell anybody is that she had taken the diamonds out of the safe and hidden them under her pillow. At first her reasons for keeping this secret are relatively innocent — she is initially confused and then she feels silly for carrying around an empty safe — but she quickly realizes that she might benefit by making people believe that her diamonds had been stolen. This might be a way to win the battle with the Eustace family. So she keeps her secret and her deceptions become worse and worse.
Lizzy’s deceitfulness is only the worst example of flawed humanity in a book that’s full of such examples. Lizzy’s so-called friends take advantage of her as much as she takes advantage of them. Lucy Morris’s lover finds himself almost irresistably drawn toward Lizzy and is in danger of betraying the woman he has asked to be his wife. And in one of the novel’s most interesting subplots, a penniless young woman who would like nothing more than to never marry anyone ever, is pushed and threatened and badgered into an engagement that drives her insane, literally.
In the world of this novel, unless you are an angel like Lucy, you are most likely hopefully foolish, heartlessly mercenary, or stupidly obedient to the dictates of a corrupt society. There are hardly any happy marriages or true friends in this book. Lucy Morris’s example only highlights everyone else’s corruption.
I prefer to think that the world is not as Trollope describes it, and that if people like Lucy don’t often exist, as least people like her lover, who does show signs that he can overcome his foolishness and selfishness, are common enough. But I’m uneasily aware that I can be a little naïve. I don’t want to become jaded and cynical, but The Eustace Diamonds is a good reminder that there are plenty of reasons to be a little mistrustful now and then.