As the dreadful tumult of the Napoleonic era drew to a close in the second decade of the 19th Century, there were born within a few years of each other half a dozen great English novelists: Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope and the three Bronte sisters, Anne, Emily and Charlotte. Together with the great novelist Jane Austen who was born a generation earlier, they would utterly dominate the literature of 19th Century England, producing dozens of classics that still delight the world to this day. Typically their heroes – and especially their heroines – were modest, truthful, devout and usually long-suffering, models of virtue and humble grace. True love always was crowned with nuptial garlands and property, meaning money and material prosperity, usually also flowed to the hero and heroine, who lived blissfully ever after.
But not always. Anthony Trollope’s novels feature heroes and heroines who were more complicated amalgams of virtues and flaws, and in many ways they are more realistic and interesting as a result. But probably none of them was as deeply shocking as The Eustace Diamonds. It tells the disturbing tale of Lizzie Greystock, who calculatingly marries a Sir Florian Eustace who is dying of tuberculosis, to inherit his wealth and lift herself out of the genteel poverty she cannot bear. He duly passes away, leaving her a wealthy widow and leaving her also the fabulously valuable diamond necklace referred to in the title, which immediately becomes the subject of a long-running dispute between her and her late husband’s family. She married crassly for money and greedily clings to it, and to the family jewels, through all the twists and turns of this delightfully acidic romp through high-Victorian society.
How scandalized the reading public of the time was by a main female character, who was so suavely repulsive. Her own aunt denounces her with the contempt born of familiarity: "She's about as bad as anybody ever was. She's false, dishonest, heartless, cruel, irreligious, ungrateful, mean, ignorant, greedy, and vile!" The wealthy widow spends much of this long book, trying to decide which of four possible husbands, all of whom need to marry money as she herself had done, would be most to her calculated matrimonial advantage. Lord Fawn has his tile and a fairly high position in Government, but he is snobbish and a booby. Her cousin Frank, who is the hero of book, has no title but is a good man who has bright prospects as a barrister; unfortunately, he is already engaged to a modest and likable woman, but this of course does not stop Lizzie.
The third penniless candidate is Lord George, a rakish and despicable rogue who brings a sense of adventure as well as his title. And fourth comes Mr. Emilius, a scheming and disreputable clergyman. And here Trollope really shocks again – portraying a man of the cloth as unscrupulous and repulsive would have been deeply shocking to a contemporary audience. But Lizzie is intrigued by him nonetheless. Here is her view of him: “…he was a greasy, fawning, pawing, creeping, black-browed rascal, who could not look her full in the face, and whose every word sounded like a lie...There was an oily pretense at earnestness in his manner which ought to have told her that he was not fit to associate with gentlemen." Can you imagine?
It is a rollicking, many-faceted story of the great folly of marrying for money and of the resounding sin that lying is, shaking human relationships to their core. The Eustace Diamonds is a delicious dark comedy, with outrageous plot developments; the story twists and turns like a rattlesnake on its fascinating mission of malice. And yet, outraged propriety is rescued at the end, the scoundrels all get their just deserts, the few good people in this rollicking story find their way safely home in the end. It will make you a Trollope fan forever.