I have no idea why I had such a hard time with the Jewel or Jewelry entry in this year’s What’s in a Name 4 Challenge, hosted again this year by Beth Fish Reads. After hemming and hawing for months, I finally settled on Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, but the only copy in my library was yellowed and smelled of mildew so badly that I couldn’t leave it in my bedroom. The first couple of pages didn’t convince me I wanted to buy it for myself, so I headed back to good old Goodreads, and started searching for jewels: rubies, emeralds, sapphires (man, was I annoyed that I reviewed Garlic and Sapphires last year), peridots – you name it. Still nothing. Finally I put in diamonds, and to my surprise a Victorian classic appeared: Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds. I believe I have read exactly one Trollope novel in my life (okay, I skimmed through Phineas Finn in college), so I thought this was a good opportunity to give Trollope another try.
Which is a very long introduction to explain why on earth I stuck with a close to 800 page novel that I really didn’t enjoy much.
Lady Lizzie Eustace is not a nice person. Trollope is determined that we understand that from the get-go. She is vain. And she is greedy. She is also beautiful, and she has a way of getting men to do what she wants them to do. She had a very rough childhood, and has been forced to make her way in the world with her feminine wiles. But don’t get all sympathetic or understanding. Because it’s very important you understand that Lizzie, despite her circumstances, despite her charm, despite her beauty, is an unsavory woman.
Lizzie is such a wanton woman that she would marry a man for money. Yes, men would later want to marry her for money, but that would be just a sensible shoring up the family fortunes. When the handsome but tubercular Sir Florian Eustace asked Lizzie to marry him because she was beautiful, that was noble. When Lizzie agreed because he was rich, that was very bad. In the end, Sir Florian underestimated his health. Certainly, he didn’t lie about it. He had come to realize that his wife was less than perfect. He found out she liked the money he had. Consumptive though he was, he died of a broken heart, realizing he had left his fortune to a woman who was impure.
And so it went, page after page after page of repetitive, pedantic sermonizing. In a nutshell, Lizzie was in possession of the diamonds, a part of the Eustace patrimony, upon Sir Florian’s untimely death, if you can consider the death of someone with late stage tuberculosis untimely. Lizzie’s son is the Eustace heir and could give the diamonds to her later on, but she’s a lousy mother and when the kid gets to majority he’s probably going to send her to live in one of the Eustace’s many barns. In the meantime, the Eustace family, through their obnoxious and supercilious lawyer, Mr. Camperdown, wants the diamonds back. This causes lots of problems, because Lucy rather likes having them. Lizzie loses Lord Fawn, the boring but titled man she wanted to marry, because Mr. Camperdown is his lawyer too, and Fawn is scared to pieces of him. Eventually Lizzie even loses the respect of the people whom she pays, which leads to the loss of the diamonds. Then she perjures herself, and loses the respect of everyone else. She finally marries the unsavory Mr. Emilus, a poor preacher who is rumored to be a Jew, which Trollope seems to see as some kind of divine retribution. Jiminy Cricket!
Oh, and Lizzie’s cousin, Frank Greystock, who thought more than once about marrying Lizzie for money (to shore up the family fortunes, you understand), winds up with the very poor, virtuous and milquetoast Lucy Morris, because that’s what happens in Victorian novels.
Clearly, Trollope fans are legion. I am willing to admit that I just don’t get it. His moralizing sent me up a tree. In my opinion, it could have been such an interesting story if Lizzie had been drawn with a finer brush. But there’s no grey (except for the aptly named lawyer Frank Greystock) in Trollope’s world, especially when it comes to women. I wondered the whole time I was reading it what Elizabeth Gaskell would have made of Lizzie, since she is the only Victorian author whose characterizations of women I have enjoyed!
Needless to say, I won’t be joining the 2012 Trollope Challenge if there is such a thing. But finally slogging through The Eustace Diamonds means I’ve finished this year’s What’s in a Name 4 Challenge! Hurray! What’s in a Name is the reading challenge that got me to start a book blog, and it’s kept my younger daughter interested in reading for the past two years, so I wouldn’t dream of missing it – or not finishing! I’m already looking forward to What’s in a Name 5 – the categories have already been announced at Beth Fish Reads. Hope you’ll be joining us!