Monday, June 9, 2014

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

This is the first book I've ever read by Anthony Trollope and I thank Brian Joseph at Babbling Books for his interesting reviews of other Trollope novels which propelled me to download many of his works from Kindle (they're free!)

The Eustace Jewels is my kind of story in that it is not propelled by any profound plot but rather by the characters and the psychology behind what makes them tick.

The story starts out with a young girl, Lizzie, who is both neglected and spoiled by her dissipated father who dies greatly in debt,  in no little part to the jewels and clothes he bought for her.  He spent money but no time with Lizzie and when he dies, she is left alone while still a teenager.

An aunt takes her in, not out of pity or affection, but out of a sense of duty.  At least that is what the third party narrator of the story clearly states.  As I came to discover, the narrator misdirects.  He says one thing but shows another.  As I got to know the aunt through out the story, I came to the conclusion that the elderly woman was not so mean as hardened by the rough hand life had dealt her.

That is a common theme in The Eustace Diamonds:  how people survive when their prospects are bleak.  Trollope, through his third person narrator, shows how different people handle the cards they've been dealt.

First, Lizzie who, as I mentioned, has been orphaned and taken in by her crusty old aunt.  Lizzie's feelings toward her father are never described, but she hardly knew him.  She has nothing but contempt for the woman who keeps her from being a penniless orphan, calling her "the vulturess."

It should be mentioned that Lizzie is very beautiful and she does not reach twenty before marrying a rich baronet by the name of Florian Eustace.  He is young but sick with tuberculosis, a condition which is exacerbated by his wild and reckless lifestyle.  The reader finds him in the grave not a year after his marriage to Lizzie.

What Lizzie felt about Sir Florian isn't made known either, although the Sir Florian discovers on his sick bed that Lizzie lied about her feelings for him and just about everything else about herself.   Even though, Lizzie's attachment to the count appears largely to be mercenary, through out the book she exerts a lot of energy sentimentalizing her marriage and her late husband's adoration for her.  But what the reader is made to understand is that Lizzie is a great liar.  We also know that her motives are ulterior.  I believe today psychologists would label her with a narcissistic personality disorder.

When her husband dies, Lizzie is left property in Scotland, four thousand pounds a year (over $500,000 today), and a necklace made up of diamonds worth 10,000 pounds (you do the math).  

Or so Lizzie, now Lady Eustace, claims. The lawyer representing the Eustace family, is of the opinion that the diamonds cannot leave the estate, therefore while they are hers to wear during her lifetime, she may not sell them.

This is a problem for Lizzie because she did not learn the virtue of good financial stewardship from either her father or her husband.  The story's backbone is this contention between Lizzie and Mr. Camperdown, the Eustace attorney.  All sorts of things happen to the diamonds as Lizzie travels with them on her person, not trusting them to a bank or a jeweler.  Each episode makes Lizzie's character clearer to the reader.

Lizzie is a young widow and doesn't really need to marry for money, but she is a great romantic and also opportunistic.  A young man, Lord Fawn, comes to court her.  Lord Fawn, we are made to understand, is not the brightest of bulbs in the room, nor does he have much of a spine.  He is a man with a title but no money.  He must marry money to make a living.  Lady Eustace is rich and pretty to boot.  When he proposes, she accepts, not out of love, mind you.  She wants the title she would acquire by marrying a Lord.

Unfortunately for Lord Fawn, he soon finds he has engaged himself to a woman he didn't really know.  He afterwards is informed of Lady Eustace's shady character through one of his sisters.  When he learns of the necklace scandal he repents of wanting to marry her.  He tells her so.  Enraged, Lizzie refuses to release him of his promise.  

To make things more uncomfortable for Fawn, Lizzie's cousin, Frank Greystock, has taken her side and helps blacken Fawn's character about town (both are lawyers in Parliment.)

Frank Greystock is an intelligent young man who decides to marry for love rather than for money and, even though his family is against it, engages himself to a penniless governess, Lucy Morris who lives with Lord Fawn's mother and sisters.

But this is where things become complicated.  Fawn made a mindless blunder and he doesn't know how to honorably, or even legally get himself out of it. The engagement remains in limbo for most of the novel.

Frank Greystock, on the other hand, clear-sightedly obligates himself to Lucy, a young woman, as we shall see has all the strength of character and honesty and dumb love as any virtuous woman of the 19th century.

Frank, in his noble efforts to defend his cousin ends up spending a lot of time with her.  A naive thing to do on his part, because Lizzie doesn't just want a title, she wants an adventure.    That Frank really has no money, doesn't matter to her, neither does the fact that she is still engaged, at least tenuously, to Lord Fawn.  She brazenly flirts with and manipulates Frank and gets him in all sorts of incriminating situations, some of which, if they were found out, would give Fawn more than enough grounds to break off the engagement.

One would think that Frank would be revolted at his cousin's intentions.  Not only is he not, but he ends up spending most of his time with his cousin and doesn't see his Lucy for months.

This is what I find fascinating.  We're made to understand that Frank is a good man, with a strong and noble character.  He certainly views himself that way.  Fawn is a weak man, though of good moral character.  Frank despises Fawn for how he believes Fawn is treating his cousin.  Yet he doesn't seem to be aware of how he is treating Lucy.

What strikes me the most about Lizzie is that she has no friends.  She has companions, all of whom need her to financially support them.  She has a live in companion, Miss Macnulty, who puts up with all sorts of verbal abuse because she would be living on the streets if not with Lizzie.

There is also a Mrs. Carbuncle and her niece, Lucinda.  They have no money either, but because they are a part of society, they make the rounds of rich people's houses and attend all the best parties and look the part of rich Americans.  Mrs. Carbuncle is a strong, determined and heartless expert at extracting money from people, helping to increase her friends' debts while never diminishing her own.

Her primary objective in the novel is to marry her niece off to a rich man and rid herself the financial burden she causes, as well attaining a secure income for herself.  Mrs. Carbuncle treats Lizzie the way she treats everyone else and when they finally part ways, Lizzie is several hundred pounds the poorer.

There are many aspects to this novel and the commentary on Victorian life that I noticed.  First, there seemed to be a class in English society during the 19th century that was rich, but had no money.  Trollope never explains how they got rich or became poor, except that some of them got there by extravagant lifestyles they could not afford. There were people that were actually rich and stable such as Lizzie's brother-in-law, John, but their part in the novel is peripheral.  

Another observation is on the corrupted and ungodly reasons just about everyone had for marrying.  I know this is not a new theme and one that has been elaborated on from Jane Austin to Downton Abbey.  Still, it is amazing to me how the church was an established part of English culture as the Hindu religion is part of the Indian identity.  Nevertheless, it seems to be delegated largely as a cultural practice rather than a personal one.  

Everyone was a member of the church of England.  No doubt it would be shocking if one wasn't.  But Trollope shows what an empty ritual it is for most of his characters.  On the one hand, Lord Fawn is a cad if he breaks his promise to Lizzie, but no one questions taking vows before God and man with someone you couldn't care less about.  Marriage is reduced to a business transaction.  The fact the Frank's family and all of Lucy's friends find their engagement unrealistic and impractical because all they have is love to recommend it, highlights this point.

On the one hand, I ask myself is Trollope trying to convey an accurate or holistic picture of Victorian society or is he merely accentuating the worst of it?  If so, why?  Do bad characters create more interesting plots?  Or is this all he saw of the culture he lived in?  That would say more about the social circles he associated with than Victorian culture as a whole.

If, in fact, Christianity had become largely a cultural practice rather than a personal, meaningful belief and practice, I can understand how this paved the ground for Nietzsche, Freud, and other secular humanists.  When Nietzsche had the mad man in Thus Spoke Zarathustra say, "God is dead,"  he was not commenting so much on reality as he was saying how Christianity in Europe had deteriorated to the point of meaninglessness.  I think this is what the mad man means when he says, "We have killed Him."

The final thing I noticed is how the British leisure class not only disobeys Biblical truth in spirit but also in practice.  St. Paul said, "If one doesn't work, he doesn't eat." (2 Thessalonians 3:10) England and all of Europe had created a whole society where a group of people had all the money without earning any of it.  They inherited it and, as is usual in such cases when one doesn't work for what they get, they squandered it.

Hence there developed a class of "poor rich" people.  These people were in dire straits because their particular class didn't allow them to work (except maybe in Parliment) and furthermore, they were expected to maintain their place in society by spending money they didn't have to keep up appearances.  I would very much like to know how this class system developed and how it led up to the current socialized states that now exist in Europe.  A state which, ironically, has produced a leisure class at the other end of the class spectrum.  The end result is the same:  people living off the earnings of others. 

The end of the story sees Lizzie finally abandoned by all her friends and relatives.  Her reputation becomes so infamous that Lord Fawn unequivocally withdraws his attachment.  Frank comes to his senses and returns to Lucy, begging her forgiveness, and we already know about Mrs. Carbuncle.  There's more characters and sub plots but I don't want to give everything away.

Lizzie finally meets a man who has absolutely nothing to recommend him and she knows it.  She knows he is shady, greedy, mean, out for her money, and a liar.  He's a clergyman no less, but I guess that is consistent with the social commentary Trollope is making about the church. 

Lizzie sees this man clearly, but she doesn't think clearly.  She has lived in a fantasy world and plans to stay there.  In this man, she tells herself, she has finally found her corsair.  Here the story ends and we will have to imagine the rest.