Lizzie Greystock is the only child of old Admiral Greystock, a retired naval officer and widower who devotes his declining years to wine, whist, and wickedness. Raised without the usual parental guidance, Lizzie enters womanhood headstrong, independent, strikingly beautiful, and, within the constraints of Victorian society, a little immoral. Her father dies when she is nineteen; he leaves her penniless. She is taken in by her aunt, Lady Linlithgow, a truculent old dowager who is as rigid in her principles as she is poor. She and her niece, for the brief period they live together in genteel poverty, despise each other.
Lizzie manages to attract the attention of a wealthy young nobleman, Sir Florian Eustace. After a brief courtship, they are married. The marriage is also brief, but it is long enough to produce a male heir and for Sir Florian to become disillusioned with his bride, who is a liar and a spendthrift. Sir Florian, not a well man, dies within a year of his marriage. He leaves Lizzie a wealthy young widow, with four thousand pounds a year, a castle in Scotland, and a diamond necklace worth ten thousand pounds.
In the settling of the estate, Mr. Camperdown, the Eustace family lawyer, pressures Lizzie to place the necklace, which he declares a family heirloom, in a bank or some other place of security, but Lizzie claims the necklace as personal property, given to her expressly as a gift from Sir Florian. She refuses to comply with the lawyer’s request. Determined to protect the family’s interests, Mr. Camperdown begins a prolonged legal campaign to have the diamonds returned. As the lawyer begins his efforts, Lizzie is working her charms on Lord Fawn, a noble but impoverished member of Parliament for the Liberal Party. For the aspiring politician, marriage to the lovely and wealthy Lady Eustace seems, at first, a definite asset, but as the diamond necklace controversy becomes increasingly public, Fawn, a timid and self-centered man, begins to question the wisdom of his marriage proposal. Rather than face the formidable Lizzie, he simply neglects her. Lizzie turns for assistance to her cousin, Frank Greystock. Frank is a Conservative member of Parliament and a political opponent of Fawn. As a matter of honor, Frank takes up the cause of his widowed cousin, accepting her story that Sir Florian gave her the diamonds as an outright gift, to do with as she pleased. The story, however, is another of Lizzie’s many fabrications.
Fawn and Frank become personal, as well as political, enemies, and the issue is further complicated by the fact that Frank falls in love with Lucy Morris, a young woman with no fortune. She is the highly regarded governess for...
(The entire section is 1099 words.)