Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1099
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 Fawn family. Lucy is a great favorite of Fawn’s unmarried sisters, and a particular favorite of Lady Fawn, their mother. Lucy enthusiastically returns Frank’s affections, and she agrees to marry him at a time in the near future, when he will be able to provide for her. The match is opposed by everyone close to either of them. When Fawn, on a visit to his mother and sisters, speaks disparagingly of Frank, Lucy vigorously defends him. To the profound regret of Lady Fawn and her daughters, Lucy then feels that she must leave the Fawn family home, in order not to divide a family she loves. She finds a position as companion to Lady Linlithgow.
Lizzie then takes a particular interest in her handsome cousin, and she considers the possibility of marrying him instead of Fawn. To lure Frank away from Lucy, she begins a course of seduction,...
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initiating it by repeatedly stressing to Frank that she is alone and friendless, besieged by Mr. Camperdown, who is determined to make her relinquish what she continues to assert is her personal property. To escape the pressure, she leaves London for a prolonged visit to Portray, her castle in Scotland. She invites Frank for a visit. At the castle, Frank is introduced to some of Lizzie’s new and rather peculiar friends. There are Mrs. Carbuncle and her niece, Lucinda Roanoke; Lord George de Bruce Carruthers, an adventurer and soldier of fortune whom Lizzie considers another candidate for a second husband; Sir Griffin Tewett, an unpleasant, ill-tempered young nobleman intermittently in pursuit of Lucinda Roanoke; and Mr. Emilius, a preacher with a popular following and a suspicious character. Frank finds them all rather unsavory; he leaves at the earliest opportunity.
Fearful that Mr. Camperdown will use some legal means to seize the diamonds, Lizzie keeps them in an iron box, and she takes them with her on her travels. On the return trip to London, the entourage spends the night at a hotel in Carlisle. Lizzie’s room is burglarized during the night, and the box is taken. During the investigation, she does not inform the police that the diamonds were not in the box at the time; instead, they are under her pillow. She is then, technically, guilty of perjury. In London, she becomes the guest of Mrs. Carbuncle, who tries to manipulate her titled guest to her best advantage. Mrs. Carbuncle’s primary objective is to arrange a marriage between her niece, Lucinda Roanoke, and Sir Griffin. Sir Griffin has no real interest in Lucinda, but he is perversely determined to marry her because she so openly loathes him. In the meantime, there is a second burglary, and this time the diamond necklace is stolen. It is discovered that the burglary is a conspiracy between Lizzie’s maid, Patience Crabstick, and Mr. Benjamin, a jeweler and money lender to whom Lizzie is in debt; she consulted him about the possibility of disposing of the necklace. The police soon apprehend the culprits, and Lizzie is advised, under threat of severe penalty, to tell the truth, which she does. The diamonds, however, were sold through foreign criminal channels; they are never recovered.
Pressured toward marriage with a man she despises, Lucinda has a nervous breakdown. Sir Griffin leaves the country; Lucinda and Mrs. Carbuncle also leave the country, the latter without paying Lizzie the money she had borrowed from her. Lord George is not interested in marriage, and Frank, thoroughly disillusioned with Lizzie’s lying and duplicity, follows his heart and marries Lucy. Lizzie returns to Portray Castle, where she charms a Scottish doctor into giving her a medical certificate in order to prevent her from having to return to London for further legal proceedings. At that point, the fortune-hunting Mr. Emilius returns, and, seeing his main chance, he proposes marriage, and Lizzie accepts.