The Eustace Diamonds

by Anthony Trollope

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Critical Evaluation

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Anthony Trollope is noted for his penetrating analysis of Victorian society; he is particularly noted for the manner in which he treats the understated interaction between virtue and hypocrisy. The values that motivate this interaction are the primary themes of the novel: marriage and money. In The Eustace Diamonds, marriage, the sanctioned union between man and woman in love, is an ill-considered venture for the bachelor without a personal fortune. Love, although ostensibly revered and idealized, is a secondary concern. Lizzie Eustace, the protagonist of the novel, is very beautiful and engagingly clever, but it is quite clearly the income inherited from her deceased husband that attracts her suitors. Her counterpart and diametric opposite, in both values and outward appearance, is Lucy Morris, plain, virtuous, highly principled, and penniless. Characteristic of Victorian novels, both women are orphans who enter adulthood without money; however, Lizzie, motivated by material ambition, seduces and charms a wealthy young nobleman in order to alter this condition. Lucy, however, is fundamentally incapable of seduction and duplicity. Once Frank Greystock has proposed marriage (to take place at some future undetermined time) her fidelity is constant and unwavering. Even when she is close to believing the popular view that Frank’s proposal has been hasty and impractical, and that the pressures of his fledgling political career may make it necessary for him to rescind his offer, she is quite willing to release him if that is his choice. She remains resolute and unvindictive in her belief in his goodness and integrity. Conversely, Lord Fawn’s second thoughts regarding his proposal to Lizzie inspire Lizzie to thoughts of vengeance and humiliation. The reader is fully aware of the fact that Lizzie will feel no ethical impediment in exacting her revenge. Lucy is incapable of telling a lie; Lizzie is almost incapable of telling the truth.

In The Eustace Diamonds, Trollope creates the same literary paradox that makes John Milton’s Satan a more compelling character than Christ in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Although Lucy is a paragon of Victorian womanhood, in her constancy she is relatively static. She lacks complexity, and she is eminently predictable. By contrast, Lizzie is by far the more interesting character, perhaps the most engaging bad woman in English literature since William Makepeace Thackeray created Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair (1847-1848, serial; 1848, book). For readers removed by time from the social environment of Victorian England, Lizzie, compared to Lucy, is considered by some critics the more admirable of the two. Her pragmatism and ingenuity in a society dominated by men and masculine values reveal a commendable fortitude and, in an oblique way, a personal integrity. Pressured by the formidable legal establishment of conventional London to relinquish the diamond necklace to the Eustace estate as a protected heirloom, she has the temerity to resist. When Mr. Camperdown redoubles his efforts to intimidate her into compliance, she cleverly circumvents both coercion and persuasion, becoming in the process a cause célèbre, London’s notorious woman.

The diamonds, however, and the burden of the money they represent remain a symbol of discord. Throughout the novel, money brings disruption rather than stability, discontent instead of tranquillity. The diamond necklace, which Lizzie seeks to appropriate from the holdings of the Eustace family, affords her no personal pleasure. She has the constant anxiety that it will be seized by Mr. Camperdown, whom she stubbornly, and often inexplicably, resists. Paradoxically, even as she wishes to be free of the necklace, she guards it constantly, trusting no one.

Unlike Lucy, Lizzie is a solitary figure. Other than her credulous and naïve cousin, Frank Greystock,...

(This entire section contains 882 words.)

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Lizzie has no friends; she has only parasitic adherents such as Mrs. Carbuncle and Lucinda Roanoke. Money remains central to Lizzie’s eligible suitors, and it is continually conflicting in its roles of lure and impediment. Frank and Lord Fawn recognize that their careers require a marriage that brings with it a significant financial advantage. Marriage to Lizzie is for both men a very genuine and promising option. Frank’s marriage to Lucy, however, is Trollope’s sentimental concession to his readers, in direct contradiction to the reality of the society in which Frank has made his way. As Lizzie’s notoriety in the matter of the necklace threatens to be a full-blown scandal, Fawn realizes that his marriage for money may, conversely, prove to be prohibitively expensive to his career in other ways. Lord George de Bruce Carruthers, whom Lizzie realizes is a cynical fortune hunter—and, perversely, finds him more appealing because of it—concludes that the dangers outweigh the financial incentive. Mr. Emilius, the preacher (confidence) man who is far more cunning and deceptive than the roguish but straightforward Lord George, waits in the figurative shadows, making his advances to Lizzie only after the scandal of the diamonds is resolved, and there is no danger that those close to her will be drawn into it.

Although Trollope concludes the Lucy/Frank relationship with a conventional happy ending, The Eustace Diamonds reveals the degree to which Trollope sees nineteenth century British society as governed by what Thomas Carlyle termed the “cash nexus.” It is a world in which the honored values of civilized society are inevitably subsumed by wealth and the social position that such wealth creates and sustains.