As the thick grey rain came down today, I settled in with a cup of hot chocolate to finish my first Anthony Trollope novel,The Eustace Diamonds. (Later, when the rain turned to snow, a Harry Potter movie became necessary…)
Somehow, although The Eustace Diamonds is the third in Trollope’s Palliser series, I kept the title in mind because Nancy Pearl (famous Seattle librarian and author of Book Lust and More Book Lust) recommended it (or at least I think she did) and after trying and failing to get into The Way We Live Now, I finally bought this one and then, with Eva at A Striped Armchair mentioning reading 600 pages of Trollope in 24 hours, I was determined to finally read some myself.
My responses are somewhat mixed. I did find the pace a little slow (the book is over 700 pages, maybe I just haven’t read such a long book in a while) and oddly, it’s not really all plot or all character… now how to explain that. It has a calm, slow quality to it, the narrator is going to tell you a story, but with everything in order and not in a particular rush. He dwells at length on the slow building of how the main character Lizzie acquires the Eustace diamonds and how after her husband dies, she refuses to give them back. The battle between her and the lawyers over whether or not they are family heirlooms or a gift from her dead husband is described in great detail and sometimes becomes a bit repetitive, with the same arguments used again and again on both sides. Trollope explores his characters slowly, such as Lizzie’s cousin Frank who is half taken in by her but also in love with another girl, and yet with a far lighter touch than someone like Henry James. He is concerned with society, government, politics and the way small personal choices, such as lying to keep a diamond necklace, grow to large proportions in the eyes of many people.
Now that I think about it, Trollope seems to move at the pace of real life. He’s not deeply introspective with his characters but then neither is he a flashy plotter. But he gives what must be a more realistic view of regular Victorian life and society in London (and there’s a country house in Scotland too) than more famous Victorian authors such as Dickens, the Brontes or George Eliot. He is not as exaggerated, romantic or moral as those authors, but simply matter of fact.
I found that I was able to read it even during the agitation of a five hour long emergency room wait, it was calm and sedate and not anxiety inducing and yet had enough slow growing plot interest in it to keep me turning the pages. I then put it aside for a while to read The Waves by Virginia Woolf, but decided to come back to it after, partly for a break from difficult experimental fiction and partly just because I determined to finally read a whole book of his! And odds are, now that I’ve finished one, I may eventually go on to another since there’s a whole series to find out what happens to everyone in time.
Eventually as I settled into the pace and story of the book (the second half finally brings along a small mystery complete with police inspectors and a trial, inspired in part by The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins I think I read), I found that some of my worry about wanting to read as many worthwhile books as possible as quickly as possible was gone, leaving me with a calmer pleasure in following this story through to completion. It’s not the most exciting or insightful book, but it provided a rare moment of mental rest in my reading, a true feeling of being alone with a book and its characters as I solely focused on them instead of seeing all the other books I could be reading instead out the sides of my eyes.
Here’s the opening, see if it grabs you…
It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies — who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two — that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself. We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her.
I’ve read that Trollope based Lizzie partly on Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair and it does make me a bit curious to read that now!