Lizzie Eustace drives me crazy. Always has, always will — because Lizzie lies and gets away with it. The frustration of it! For a rule-abiding creature like me (and, I would guess, most of Anthony Trollope’s readers), Lizzie’s boldness and impunity are deeply exasperating.
But we keep on reading, don’t we? There’s a kind of train-wreck appeal to The Eustace Diamonds, filtered through Trollope’s level-headed sensibility. You don’t want to look away because Lizzie may finally get what she deserves but instead, she rolls on from one triumph to another, absolutely convinced of her own rectitude. That’s the genius of this character: she is so steeped in deception that she simply does not see the point of honesty, or recognize it when she encounters it. The Eustace Diamonds takes on an issue that clearly preoccupied Trollope: moral, social, and emotional deception.
Lizzie isn’t the only practitioner. She’s the boldest, in her appropriation of the titular diamonds, a fabulous necklace that formed part of the estate of her deceased husband. It’s worth £10,000 which, according to the notes for my 2011 copy, comes to some £457,000. Call it $711,000 at today’s rate of exchange — that’s a lot of rocks. Which Lizzie refuses to turn over to her late husband’s lawyers, causing a polite ruckus in polite society. But what are we to think of charming Frank Greystock, M.P., who is in love with virtuous plainspoken penniless Lucy Morris, but once having proposed to her, is caught kissing his cousin Lizzie? Or pompous Lord Fawn who proposes to Lizzie for the sake of her fortune, even though he doesn’t much like her? (I adore Lord Fawn and his seven sisters: Clara, Augusta, Amelia, etc. etc. right down to Nina: a brood of classic Victorian upper-class femininity.) To sharpen the point, Trollope includes several characters like the elderly Lady Linlithgow, so outspoken that she has no friends, yet proud of her honesty above all.
And if that weren’t enough, Trollope gives us a subsidiary marriage plot involving the mysterious Mrs. Carbuncle and her “niece” Lucinda Roanoke, whom she is energetically trying to marry off in spite of Lucinda’s ferocity toward all comers. Mrs. Carbuncle — with a putative husband in New York — is false from top to bottom, and Trollope uses her to exemplify a superficial prosperity and respectability that can offer access to English society. Mrs. Carbuncle, like Lizzie, adds shamelessness to her duplicity.
So, in the end, does Lizzie get away with her misdeeds? In a way she does. She certainly leaves the Eustace family lawyer grinding his teeth in polite rage. She has to settle for a husband who is neither handsome, nor even respectable. But she remains the heroine of her own tale and that’s probably why she’s fascinating. After all: it’s not what happens to you that matters: it’s what you think happens to you that counts.