Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Eustace Diamonds

Like many readers, I love Victorian novels in part for their sprawling capaciousness. Needing to fill out each monthly number drove Victorian novelists to layer plot twists and characters in a way that contemporary novelists have no real pressure to do. (In fact, I recently figured out why Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children (2006) left me unsatisfied: it was Victorian in ambition but nearly 300 pages short of Victorian in length, and that absence was evident in the way that crucial facets of central characters felt sketched rather then fully imagined, let alone fully drawn.) Anthony Trollope was not much for plotting--Dickens, whom he criticized for his melodrama, could have plotted circles around him. But he was such a professional (committing himself to writing 250 words every hour he was at his desk) and such a perceptive observer of human nature that the heft of his novels usually goes unnoticed, filled as they are with detailed explications of interesting characters. The Trollope novels I've read feel less like treks through a plot, from a start to an obvious finish, than they do visits with some interesting people and their society, to be begun at any point and to be ended at the first convenient marriage; that they come up to the length of a typical three-decker Victorian novel seems incidental.

In The Eustace Diamonds (1873), however, Trollope fails to hide the padding. The perils of serial publication make themselves known, as the plot is repeatedly summarized and conversations, if not exactly repeated, are at least echoed. Midway through the book, Trollope, who rode to hounds a couple of times each week, lets his love of hunting love get the better of him in an extended scene of a hunt, one that has none of the drama of the hunt in Phineas Finn (1869). In addition, at that point in the novel he introduces several new characters who, while individually at least somewhat interesting, as a group slow the novel and draw attention away from its central characters.

Despite that, The Eustace Diamonds is worth the occasional slog, offering many typical Trollopian pleasures. His authorial statements about human nature, though never so aphoristic or philosophical as George Eliot's, are as usual confident and convincing. Here, for example, he shows us Lizzie Eustace, the perpetual dissembler at the center of the book's events, exploding with frustration:
"And is there to be no punishment?" she asked, with that strong indignation at injustice which the unjust always feel when they are injured.
Then there's his usual facility with the minutiae of character, as in this gently ironic description of a marriage proposal offered by the remarkably unremarkable Lord Fawn:
He was now standing upright before her, with the fingers of his right hand touching his left breast, and there was something almost of dignity in his gesture and demeanor.
That "almost" is nearly worthy of Waugh, who also came to mind (along with Ivy Compton-Burnett) when I read this batch of conversation between a young governess, about to be married, and the crotchety old lady whose companion she's to be until the wedding:
"Dear me;--sent you up in the carriage, has he? Why shouldn't you have come by the railway?"

"Lady Fawn thought the carriage best. She is so very kind."

"It's what I call twaddle, you know. I hope you ain't afraid of going in a cab."

"Not in the least, Lady Linlithgow."

"You can't have the carriage to go about here. Indeed, I never have a pair of horses till after Christmas. I hope you know that I'm as poor as Job."

"I didn't know."

"I am, then. You'll get nothing beyond wholesome food with me. And I"m not sure it is wholesome always. The butchers are scoundrels, and the bakers are worse. What used you to do at Lady Fawn's?"

"I still did lessons with the two youngest girls."

"You won't have any lessons to do here, unless you do 'em with me. You had a salary there?"

"Oh, yes."

"Fifty pounds a year, I supose."

"I had eighty."

"Had you, indeed; eighty pounds;--and a coach to ride in!"

"I had a great deal more than that, Lady Linlithgow."

"How do you mean?"

"I had downright love and affection. They were just so many dear friends. I don't suppose any governess was ever so treated before. It was just like being at home. The more I laughed, the better everyone liked it."

"You won't find anything to laugh at here; at least, I don't. If you want to laugh, you can laugh upstairs, or down in the parlor."

Most of the drama of the novel is precipitated by characters feeling forced by circumstance to make impossible choices: marry for love or marry for money; break an engagement one knows to be wrong, or marry, and keep the approval of society while losing one's conscience. One of the book's relatively minor characters, the young Lucinda Roanoke, throws those dilemmas into stark, even shocking relief, crystallizing the themes of the novel in her horror at the concept of her impending marriage. She speaks frankly, cruelly, and with a strain of deep, angry fatalism, refusing to pretend that the marriage is anything but forced. She hates her fiance--hates the very idea of marriage--and her disgust after their first embrace is unexpectedly blunt:
When she was alone she stood before her glass looking at herself, and then she burst into tears. Never before had she been thus polluted. The embrace had disgusted her. It made her odious to herself.
Yet she marches onward towards the fateful day, unable to see a way out.

George Eliot, in The Mill on the Floss (1860), refused to allow a compromise with society once she'd put her heroine into a situation where there could be no right choice; instead, she brought on an apocalyptic flood. Thomas Hardy, too, who was just launching his career at the time of The Eustace Diamonds, would time and again reach for the tragic and violent in that sort of situation. In the story of Lucinda Roanoke there are hints that Trollope may yet surprise us with a turn in that direction. The night before the wedding, Lucinda's grasping, overbearing aunt has a moment of worry as she sees her to her bedroom:
An indistinct, incompleted idea of some possible tragedy had flitted across the mind of the poor woman, causing her to shake and tremble, forbidding her, weary as she was, to lie down.
Could Miss Roanoke's story possibly end with a suicide? Trollope, it turns out, is not willing to go that far. Though he does not back down from his portrayal of the cruelty of her position--the marriage is called off, but Miss Roanoke remains in some sense permanently damaged--he allows it to fade into the background, as his primary characters meanwhile do find themselves able to make some accommodation, however flawed, to the demands of society.

But even as Lucinda's aunt waited outside her door, we knew that Trollope would not choose the tragic. It is not his form. He will criticize, satirize, lay out our failings for us to see--but if we are obstinate he will not force us to acknowledge those failings by foreclosing the possibility of individual happiness. I can imagine Trollope recoiling from the relentless gloom of Jude the Obscure, for he always remains conscious that his role is at least as much that of entertainer as of commentator. A novel, he wrote in his posthumously published Autobiography,
should give a picture of common life enlivened by humour and sweetened by pathos.
If that creed led him to turn away from the darkness and fatalism that would fuel a writer such as Hardy--and would be part of the reason his critical standing fell after his death and remained low for decades--it still left him a broad palette on which to present to us characters and situations that, more than a century later, still teem with life and insight.

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