The Eustace Diamonds (1873) by Anthony Trollope

EustaceDiamonds

A few weeks ago I went along to a lunchtime talk at the library by a representative from the Anthony Trollope Society. This year the Society is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Trollope’s birth so much of the talk was devoted to all the ways in which the Society has been commemorating Trollope this year. I did, however, pick up some interesting facts about the man himself along the way…

Did you know, for instance, that Trollope published nearly fifty novels in his lifetime, not including a huge number of non-fiction books, short stories, articles and plays?

Or that his mother was the adventuress Frances Trollope, who wrote a series of novels and travel books (including the hilarious sounding Domestic Manners Of The Americans)?

And did you know that Anthony Trollope is credited with introducing the red Post Office pillar boxes to Britain?

I certainly didn’t. The talk was great – marred only by the elderly gentleman to my left who seemed intent on falling asleep on my shoulder – and I came away even more convinced that I wanted to read something by Trollope. I’m sure I’ve probably mentioned that I’ve been thinking about this for a while now but I’ve been a bit daunted by the sheer number of books that Trollope wrote. Where to begin? The speaker recommended The Warden as a good introduction but sadly I couldn’t find a copy of this in the library or at the Oxfam shop. I did, however, find The Eustace Diamonds for £1.49 and this seemed like as good a one as any. Its the third in Trollope’s Palliser series and although I hadn’t read any of the preceding books it really didn’t make much difference. It’s almost a standalone novel except that some of the Palliser characters appear every now and again to comment on the ongoing diamond saga.

There’s an enormous cast of characters in The Eustace Diamonds but all the action centres around the penniless Lizzie Greystock who, at the beginning of the novel, charms the wealthy Lord Florian Eustace into an unhappy marriage. On his death a few months later she receives a generous settlement, including a castle in Scotland and several thousand pounds a year to live on for the rest of her life. She’s now a rich, young woman. Unfortunately this isn’t enough for the greedy Lizzie, who also decides to keep for herself an expensive diamond necklace, a Eustace heirloom that has been in the family for generations. It was given to her by Lord Florian to wear during their honeymoon but she now does everything in her power to resist having to return it to the Eustaces.

“Sometimes to me she is almost frightful to look at.”

“In what way?”

“Oh, I can’t tell you. She looks like a beautiful animal that you are afraid to caress for fear it should bite you; an animal that would be beautiful if its eyes were not so restless and its teeth so sharp and so white.”

Trollope makes it clear from the beginning – in the second sentence in fact – that we’re not to like Lizzie. She’s devious, dishonest, whiney and quite willing to trample all over everyone else to get what she wants. She also has no idea how awful she really is because in her eyes everyone else is at fault. She’s so manipulative, so annoying, that I found myself wishing that she’d get her comeuppance as soon as possible. I warmed to the peripheral characters much more although it was a bit of a shame that some of them seemed to disappear for long periods of time.

I like the way that Trollope really cleverly links together this quite disparate group of people and shows how the decisions made by one of them can impact on all the others. He’s also brilliant at describing the complex inner lives of his characters although sometimes these descriptions can run to a couple of pages at a time. On the one hand this means you get to know the mindset of each character in intimate detail; on the other it can take ages for anything to happen! It’s a long book and sometimes quite dense so I think if you prefer books with quick moving plots and lots of dialogue then this would probably be a complete nightmare for you!

As much as I enjoyed this book I did feel that it was perhaps a trifle too wordy. It seemed to flag a little in the middle (although this could have been partly because I was reading less in the middle of this week) although it did pick up again in the last quarter. A bit of whittling down might have been a help though. Perhaps Trollope could have taken out some of the Palliser chapters (and perhaps even some of those hunting trips) to make a smaller but equally as enjoyable novel.

It took me just over a week and a half to read this book and on the whole I really enjoyed it. It’s quite nice every now and again to read something that you really have to study to appreciate. And I really loved his characters; they were so beautifully described, even the nasty ones, that for a short time I felt like I knew these people intimately well. I’m so glad I finally took the plunge with Trollope and I’m excited about reading some more!

Far From The Madding Crowd (1874) by Thomas Hardy

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

I was able to squeeze in a few solid hours of reading time yesterday and finally turned the last page at about 11pm. I could have finished earlier – on the train home from work even – but I decided to delay the last few chapters so I could finish them in bed. This is one of life’s little pleasures I think: finishing the book, turning out the light, thinking it over while you fall asleep…. I think Far From The Madding Crowd is one book that deserves a bit of mulling over.

Far From The Madding CrowdEverything centres around the beautiful (of course) Bathsheba Everdene, who inherits her uncle’s farm in rural Wessex and determines to run the estate herself without the hindrance of a husband or farm bailiff. In doing so she’s brought into contact with the three men who end up having a huge impact on the course of her life and the novel. There’s Gabriel Oak, her loyal shepherd; her neighbour, the reserved and repressed Mr. Boldwood; and Sergeant Troy, the rakish soldier who struts in mid-way through and undermines all the romantic groundwork put in by the other male characters. Bathsheba makes some poor choices, inadvertently hurts her admirers and gets hurt herself in turn.

Despite my initial reservations I ended up admiring Bathsheba a great deal. If she wasn’t such a strong, persuasive character I wouldn’t have cared enough, I wouldn’t have felt so drawn into her troubles. Slowly the reader understands that despite all of her faults – her extreme vanity, impulsiveness and pride – she’s really not all that bad. She has courage, conviction, self-belief and there’s even a little kindness under all that haughtiness. I do love a strong, independent female character (especially in a classic Victorian novel) and Bathsheba Everdene is exactly that. She isn’t a victim of circumstance; it’s her behaviour and her choices that drive the plot forward.

As I’ve mentioned, the plot takes a while to get going and I found the slowness infuriating at first. I see now, though, that this is really one of the best things about the novel. In fact, the slowness is the whole point. It’s satisfying to watch as Bathsheba eventually realises that her only friend, the only one worth having, has been there all along. It’s a relationship that evolves slowly, through the hardship and destruction caused by past affairs.

“They spoke very little of their mutual feelings; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality.”

I think I might be a little bit in love with this book.

Daniel Deronda (1876) by George Eliot

‘No,’ said the Princess, shaking her head and folding her arms with an air of decision. ‘You are not a woman. You may try – but you can never imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl. To have a pattern cut out – “this is the Jewish woman; this is what you must be, is what you are wanted for; a woman’s heart to be of such a size and no larger, else it must be pressed small like Chinese feet; her happiness made as cakes are, by a fixed receipt.”’

Daniel Deronda imageThis was a £1.99 purchase from the Oxfam bookshop near where I work. It’s a whopping 675 pages long (not including 414 footnotes and a lengthy introduction) so it works out at less than 0.002p per page. What a bargain!

As this is my first time delving into blogging it seemed like quite a good one to start with; big enough to sink my teeth into but still an author I’m already a little familiar with, having read Middlemarch last summer. It took just over two weeks to complete but for five of those days we were in Krakow and I read absolutely nothing at all, not even on the plane. Instead I spent most of each two hour flight in a semi-drunken haze listening to the Radio 4 War and Peace podcast (which is excellent btw).

So, what’s it about? Daniel Deronda is an earnest but rather disillusioned gentleman of ‘unknown birth’. In Germany he meets the beautiful and spoiled Gwendolen Harleth and watches silently from a distance as she carelessly fritters her money away at the roulette wheel. Gwendolen has come to Germany to evade the advances of Sir Henleigh Grandcourt after discovering that he already has a long-term mistress and several illegitimate children hidden away in the country. Deronda becomes inextricably entangled in Gwendolen’s troubles and their two stories are told side by side. At the same time, we hear about Mirah Lapidoth, “a little Jewess” Deronda has rescued from drowning herself in the Thames. In helping Mirah he finds himself drawn into the Jewish community and begins to question who he is and where he has really come from.

It’s fairly unusual for me to like a new novel immediately but there’s something about that first scene where Deronda watches Gwendolen at the roulette wheel. It was so good I went back and read the first chapter again when I got to the end. It’s a shame I didn’t find the second half of the book quite so gripping. It was an intense read and I found myself occasionally looking forward to the end.

But I can see why everyone is so captivated by Gwendolen Harleth. Even at her most vain and self-absorbed she’s never one-dimensional or irritating. She has all the excitement and all the wittiest lines. It’s bad news for poor Mirah Lapidoth, though, who never manages to be quite as compelling in spite of her dramatic entrance into the story. Eliot’s descriptions of Gwendolen are beautifully done. She somehow manages to be both ridiculously shallow and fascinating at the same time. Her determined belief in her own importance and her unwillingness to be ruled by anyone else make her feel thoroughly modern. When she eventually marries she does so believing that she will be able to ‘manage’ her husband and continue to have her own way in all things; the intense battle of wills which follows forms some of my favourite chapters.

The saintly Deronda, on the other hand, is likeable but his earnestness and compassion are sometimes overstated and can wear a bit thin at times. The novel is famous for the way it handles his introduction to Kabbalist philosophy and early Zionist politics but I must say that I found these chapters particularly tricky. I muddled through with the help of the footnotes. My feelings were summed up more than adequately by Gwendolen when she asked Deronda about his big plans with the words, “Can I understand the ideas or am I too ignorant?” It’s meant sincerely but when you’ve just slogged through hundreds of pages on Deronda’s ideals it has the unintended ring of sarcasm to it.

The most perplexing part for me was Deronda’s relationship with Mordechai. Somehow I missed whatever passed between them in their first meetings and spent several pages confused about what exactly was binding them together. They seemed to have made some vague agreement about something and I couldn’t really get to grips with what it was and why Deronda felt compelled to seek him out again. It’s possible I just blinked or let my mind wander at the key moment. It was only by going back and rereading some particularly dense passages that I found my way again. I can’t say that I was terribly gripped by their long philosophical discussions although I get that they provided an important contrast to Gwendolen’s unscrupulous behaviour and the general immorality of aristocratic society. I read in the introduction that Eliot grew frustrated with critics who suggested cutting the Mordechai chapters altogether which made me feel ashamed for being a bit bored by them. I’m sure some people do enjoy the Mordechai bits and get something out of them but for me they were a loooong, hard (and not very rewarding) chore.

Since finishing Deronda I’ve started The New Moon With The Old by Dodie Smith. It’s a much lighter read and I’m considering it my reward for persevering through all those chapters on the plight of the Jews in Victorian London. More on this later…