Anthony Trollope books have become comfort reading for me, in the sense that after seventeen encounters with his books I do not have to spend much time learning the rules of his fiction. I have long overcome the most of the initial resistance that a text presents to a new reader. There is always some resistance – who are these people, and why them, and that kind of thing. But in The Eustace Diamonds (1871-3), begun at age 56 after writing dozens of novels, Trollope is not going to make any major changes to how he presents information, or the kinds of details he emphasizes. I know what I need to pay attention to now, on this page. Or I think I do.
I suppose this is not what many people mean by “comfort reading.” Maybe I should call it comfortable reading. Some readers relish the work in establishing the rules of a text, while others see it as a burden, thus the demand for novels in long series.
These are the opening lines:
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. She was the only child of old Admiral Greystock, who in the latter years of his life was much perplexed by the possession of a daughter. (Ch. 1)
I would like to go longer; the first paragraph is so good, Trollope in his cruel, funny Evelyn Waugh mode. Even if this Trollope novel is a Trollope novel like other Trollope novels, the author must keep himself entertained, so he takes as a protagonist someone unusual for him, a bad person. Trollope’s sympathy project, the heart of his fiction, is the demonstration that much behavior that looks bad is merely weak, and thus deserving of sympathy at least at the distance of fiction. He challenges himself in The Eustace Diamonds by writing about a woman who is an ignorant and pathological liar, “Too Bad For Sympathy” as the title of Chapter 35 calls her, who will definitely not “assume the dignity of heroine in the forthcoming pages” (Ch. 3)
“The major was not so well acquainted with Lizzie as is the reader, and he pitied her,” writes the bullying author in Chapter 68 after one more of Lizzie’s lies and after 600 pages with Lizzie as protagonist, but not heroine, so that the good joke here is after all of those pages with Lizzie and her thoughts, many readers will have felt some pity before the stern author reminded them that she is not weak, but bad.
That “Too Bad For Sympathy” chapter begins with an amazing four page attack on his readers. It is the hero of the novel who has been behaving badly, so the narrator must defend him.
But why should one tell the story of creatures so base? One does not willingly grovel in gutters, or breathe fetid atmospheres, or live upon garbage…
With whom are we to sympathize? says the reader, who not unnaturally imagines that a hero should be heroic. Oh, thou, my reader, whose sympathies are in truth the great and only aim of my work, when you have called the dearest of your friends round to your hospitable table, how many heroes are there sitting at the board?...
The persons whom you cannot care for in a novel, because they are so bad, are the very same that you so dearly love in your life, because they are so good.
It is very clever, the way Trollope sets up his omniscient narrator as the heavy, making me argue against him in Lizzie’s favor, but with the arguments he had made 300 pages earlier. The ethical argument of The Eustace Diamonds is not the comfortable part.