Tuesday, April 14, 2015

With whom are we to sympathize? - the great and only aim of The Eustace Diamonds

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.


  1. Shame on me! I am ignorant of Trollope. Well, since I have not read anything by Trollope, you tell me: why should I begin?

  2. Trollope is among the finest, funniest, most consistent second-rate writers available in English.

    He is an ethicist of real subtlety.

    In the tradition of Fielding and his mentor Thackeray, he is a sharp thinker about how fiction works formally.

    He created dozens of outstanding characters, comic, romantic, and pathetic. Probably not tragic, not really.

    He did not invent the political novel - that was, of course, who else, John Galt - but he made it secure as a genre.

    This month it is his 200th birthday.

    Those are some reasons why you should begin. I am not sure that they are convincing reasons. There is no shame here.

  3. I am persuaded. Ah, but begin with which novel(s)?

  4. I am not sure it matters much, which. The Warden is short, which is a plus, but the reader who is not neurotic about finishing books could try any number of them. It does not take long to get a sense of Trollope's voice.

    Wait, I know. The Guardian had a feature where writers pick their favorite Trollope novel. The choices were mostly pretty conventional. Ignore A. N. Wilson.

    1. Thank you. Setting my many neuroses aside, I defer to your Rx (The Warden is the front runner) and the recommendations in The Guardian (excepting the Rx from A. N. Wilson who obviously has rubbed you the wrong way).

    2. Well, 1) Wilson's choice concludes the Barchester series, and it is the only one that it would be strange to read without reading the others, so a bad place to start, and 2) he gets one major and one minor detail wrong in his description, although maybe he is doing that on purpose as some kind of anti-spoiler judo.

    3. Phineas Finn (book 2 of the Palliser/Parliamentary series) is a very good starting place, and has a direct sequel, Phineas Redux, which is in some ways better. Phineas Redux does spoil The Eustace Diamonds, though.

    4. Interesting. I have not yet read Phineas Redux. I suppose it will be the next one. I agree that Phineas Finn is a perfectly reasonable first Trollope, especially for a reader genuinely interested in Parliament and the workings of politics.

    5. Phineas Redux is less beautiful constructed and less concerned with day-to-day politics than Phineas Finn, but its moments of psychological intensity are more, well, intense, and it fixes the ending of Phineas Finn, if you found Phineas's romantic end less than satisfying.

    6. Phineas Redux also has this conversation between the Duke of St Bungay and Palliser, which I find really well done and moving, though I suppose whether or not it affects one depends on the person.

      "Your wife is unhappy because your uncle’s Garter was not at once given to you.”

      “Glencora is like other women — of course.”

      “I share her feelings. Had Mr Gresham consulted me, I should not have scrupled to tell him that it would have been for the welfare of his party that the Duke of Omnium should be graced with any and every honour in his power to bestow. Lord Cantrip is my friend, almost as warmly as are you; but the country would not have missed the ribbon from the breast of Lord Cantrip. Had you been more the Duke, and less the slave of your country, it would have been sent to you. Do I make you angry by speaking so?”

      “Not in the least. I have but one ambition.”

      “And that is —?”

      “To be the serviceable slave of my country.”"

    7. That's good to hear. The end of Phineas Finn was only satisfying in that I knew there was a sequel. If I were a reader in 1868 I might have been grumpier.

    8. " Ignore A. N. Wilson."

      Good advice in general.

    9. Yes, out of politeness I omitted some other good reasons to ignore Wilson.

  5. I assigned The Eustace Diamonds once in a graduate seminar alongside (among other things) Vanity Fair. Lizzie and Becky make an interesting pair for thinking about how the two novelists do ethics (and women) differently.

  6. That pair would be a lot of fun in a class.

    Thackeray keeps secrets. Trollope hates secrets. That alone leads to all kinds of ethical differences. It is a big disagreement about how novels work.

  7. I had a professor who advocated Trollope for depression

  8. I can see where the professor is coming from, although we begin to overlap with what I am calling comfort. Would I recommend Trollope as a solace for depression to someone who has never read Trollope? Probably not.

    All the more reason to get to know Trollope early, before later hospital stays and so on, so we are prepared to be comforted.

  9. Interesting stuff on Trollope and secrets. I'm currently thinking a lot about The Unfortunates by B.S.Johnson, which (as you probably know) comes in loose chapters so you read the first and last in position but the other 25 in whatever order you please. It does away with any idea of 'suspense' and Johnson's "Oh, fuck all this LYING!" at the end of Albert Angelo seems somehow connected to Trollope’s ethical handwringing.

  10. This particular novel is primarily concerned with lying - the ethics of lying, the damage caused by lying, the suitability of different kinds of lies. Thus he always wants the reader to know when someone is lying. No tricks there. Trollope's idea of suspense is wondering how a character will solve an ethical problem - when will Lizzie finally tell the truth? - not if she told the truth.

  11. I just finished Can You Forgive Her? and the contrast between a woman who is weak, not bad (but the consequences are bad) and a woman who is bad, not weak, is quite interesting. I like your juxtaposition with the Thackeray very well, too, Rohan.

    I think Wilkie Collins makes comfortable reading, too, despite the secrets. Or because of the secrets -- at least I know what sort of secrets I'm getting into, by now. He's a hack, but he's my hack.

  12. "Hack" is not a bad word to me. How could it be, given how I write.

    Trollope actually mentions Becky Sharp at the beginning of Chapter 3, just getting his blatant theft from Thackeray out of the way early. The characters do differ in interesting ways. Trollope's character loves lying for the joy of the lie, which is fun, at a distance. Eustace Diamonds is funnier than Can You Forgive Her?, which is impressive.

  13. Not a huge fan of this one - the third of the six (as was the case with 'Doctor Thorne' in the Barchester series) turns out to eb the weakest of the bunch...

  14. 100% disagreement in both cases. Is it the suspense issue again?