Thursday, April 16, 2015

He was astonished to find how sweet a thing was poetry - Trollope characters read

Should I write about the books in The Eustace Diamonds.  Whenever I can, I write about the books.  They are so much fun.  Even a shortage of books is fun:

“There isn't anything for you to do.  There are Miss Edgeworth's novels down-stairs, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in my bed-room.  I don't subscribe to Mudie's, because when I asked for ‘Adam Bede,’ they always sent me the ‘Bandit Chief.”  (Ch. 34)

John Sutherland did the notes in the Penguin edition I read.  He tells me that the lending library would substitute books if it thought your request was unsuitable, so the shocking Adam Bede is replaced by The Bandit Chief; or Lords of Orsino. A Romance (1818).  The poor heroine, Lucy Morris, not the pathological liar but the novel’s more traditional heroine, is being punished for the sins of her fiancée here by being forced to live with a woman who has only four books.  If I thought summaries of novels were of much value I would explain why.

Lucy has her own book, too, Proverbial Philosophy by Martin Tupper, a poem in three volumes with a “theme of self-help.”  What a dreadful thing to be stuck with.  I would have Pride and Prejudice and Castle Rackrent memorized by the time I left that house.  In her previous house, this character had “catalogued the library” (Ch. 3) for fun, so that is who she is.

Most of the reading in the novel is done by the false heroine, the actual protagonist, the “dishonest, lying, evil-minded harpy” (Ch. 11) Lizzie Greystock, Lady Eustace who in a bold break from novelistic tradition is not led to her ruin by over-indulgence in novels but by her love of poetry, especially Romantic poetry, in particular Byron and Shelley.

“Ah,” she would say to herself in her moments of solitude, “if I had a Corsair of my own, how I would sit on watch for my lover's boat by the sea-shore!”  And she believed it of herself, that she could do so.  (Ch. 5)

She means this Corsair, the Byronic Corsair from The Corsair (1814), the one with a “forehead high and pale” and “sable curls in wild profusion.”

The comic high point of the thing is the three page scene in Chapter 21 in which Lady Eustace reads Percy Shelley’s Queen Mab (1813), sacred text of the radical Chartists, en plain air.  “Her darling ‘Queen Mab’ must be read without the coarse, inappropriate, everyday surroundings of a drawing-room…”  But the bench is too uncomfortable and “there were some snails which discomposed her.”  Finally, she makes it through the first stanza, “eight or nine lines,” which are so magnificent that she memorizes them.  She never progresses a line farther with Queen Mab:

As she grew older, however, she quickly became wiser, and was aware that in learning one passage of a poem it is expedient to select one in the middle, or at the end.  The world is so cruelly observant now-a-days, that even men and women who have not themselves read their "Queen Mab" will know from what part of the poem a morsel is extracted, and will not give you credit for a page beyond that from which your passage comes.

Again, we are in Chapter 21 – yes, I read the novel.  Trollope rubs in the joke at the beginning of the next chapter, noting that Lady Eustace had meant to finally read The Faerie Queene at this time, but due to distractions reads even less of it than the Shelley poem, instead wasting her time with novels.

My title is from the first chapter; the theme runs through the entire book.  Trollope always does the same thing, I always think, but I am always in some ways wrong.


  1. Is it my imagination or are you running into a lot of anti-snails literature this year? Whatever, I foresee the logical sequel to mummified cats week this year at last even if nobody else does.. And as a type, the "false heroine" sounds like my kind of woman whatever her other pros and cons!

  2. Pinocchio did have a superb snail.

    This Trollope novel is almost the one for people not that interested in Trollope novels. Of course for 500 or 600 of its pages it is definitely a Trollope novel. But the chaos-spreading, gleefully lying protagonist give the book a different tone.

  3. Oh, gosh, I really should read some Trollope this summer. The selections you quoted had me laughing. He really is a lot of fun.

  4. Is anyone better at making fun of novels and readers than novelists? I think not.

  5. Great fun. Depending on one's taste for marriage proposal scenes, also perhaps tedious. But often quite funny. Sometimes savagely funny. I do not think I saw him taking after novelists or poets before.

    There is also a good jokey attack on the very magazine in which the novel was appearing as a serial. I love that, although Gaskell had done it in Cranford 20 years earlier.