While I was studying for boards, I was reading this book, the third in the Palliser (or Political) series by Anthony Trollope. This series does a splendid job of recreating the world of Victorian high society, introducing characters in one book, then bringing them in as a natural part of the background in later books. (That means that you really need to read these books in order.)
The Eustace Diamonds opens in a style comparable to Pride and Prejudice: “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. . .” Lizzie in fact married a wealthy rake who died a year later, leaving her with a young son and a large fortune – and also the stunning diamond necklace of the title. The story follows Lizzie’s attempts to maintain possession of the diamonds and at the same time to capture another husband. Probably the second most important character is Lizzie’s cousin Frank Greystock, a poor lawyer, a member of Parliament, who is torn between Lizzie’s beauty and wealth (saddled with a poor character), and a devoted governess, with neither money nor looks to recommend her.
Trollope does a wonderful job of accurately portraying an inadmirable character, making Lizzie the protagonist of the book without making her a heroine. He describes her reasoning and motivation in a way that makes her underhanded actions understandable, though not excusable. Trollope, like Dickens, was accused of not being good at plotting. I cannot understand the accusation in either case. Trollope’s characters are complicated individuals, and their actions seem to spring naturally from what has been described of them, and naturally moves the story forward through various complications.
Of course, being of his time period, Trollope is what we would call a male chauvinist. Upon a certain woman making false excuses to avoid testifying to embarassing facts in court, he writes:
And is it not the case that false pretexts against public demands are always held to be justifiable by the female mind? What lady will ever scruple to avoid her taxes? What woman ever understood her duty to the State?
And yet, through other female characters, he spends a great deal of time examining the influence that a wife or sister can have on the course of state affairs, without being able either to vote or to hold office. In fact, he makes Lady Laura, in Phineas Finn, declare that if she could vote, she would not, as she exercises more influence through her fashionable salon than she could as an avowed comabatant in politics.
I can’t really write a review of this book without giving away too much of its plot, as well as of the plot of Phineas Finn, so I will just note that Phineas’ re-entry into English politics occurs in the middle of a great controversy about disestablishment of the Anglican church. The Conservative party finds themselves driven to start a bill for disestablishment, in order to win a pyrrhic victory over the Liberals, who find themselves obliged to oppose their favorite project simply because it comes from the opposing party. Other pieces of the plot include a jealous husband, two or three devoted ladies, a murder trial, and a good deal of hunting. This book is even more exciting than Phineas Finn. Both are highly recommended.