I was so sad to reach the end of The Eustace Diamonds on audio book that I rushed to spend my next audible credit on a 20-hour BBC dramatisation of the full Barchester Chronicles. And then because of a sale that was on, I splashed out on Can You Forgive Her, the first of Trollope’s Pallister series. That gave me nearly 50 hours of listening pleasure ahead, thanks to the combination of Trollope and Timothy West who read the book with such excellent timing that I felt I got a great deal more out of it than if I’d tried to read it myself. And then, buoyed on that wave of grateful desire that only books can provoke, I bought du Maurier’s Rebecca in the audible sale and Francis Durbridge’s spy thriller, Tim Frazer Gets The Message. I love audio books, but I am picky about what I’ll listen to: classics and classic crime are what work for me.
Nineteenth century classics in particular are so much better for me this way. I admit I am an impatient reader; I like to know what happens next. Your average 20th century novel, which hovers around 250-300 pages is just about right for this Goldilocks. As soon as I get into chunkster territory, it takes a special book indeed to keep me reading. I admit I stumbled over the start of The Eustace Diamonds, in which Trollope takes about 40 pages to introduce the three main characters – characters with whom we will then spend another 600 revealing, incident-packed pages. This is an indication of how much publishing has changed. No editor today would permit an author forty pages establishing characters and I see the sense in that. I nearly gave up on the audio book. But as soon as the story kicked in, I was completely hooked.
Lizzie Eustace has lost her first husband after a brief marriage. This suited her very well; she knew he was dying when she married him, and she now has the title, the connections, the Scottish estate and the diamonds that she wanted. However, the Eustace family lawyer, the tenacious Mr Camperdown, is determined to get those jewels back off her. They are an heirloom, he claims, belonging to the family and not to Lizzie; no husband would give his wife a present of a £10,000 diamond necklace so lightly and she must return them. Lizzie is determined to do no such thing, and the lengths to which she will go to keep them, the trials and the tribulations that hanging onto the diamonds cause her, will form the spine of the plot. For Lizzie is a feisty heroine and a bad lot: she knows she is lying about her husband’s intentions, but she wants those diamonds. Like most manipulative people, she believes she is fundamentally a victim, and this provides her with sufficient justification to lie, cheat and scheme. Lizzie also needs a new husband and she fences with three distinct possibilities; an uptight aristocrat who is too wimpish to deal comfortably with her, her attractive cousin who is inconveniently engaged to a friend, and a society rogue who is her equal in double-dealing. The plot turns over like a Rolls Royce engine, and the lengthy digressions and explanations that seem so intrinsic to the 19th century narrative fly by when narrated by a clever actor.
One particularly length digression amused me – a whole chapter entitled ‘Too Bad For Sympathy’ in which Trollope bemoans his readers’ desire for only good people to appear in books as it is not at all true to life:
Our own friends around us are not always merry and wise, nor, alas! always honest and true. They are often cross and foolish, and sometimes treacherous and false. They are so, and we are angry. Then we forgive them, not without a consciousness of imperfection on our own part. And we know – or, at least, believe – that though they be sometimes treacherous and false, there is a balance of good. We cannot have heroes to dine with us. There are none.’
And he goes on about this at length – even more than I do! But it was entertaining to realise that nothing much has changed about some readers in 150 years, even if editors have altered beyond recognition. Ah but how I enjoyed this book! Listening to it was the key – if I’d been reading it, I would have had far less pleasure.