The Trials of Lizzie Eustace: Trollope, Sensationalism, and the Condition of English Law

Date01 March 2016
AuthorIan Ward
Publication Date01 March 2016
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 66±84
The Trials of Lizzie Eustace: Trollope, Sensationalism, and
the Condition of English Law
Ian Ward*
The Eustace Diamonds was published in 1872. It was the third of
Anthony Trollope's famed Palliser series. It represented, however,
something of a diversion, telling the story of the `cunning' Lizzie
Eustace who declines to return a priceless diamond necklace to the
estate of her recently deceased husband. Critics have supposed that
The Eustace Diamonds can be read as a contribution to the contem-
porary genre of `sensation' novels. Sensation novels were full of sex,
crime, and scheming young women like Lizzie Eustace. The law should
of course have brought to Lizzie to justice. But it does not; indeed it
barely tries. For the law in The Eustace Diamonds,asinsomany
`sensation' novels, is conspicuo us only in a failure that is as
metaphorical in purpose as it is prosaic.
The idea that writers might deploy the law as a metaphor for something else
is not new, and neither is the more particular idea that Victorian authors
might have done so in order to nurture broader reflection on the `condition'
of England. Charles Dickens's Bleak House is commonly read in these
terms. Dickens did not have much time for lawyers, especially those he
created, and not much patience with legal process. But it was not just
Dickens. Travesties of procedural justice lie at the heart of novels such as
Thackeray's The Newcomes, George Eliot's Adam Bede, and Mary Gaskell's
Mary Barton, whilst egregious lawyers can be found constantly wandering
throughout the pages of the Victorian canon. Nowhere, however, was the
failure of law so commonly deployed than in the so-called `sensation' novel
of the 1860s and early 1870s. The sensational `moment' was relatively brief.
But it was long enough, too long according to many. English literature was
*Newcastle Law School, Windsor Terrace, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 7RU,
ß2016 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2016 Cardiff University Law School
never the same again.
It was not simply that the sensation novel was written
differently. So too was it read differently. The purpose of this article is to
take a closer look at the sensational moment and, more particularly, at one
novel which was intended to be read perhaps at the margins of the sensation
genre, Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds. Trollope was a rather
evasive sensationalist, as we shall see, but when his devoted readers
encountered the first serialized parts of his novel in late 1871, they found
much with which they had elsewhere become all too familiar. There was sex,
crime, and a wicked woman; and there was a legal system which was
patently unable to do much about the sex, the crime or the wicked woman.
In the Preface to the second edition of his The English Constitution,
published in 1872, Walter Bagehot invited his readers to contemplate
England `in the time of Lord Palmerston'. It was not, in terms of strict
chronology, much of a reach. Palmerston had died in October 1865. In terms
of constitutional `reform', however, the intervening seven years represented
an `age'; or at least it did to Bagehot. Palmerston had known that placing
`power in the hands of the masses' only `throws the scum of the community
to the surface'.
But barely two years after the 79-year-old Palmerston's
heart had given out, whilst groping a maid on the billiard table at Brocket
Hall, the Tory administration of Derby and Disraeli had recklessly enacted a
second `mischievous and monstrous' Reform Act, as a consequence of which
England was now a very different place, and a much more worrying one.
There had, Bagehot soberly advised, been `great changes in our politics',
changes of a `pervading spirit'. The `bovine' masses had been given the vote,
for which reason he could predict only `calamity' and socialism.
Derby famously conceded that the Act represented a `leap in the dark'. But
he was persuaded of the evil necessity. As Disraeli averred, the `times' were
`tempestuous' and without another Act there would likely be revolution in
the streets of London.
1 See here P. Brantlinger, `What is ``Sensational'' about the ``Sensation Novel''?'
(1982) 37 Nineteenth Century Fiction 1, at 1±2. In Brantlinger's influential
genealogy, the `sensation' novel can be placed between late Gothic and the emergent
genre of detective fiction. If there had been no sensation `moment', there would not,
the surmise runs, have been a Sherlock Holmes or a Hercule Poirot. Winifred Hughes
places the sensation novel at the same `transitional' point: see her The Maniac in the
Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s (1980) 70.
2 M. Bentley, Politics Without Democracy (1996) 161.
3 W. Bagehot, The English Constitution (2001) 194±5, 197±8, 201±2; A. Buchan, The
Spare Chancellor: The Life of Walter Bagehot (1959) 138, 144±5, and 208, com-
menting on the tone of `settled melancholy' which characterizes the 1872 Preface.
4 A. Briggs, The Age of Improvement (1959) 497.
ß2016 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2016 Cardiff University Law School

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