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Lizzie Eustace: pathological liar?

By Helen Small

Pathological lying, the philosopher Sissela Bok tells us, ‘is to all the rest of lying what kleptomania is to stealing’. In its most extreme form, the liar (or ‘pseudologue’) ‘tells involved stories about life circumstances, both present and past’.1 Their compulsion to do so has no obvious rationale, and since the falsehoods are often easily detectable, even blatant, it is not clear that moral rebuke is a relevant response. We seem, from at least 1891 when the term ‘pathological lying’ was coined by the German physiologist Anton Delbrueck, to be dealing rather with a psychological aberration. But having said this much, it is far from evident even now what the psychological drivers to such behaviour may be.  In the words of psychiatrists who have reflected on high profile recent cases such as those of Joseph J.Ellis, Jeffrey Archer, and Laurens Van der Post: ‘material reward or social advantage does not appear to be the primary motivating force’; rather, ‘the lying is an end in itself’. ‘Pathological lying is falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, may be extensive and very complicated, and may manifest over a period of years or even a lifetime.’2

Up to a point, one can speculate, Anthony Trollope would have agreed. Lizzie Eustace, the anti-heroine of his  novel The Eustace Diamonds (1872) has all the hallmarks of a compulsive liar: she lies freely, outrageously, and oddly unnecessarily. Her extravagant falsehoods gain her a kind of perverse celebrity: ‘She is the greatest liar about London’ (ch. 9). As those lies start to embroil her more and more unhappily with the police, and in romantic complications that bring her remarkably little pleasure, the compulsion becomes all the stranger. And yet Trollope also insists that we recognize a kind of general social collusion in Lizzie Eustace’s dishonesty. On the one hand, her society is perversely unwilling to call a lie a lie—ranking the rudeness of such a face to face challenge above telling the truth. The real heroine of the book, Lucy Morris, reflects at one point that it is an acknowledged fact in private that Lizzie is an inveterate liar, ‘but to have told Lady Eustace that any word spoken by her was a lie, would have been a worse crime than the lie itself’ (ch. 29). Lest we think this is a curiosity of Victorian manners, it is worth reflecting even now that anyone who publicly calls a liar a liar would do well to guard themselves against counter-claims of slander or libel. And on the other hand, there are plenty of people willing to admire Lizzie’s bravado and give reasons for doing so—from the respectable head of the Eustace family who sees in her a great loss to the legal profession, through to the book’s main protagonist, Frank Greystock, who finds in his cousin a welcome relief from the implausible and flattening standards of purity and integrity set for women in his day: ‘He knew that his cousin Lizzie was a little liar,—that she was, as Lucy had said, a pretty animal that would turn and bite;—and yet he liked his cousin Lizzie. He did not want women to be perfect, …’ (ch. 13).

Trollope’s interest in the subject was partly a matter of social curiosity: it allowed him to probe some of the odder and more entrenched hypocrisies in our ideas of sociability. It was also continuous with a wider fascination with the difference between lying and ‘untruth’. ‘In truth’ was one of his most habitual or default locutions (it occurs twenty-one times in his Autobiography alone). Sometimes it is impersonally summative (Thackeray’s Pendinnis ‘was not in truth a very worthy man’ [ch. 7]), but very often it is more revealing of himself. Like its now more common equivalent ‘to be honest’, it can be a dubiously helpful modifier: part bid for sympathy (‘In truth, I was wretched’ he writes of his first 26 years [ch. 4]), part phatic communion, part a means of playing for time. It weakens rather than intensifies, raising the immediate suspicion that one’s honesty is in question. And Trollope did indeed have a recurrent worry over his own claims to ‘truthfulness’, going well beyond the standard novelist’s worry about the status of fiction. He knew, having had it often enough pointed out to him by reviewers and correspondents, that accuracy was not his primary virtue. Indeed, so inaccurate were some of his historical, geographical and other statements in the course of his fiction that he was compelled to write a defence of himself at the end of his life:

‘There are two kinds of confidence which a reader may have in his author … There is a confidence in facts and a confidence in vision. The one man tells you accurately what has been. The other suggests to you what may, or perhaps what must have been, or what ought to have been. The former require simple faith. The latter calls upon you to judge for yourself, and form your own conclusions. …  Research is the weapon used by the former; observation by the latter. Either may be false,—wilfully false; as also may either be steadfastly true. As to that, the reader must judge for himself. But the man who writes currente calamo [with a running pen], who works with a rapidity which will not admit of accuracy, may be as true, and in one sense as trustworthy, as he who bases every word upon a rock of facts. I have written very much as I have, travelled about; and though I have been very inaccurate, I have always written the exact truth as I saw it ;—and I have, I think, drawn my pictures correctly.’ (Autobiography, ch. 7)

Correctness, then, rather than accuracy, as the Trollopean standard for the novel. Writing The Eustace Diamonds just one year before Nietzsche composed ‘On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense’—his first major reflection on the merely conventional status of moral truths—Trollope is, of course, no Nietzschean iconoclast. But there are few English novels of the nineteenth century that so vividly open up the question of why lies should be of more than moral interest to us, and what they might have to tell us about the compromises we all of us make, every day, with the ideal of truth telling.

Helen Small is Tutor and Jonathan and Julia Aisbitt Fellow in English Literature at the University of Oxford. She is the author of The Long Life, which won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2008, and the editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Eustace Diamonds.

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[1] Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (London: Vintage, 1999), xxii
[2] Charles C. Dike, Madelon Baranoski, and Ezra E. H. Griffith,  ‘Pathological Lying Revisited’, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law 33 (2005), 342-9 (343).

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