Diamonds in English Literature – Twentieth Century Novels and Short Stories

King Solomon’s Mines. H Rider Haggard
The climax of this novel has the heroes finding a secret cave filled with gold, diamonds and other treasure. But they are trapped in the cave when the evil witch doctor closes the heavy stone door on them. I hope I’m not giving too much away by telling you they manage to find a way out, pockets filled with diamonds that allow them to spend the rest of their lives in luxury.

While the idea of lost worlds, vaults filled with treasure and heroes almost getting trapped in them, seems worn-out these days, Haggard invented the genre with this novel. The only precedent I can think of is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Since this novel was published, many have copied Haggard and at least six films have been made based on this story and its hero, Alan Quartermain.

The Diamond of Kali. O. Henry
A newspaper reporter is reluctantly sent to interview a retired British general. The general regales him with a story about how he seized a blue diamond which had been stolen from an Indian temple of the goddess Kali. Followers of Kali were infamous for their practice of ritual murder. The general relates how he has been attacked on many occasions by members of the Kali cult, sent to retrieve the diamond. The story dissolves into farce as it emerges that the general is paranoid yet has been flaunting the stone in the street for all to see. There are satirical references which would require someone familiar with the history of New York in the early 1900’s to recognise.

In his semi-autobiographical story “The Making of a New Yorker”, O. Henry says that he found the city “as cold, glittering, serene, impossible as a four-carat diamond in a window to a lover outside fingering damply in his pocket his ribbon-counter salary.”

The Diamond as big as the Ritz. F Scott Fitzgerald
In this short story a boy visits his friend’s family during a school holiday. The family live in a hidden valley, kept secret to hide the diamond this story is named after. They are guarded and served by a tribe of negro slaves who were never informed that the North had won the American Civil War. Thanks to the sale of parts of the diamond, the family is fantastically rich and live a life of impossible and impractical luxury.

Their only fear is discovery by the outside world. Once everyone knows there are so many diamonds, the value will drop to nothing and they will be ruined. For this reason they conspire to alter geological survey maps and even shoot down airplanes which happen to stray into their airspace. They keep a collection of pilots whose planes have been shot down, in a pit in the middle of the father’s golf course (which, apart from the pilot pit, has no sand traps or obstacles to spoil a pleasant round of golf).

After enjoying the company of their visitors, the family has them quietly murdered so their secret does not leak out. On the night our hero is supposed to die however, there is an attack on the mansion lead by one pilot who managed to escape.

A dated fantasy, but interesting to read what a writer from a hundred years ago thought was the pinnacle of luxury. As if owning diamonds were not enough, the family patriarch invests the proceeds of the sales of his diamonds into huge quantities of the most valuable thing known to man at the time – radium!

I’m not sure if even a diamond the size of a hotel would be enough to depress diamond prices for much more than a few years, considering that many tons are sold each year to satisfy the world’s demand.

The Diamond of Jeru. Louis L’Amour.
L’Amour is better known for his westerns. This crackerjack story is set deep in the heart of tropical Borneo. A bandit discovers a big black diamond. But instead of cashing it in at the nearest trading post and living happily ever after, he uses it to entice prospectors, travellers and anyone who takes an interest to go with him on his longboat to see the source of the diamond and endless wealth.

Once they reach his bandit kingdom, they are murdered for their belongings and he shrinks their heads to decorate his longhouse. He conducts his business in this way for a number of years until… well, all good things come to an end, but I won’t tell you how.

How many of us are enticed by someone’s attractive quality or the dream they weave for us, so that we follow them into buying things we don’t need, or making bad investments? Another head for them, swinging in the breeze? All of us, I’m sure.

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