Emma Garman | Longreads | February 2017 | 6 minutes (1,788 words)
In the fall of 1894, a New Jersey reader wrote to George du Maurier, the Franco-British author and satirical cartoonist whose Harper’s Monthly serial, Trilby, had just come out as a novel. The concerned correspondent asked that his mind be put to rest regarding the decorousness of relations between Trilby, the young heroine, and musical genius Svengali, under whose hypnotic spell she becomes an overnight opera sensation. Du Maurier replied politely but briefly: “I beg to say that you are right about Trilby. When free from mesmeric influence, she lived with him as his daughter, and was quite innocent of any other relation.” His assurance was published in The Argonaut, a San Francisco weekly, thus alleviating any similar fears for the girl’s reputation among that paper’s readership. In Brooklyn, meanwhile, a woman had a disagreement with her husband over Trilby’s morals, culminating in her smashing an earthenware jar over his head. Luckily for the woman, the injured party declined to give evidence in court. Perhaps he appreciated that when it came to Trilby, emotions ran high.
Irish-Scotch-French model and laundress Trilby O’Ferrall was partly based on real women, including a 17-year-old girl, nicknamed Carry, whom du Maurier and his friend Felix Moscheles knew as art students—and amateur mesmerists—in Belgium in the late 1850s. With her “rich crop of brown hair, very blue inquisitive eyes, and a figure of peculiar elasticity,” Carry modeled nude for them and allowed herself to be hypnotized. Her soul, Moscheles later claimed, “was steeped in the very essence of Trilbyism.” Du Maurier’s granddaughter, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, concurred: “Carry . . . had the same camaraderie, the same boyish attraction, the same funny shy reserve.” Another inspiration was Anna Bishop, an opera star reputed to be in sinister thrall to her older lover-manager, the French harpist and composer Robert Nicolas-Charles Bochsa. In 1839, Bishop caused a scandal by leaving her husband for Boscha, and to his musical accompaniment, the legend went, she sang as she never had before.
Trilby was, nevertheless, a fictional character, and moreover one whose metamorphosis from tone-deaf grisette (working class young Frenchwoman) to world-famous concert soprano belongs to the realm of the fantastical. Helplessly captivated by the piercing gaze of Svengali, a Jewish pianist and conductor who reminds her of “a big hungry spider,” she turns into “a singing machine” with the voice of “some enchanted princess out of a fairy tale.” International fame ensues, “like a rolling snowball . . . wherever there was snow to be picked up in the shape of golden ducats.” Trilby’s adulation from the reading public was similarly unstoppable; to her legions of admirers, she was more beloved than any real-life celebrity, as the deluge of fan mail that arrived at du Maurier’s Hampstead home testified.
He was taken aback by the passionate response. “I never took myself au sérieux as a novelist,” he insisted. It was possibly without conscious calculation that he had combined, in one freckle-faced ingénue, the most irresistible female character tropes. A plucky orphan who haunts the artists’ studios of Paris’s Latin Quarter, where she sometimes poses in “the altogether” (so introducing the phrase to our lexicon), Trilby is big-hearted, affectionate, and possessed of a natural virtue despite her unchasteness—which, du Maurier takes care to convey, isn’t her fault, but “the result of ignorance, bad advice (from her mother, of all people in the world), and base betrayal.” And though the story is set in the mid-century, Trilby has that touch of androgyny so fashionable for fin de siècle protagonists. Just as Mina Harker in Dracula has “a brain that a man should have were he much gifted,” and Dorian Gray “looks as if he were made out of ivory and rose leaves,” Trilby first appears dressed in a soldier’s overcoat and man’s slippers, sits cross-legged, and rolls her own cigarette. “One instinctively felt that it was a real pity she wasn’t a boy,” reflects the narrator, “she would have made such a jolly one.”
For Little Billee, Taffy, and the Laird, the gentlemanly British painters whose befriending of Trilby begins her tale, she is the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl: an unconventional beauty with a childlike spirit who invigorates their lives and nobly prioritizes their happiness above her own. Little Billee, who declares his love for Trilby, can at first only elicit an offer “to live with him and take care of him and be his servant.” Nothing if not practical, she knows that her lack of breeding, not to mention modeling “for the figure” and dallying with artists, disqualifies her from marriage to a middle-class man with decent prospects. Only when Little Billee threatens to leave Paris, never to return, does she relent and accept his 20th marriage proposal. Then, faced with his mother’s insistence that the social mismatch would ruin her son’s life, Trilby agrees to disappear. “I’ll take precious good care no harm shall ever come to him through me!” she declares, so setting in motion the series of misfortunes that delivers her into Svengali’s clutches.
This depiction of feminine self-sacrifice set amidst a raffish Gallic milieu struck a deep chord with late Victorian sensibilities. In the early months of 1894, when Harper’s began running the illustrated story, the magazine saw a major jump in circulation. “Never before did the month intervening between instalments seem so long,” remarked the writer Margaret Sangster, “nor did so many readers anxiously await the next development.” The following year, a stage adaptation debuted in Boston, followed by a run in New York, and a British production was taken to cities including London, Edinburgh, and Dublin. Theatergoers flocked to see the Trilby play, and Trilbymania was an official epidemic. In the words of Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York: “American youth, particularly young women . . . derived from it the courage to call themselves artists and ‘bachelor girls,’ to smoke cigarettes and drink Chianti.” Indeed, du Maurier’s vivid portrait of Left Bank creativity and hedonism, which drew directly from his own young years in Paris, permanently shaped the romantic ideal of la vie bohème in the popular imagination.
A runaway bestseller, Trilby was the first novel to benefit from the kind of widespread publicity and hype that in the 21st century we deem necessary, albeit not always sufficient, for a book’s commercial success. As sales went into the hundreds of thousands, and as many as 24 plays were staged across America, a Trilby industry boomed. Various parodies and imitations prompted legal action from du Maurier’s publisher, Harper and Brothers. Salons displayed prints of the novel’s illustrations, drawn by du Maurier, and the Knoedler Gallery in New York exhibited Trilby paintings. A Broadway caterer sold ice cream in the shape of Trilby’s foot, eulogized in the story as “a true inspiration of shape and color, all made up of delicate lengths and subtly modulated curves and noble straightnesses.” A foot scarf pin went on sale, as did a high-heeled boot called The Trilby made by a Chicago shoemaker, while in Philadelphia you could buy foot-shaped Trilby sausage. Baby girls were christened Trilby. And Macon, a town in Pasco County, Florida, was renamed Trilby by railroad magnate Henry Plant. An 1895 pamphlet about the Trilby phenomenon marveled that it “has given employment, onerous or enjoyable, honorary or remunerative, to thousands.”
The character’s most enduring namesake, what we still call a trilby, was worn by Dorothea Baird in the first London stage production. Today, the word is so synonymous with a certain style of hat, its provenance is all but forgotten. Equally, while an exploiter of malleable young talent is often called a Svengali, the term has shed its origins and thereby its anti-Semitic associations—in contrast to, say, Shylock to mean an unscrupulous money lender. Du Maurier, however, outdid Shakespeare in pandering to contemporary racist stereotypes, portraying the German-Polish Svengali, “a filthy black Hebrew sweep,” as greedy, sly, and disreputably foreign, as well as physically repellent. He is “very shabby and dirty,” the reader is told, with “a thin, sallow face” and “a beard of burnt-up black, which grew almost from under his eyelids.” But as he journeyed through different onscreen guises, Svengali’s caricatured Jewishness gradually disappeared. The most recent film bearing the title Svengali, from 2013, is a feel-good comedy about a Welsh postman who achieves his dream of managing a Britpop band. And a couple of weeks ago, Merriam-Webster reported that “Svengali” was trending after a New York Times editorial applied the soubriquet to Steve Bannon—one of Donald Trump’s chief strategists who is widely regarded as an anti-Semite.
Like Frankenstein’s monster escaping his creator, Trilby and Svengali took on an independent existence that far exceeded du Maurier’s intentions. And like Victor Frankenstein, he saw his life ruined by the beings he had dreamed up. Trilby’s surprise success might have been a heartwarming tale for the ages: a late-in-life author (du Maurier was in his late 50s when he published his debut, Peter Ibbetson) writes one of the bestselling and best-loved novels of the century, and becomes rich and famous. Unfortunately, he hated the attention and cringed at the hysteria he had unwittingly unleashed. Henry James, who had encouraged the longtime Punch magazine cartoonist to begin writing fiction, described with horror the onslaught of a “landslide of obsessions, of inane incongruous letters, of interviewers, intruders, invaders.” The whole situation was regrettable, they both felt. “I have always wished to gain a reputation through my drawing,” du Maurier told another friend, “and it is rather bitter for me to get a success by what I consider my worst work.”
Depressed and ill, he lived for only two years after Trilby’s publication, dying of heart failure at age 62. (His third novel, The Martian, was published posthumously.) “Like a mole, searching for dark and familiar places,” writes biographer Leonée Ormond, “du Maurier shied away from the limelight, and the public exposure to which he was subjected. . . . it is impossible to escape the conclusion that Trilby, to a very large extent, was the cause of his death.” According to James, Trilbymania was “a fountain of gloom and a portent of woe; it darkened all his sky with a hugeness of vulgarity.” In a strange irony, the novel’s ecstatic reception, so traumatizing to du Maurier, did not ensure remembrance by posterity. Trilby is seldom read today, and although on publication it was hailed as a classic by critics, it failed to enter the literary canon. Instead, it supplied a handy shorthand for a wicked behind-the-scenes manipulator, and acquired a dubious immortality via an ever-popular narrow-brimmed hat, very few of whose wearers know about the fictional Parisienne who, a great many years ago, stole everyone’s heart.
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, Words Without Borders, The Awl, Tablet Magazine, and many other publications.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Fact-checker: Matthew Giles