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Emma Garman

Trilby, the Novel That Gave Us ‘Svengali’

A scene from the 1931 film Svengali. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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. Read more…