A review of Trilby by George du Maurier

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

With so many books to read out there — innumerable classics, plus the latest all-the-rage books which are clamoring for attention, not to mention the relaxing “comfort reading” of reliable mystery series – why bother to read a bestseller, with no particularly outstanding literary merit, from more than 100 years ago? I can think of at least 3 reasons. First, a past bestseller can show us what life was like back then — better, I think, than can some classic from the same period, which often draws us more to itselfas a book, for its genius, than to an involvement with the period it describes. Second, a bestseller from long ago, since by definition it had a big audience, can illuminate the popular tastes, preoccupations, and prejudices of the time. Lastly, it can be interesting to see what “ripples”, if any, might still exist in the popular culture from the initial sensation that the bestseller caused.


The above musings were occasioned by a show, “Victorian Bestsellers”, at the Morgan Library in New York City, that started in January of this year (2007), and will run through May 6. I read a New York Times review of this show, [1] and was struck in particular by 2 of the works mentioned. One of the first bestsellers — and of course a literary icon as well — was _Pickwick Papers_, Dickens’ first novel. Appearing in 1836-37, by 1879 it had sold 800,000 copies … which may not be a shocking quantity by publishing standards today, but was unheard of then.

The other bestseller in the show, that piqued my curiosity, was George du Maurier’s Trilby , which like the Dickens work, first appeared in monthly installments in a periodical: Harper’s Monthly in 1894.


George du Maurier (1834-96) is known as an English artist and novelist, but he was of a dual heritage, being born in Paris of a French father and an English mother. He first gained success as an artist, being an illustrator for the famous British humor magazine Punch. However, problems with his eyesight prompted him to abandon art for writing as his primary endeavor. Though he wrote 2 other novels (Peter Ibbetson 1891, and The Martian 1897), it was Trilby that became a sensation. It sold over 200,000 copies in its first year, and was a big hit in America as well as in Britain. Here is one description of its American splash (obviously from someone not enamored of what was going on):
The Trilby craze has overrun the land like the “grip” bacillus or the seven-year locust. Here in America it has become almost as disgusting as the plague of lice sent upon Egypt to eat the chilled steel veneering off the heart of Pharaoh the fickle. Everything is Trilby. We have Trilby bonnets and bonbons, poses and plays, dresses and drinks. Trilby sermons have been preached from prominent pulpits, and the periodicals, from penny-post to pretentious magazine, have Trilbyismus and have it bad. One would think that the world had just found Salvation, so loud and unctuous is its hosannah–that Trilby was some new Caaba-stone or greater Palladium floated down from Heaven on the wings of Du Maurier’s transcendent genius; that after waiting and watching for six thousand–or million–years, a perfect exemplar had been bequeathed to the world. [2]

Eventually (like Beethoven with his Septet), Du Maurier became disgusted with the success of his creation! [3]

Daphne du Maurier (1907-89), George du Maurier’s granddaughter, was the author of popular novels, most notably Rebecca(1938). She also wrote a memoir about her family: The Du Mauriers (1937).


Although Trilby is still in print (somewhat to my dismay, since I always like to feel I am the great discoverer and unearther), I decided, as I often do, to capture it from the Web and read it on my Palm handheld PDA. Although not hard to find online, and free, [4] I could not actually just download a text file as I usually do, but instead had to copy-and-paste what I saw on the screen … a tedious task, although not a difficult one. There were quite a few typographical errors — some of which seemed to be the result of scanning software smart enough to guess at a reasonable word, but not smart enough to realize that the passage it was scanning was in French! But this did not bother me much, since Du Maurier appears to me as a a wordy, prolix writer; I read the text quickly and without much attention to detail.

While looking around the Web in preparation for writing this review, I had the enjoyable experience of coming upon Trilby in its original incarnation: the January – August, 1894 issues of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. [5] Although Du Maurier may have been plagued with eyesight problems, he still manages to lavish illustrations on almost every page … illustrations which are probably more fun for me to look at now, after I have done reading, since I previously exercised my visual imagination, and now have the chance to compare it with Du Maurier’s “take” on his characters.


“Write what you know” is a piece of advice often given to authors … and Trilby is a good case in point of a writer so doing. Although the novel appeared in 1894, the events described mostly take place in the Paris of the 1850’s … around the time the author was actually studying art there. Three of the main characters are young British art students: Taffy, the Laird, and Little Billee. Trilby, the title character, is an artists’ model; Du Maurier describes her as “a tall, straight, flat-backed, square-shouldered, deep-chested, full-bosomed young grisette” … a grisette being a young French woman of the working class. Then there is Svengali, a master musician, but a sinister fellow, and one who practices mesmerism (what would later be known as hypnotism).


I think the greatest merit of Trilby is in its obviously deeply-felt evocation of the Bohemian, artistic side of Paris in the middle of the 19th century. I have come across some indication [6] that what Du M wrote may not have been literally true in its details … but it is hard to believe that the spirit of Du M’s writing is not somehow true. We encounter descriptions of the Quartier Latin, and of a typical artist’s studio. We hear about the notorious dance the Cancan, and the Cafe de l’Odeon, “where the omelets are good and the wine isn’t blue”. There is the Cirque des Bashibazoucks, a concert hall which has such a marvellous name that I am reluctant to look it up for fear that it may not really have existed.

Du M often uses the word “Bohemian”, and I first thought that he might have been pioneering in his use of this term to mean not simply a gypsy (an older usage), but in particular a “gypsy of society”, as his English art students in Paris were. But in fact, this usage in English was introduced by Thackeray in Vanity Fair in 1848 [7]… much earlier than when Du M wrote his book, but interestingly just around the period that he was writing _about_. Earlier French novels that deal with Bohemianism are Henry Murger’s _Scenes de la Vie de Boheme_ (1845-49) — from which Puccini’s opera _La Boheme_ originates — and Victor Hugo’s _Les Miserables_ (1862).

Of course, the Parisian Bohemian life was more relaxed in its morals than English Victorian standards would have sanctioned. It is hard to believe that this “titillation factor” did not play a role in Trilby‘s success….


How many bestsellers do you know that are written in 2 languages? Though Trilby is basically written in English, there are many instances of dialogue which is rendered in French. And most of this French is not of the standard variety, but is either a slangy, lower-class French, or French with a heavy Eastern European flavor, as spoken by Svengali. Luckily, with my several years of school French, I could make most of this out; but how could hundreds of thousands of the public swallow this at the time the book appeared? (I suppose it is possible that some editions had translations of the French dialogue, but the original text in Harper’s Monthly certainly does not, nor does the text–no source given–that I pulled off the Web to read.)

An interesting comparison in this respect is Tolstoy’s War and Peace, where some dialogue is in French, which was spoken by the Russian aristocracy, and which was the common tongue of the European upper classes. [8] By contrast, in Trilby the more “civilized” tongue is English, whereas much of the French is spoken by the lower classes, such as the “grisette” Trilby.


Returning to my idea that a bestseller from the past can be a faithful window into the goings-on of the time, we see in Trilby some evocative descriptions of the concert life of the period … including mentions of musical stars still known today, such as the soprano Adelina Patti, and the violinist Joseph Joachim.


Mesmerism, as practiced by Svengali, plays a fateful role in Trilby. Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) developed what he called “animal magnetism”; “mesmerism”, the precursor to modern hypnosis, is named after him. Du Maurier uses both of the terms “mesmerism” and “hypnotic influence”. Trilby seems to be reflecting the fascination that mesmerism held for Victorian Britain. The English writer Harriet Martineau (1802-76), [9] suffering from a uterine tumor, took a course of mesmerism in 1844, and believed that this is what caused her cure.

Mesmerism is also delved into by American authors of the 19th century: Hawthorne (e.g. The House of the Seven Gables [10]) and Poe.


Little Billee — one of the art students in Trilby — carries around a copy of Darwin’s _Origin of Species_, which he is reading … for the third time, no less. (Actually, this happens a bit past Billee’s student days; the _Origin_ came out in 1859). In a conversation with a parson who is the father of a young woman Billee is interested in, Billee mentions reading the Darwin, and that he does not go to church any more. Needless to say, his potential future with the young woman is abruptly terminated….

In this thread of the plot, we can get some idea of how powerful Darwin’s ideas were felt to be, back when they were first announced to the world … perceived as an alternative to the Bible and religion, as a way of explaining our human condition. As Billee tells the parson, “It [_The Origin of Species_] accounts for things, you know.”


Now I come to the aspect of Trilby that gave me the most trouble … in fact, it almost derailed my reading experience altogether. Although Du Maurier uses the “N” word once (“n*gg*r melody”), this pales to almost nothing in comparison to the quite virulent anti-Semitism that crops up in many places. Svengali, one of the main characters, is initially described as:
a tall bony individual of any age between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well-featured but sinister. He was very shabby and dirty, …

From this alone, one would not necessarily associate “Jewish” and “sinister”, but unfortunately there is much more to come, e.g.:
being an Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew, he [Svengali] had not been able to resist the temptation of spitting in his [Little Billee’s] face, since he must not throttle him to death.
And take this description of a less major character:
Mademoiselle Honorine Cahen (better known in the Quartier Latin as Mimi la Salope) was a difty, drabby little dolly-mop of a Jewess, a model for the figure — a very humble person indeed, socially.

Like some poison that in tiny doses can actually be beneficial, a small amount of Jewish blood was, however, seen as a positive attribute:
And in his [Little Billee’s] winning and handsome face there was just a faint suggestion of some possible very remote Jewish ancestor — just a tinge of that strong, sturdy, irrepressible, indomitable, indelible blood which is of such priceless value in diluted homeopathic doses, like the dry white Spanish wine called montijo, which is not meant to be taken pure; but without a judicious admixture of which no sherry can go round the world and keep its flavour intact; or like the famous bulldog strain, which is not beautiful in itself, and yet just for lacking a little of the same no greyhound can ever hope to be a champion.

To be fair to Du Maurier, he does present _one_ Jewish character — a wine-merchant and singer — in a positive light:

… Glorioli — the biggest, handsomest, and most distinguished-looking Jew that ever was one of the Sephardim (one of the Seraphim!) …

How can a modern reader make peace with this kind of situation? It was not at all easy for me, but I tried to keep telling myself that every writer is the product of his times. Trilby would ertainly not have been the huge bestseller it was, had not society at large shared his anti-Semitic sentiments. Perhaps a great writer can rise above such repellent stuff, but Du Maurier was an author of no great gifts who (consciously or not) was taking advantage of the popular feelings of his period.

I also tried to tell myself that Jews were perhaps not that well known in fin-de-siècle England. For centuries, Jews were banned from that country — from their expulsion in 1290 to Oliver Cromwell’s reign (1653-58), there was no official Jewish presence in England. The Jewish community in England remained relatively small all the way until the late 19th century. [11]. Note that Svengali, the main Jewish character, is not British — not even French — but comes from a distant, reportedly evil place. Toward the end of the story, a photograph of Svengali arrives in the mail, presumably from his place of origin:

No message of any kind, no letter of explanation, accompanied this unexpected present, which, from the postmarks on the case, seemed to have travelled all over Europe to London, out of some remote province in eastern Russia out of the mysterious East! The poisonous East — birthplace and home of an ill wind that blows nobody good.


To turn to less troublesome matters: It is I think of interest to see how the big splash of a long-ago bestseller has caused ripples that persist to this day. The term “Svengali”, meaning “one who exercises a controlling or mesmeric influence on another, freq. for some sinister purpose” [12] comes from Svengali in this book. The “trilby hat” has become so ensconced in our language that the initial “t” is no longer even capitalized. It originates not in a hat worn by Trilby herself, but by Little Billee, as perhaps seen in one of Du Maurier’s illustrations for the book. [13] It is “a soft felt hat, esp. one of the Homburg type with a narrow brim and indented crown”. [14]

Trilby spawned a play, and (among many other film adaptations) a well-known movie starring John Barrymore, called Svengali (1931), the title of which presumably reflecting the emphasis given to Barrymore’s character.


Trilby is a book that would normally fall outside of the purview of even devoted readers of the present day. But it is not a difficult book to read, having a relaxed, easygoing style from the first sentence:

IT WAS A FINE, SUNNY, showery day in April.

And I think there are good reasons for reading it. It has memorable characters (especially Trilby and Svengali). It is a heartfelt (if perhaps not literally correct) account of the Bohemian, artistic life in the Paris of the mid-19th century. It captures the advent of scientific Darwinism, and its dampening effect on religion; and illustrates the fascination with the quasi-science of Mesmerism. It prompts us to admire a public that can take in a bilingual book on a wide scale, and
conversely to shudder at this same public that could evidently swallow gross anti-Semitism without demur.

And … if you go with your date to see The Phantom of the Opera, you may be able to impress him or her with your knowledge of its back story. Phantom, which just became the longest-running Broadway show in history [15] is “the most lucrative entertainment enterprise of all time”, even out-grossing the movie Titanic. [16] It is based on a French novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux, which appeared in 1909-10, and which in turn is believed to have been inspired by … guess which novel?


Note: “WIKI” = Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page “OED” = Oxford English Dictionary: http://www.oed.com — not free online unless you are affiliated with a university, etc. 🙁

[1] New York Times review of “Victorian Bestsellers” show: “Best-Seller Big Bang: when Words Started Off to Market” by Edward Rothstein, 27 Jan 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/27/arts/27vict.html

[2] “The Trilby craze has overrun the land …”: from _Brann the Iconoclast_ a collection of essays by William Cowper Brann (1855-98). The WIKI article on him is, somewhat mysteriously, under not “Brann” but “William Cowper Brann”.

[3] Du Maurier disgusted with Trilby ‘s success: WIKI, “Du Maurier”

[4] Trilby text online, copy-and-pastable: http://www.hypnosisinmedia.com/index.php?title=Fiction:Du_Maurier%2C_George_%28Trilby%29 I found this via the Online Books Page: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/

[5] _Harper’s_ from 1894 with original Trilby : http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/moa/browse.journals/harp.1894.html . Note
that this text is NOT downloadable or copy-and-pastable.

[6] Du Maurier’s Bohemian Paris perhaps not literally true: “Bohemianism and Counter-Culture” at http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255/bohem/ttrilby.html

[7] First use of artistic “Bohemian” by Thackeray in _Vanity Fair_: OED, “Bohemian”

[8] French the lanaguage of Russian aristocracy: “War and Peace” (novel) in WIKI

[9] My review of Martineau’s _Deerbrook_: Go to my home page (address below) and click on “book reports”

[10] My review of Hawthorne’s _House of the Seven Gables_: Go to my
home page (address below) and click on “book reports”

[11] Jews expelled from England, etc.: “History of the Jews in England”, WIKI

[12] The term “Svengali”: OED

[13] Du Maurier’s trilby-hat illustration: A quote in OED “Trilby” claims this origin for the word. I have not actually found (nor indeed looked for) this illustration myself. I have also seen an explanation that “trilby hat” came from a play based on Trilby . (“Trilby” in WIKI)

[14] Definition of “trilby hat”: OED

[15] _Phantom_ just became longest-running Broadway show ever: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/03/theater/03phan.html,

[16] _Phantom_ as biggest money-maker ever: “Phantom of the Opera”, WIKI

***** Additional references, not cited by the text: *****

“Trilby: Fads, Photographers, and ‘Over-Perfect Feet'”: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/book_history/v001/1.1jenkins.html

Literate Kitten on Trilby : http://litkitten.blogspot.com/2007/02/trilby-by-george-du-maurier.html

Tom Frenkel
email: frethoa AT aol DOT com
website: http://members.aol.com/frethoa