Smithsonian.doc Scanned from magazine. Posted October, 2005
George du Maurier's Trilby whipped up a worldwide storm
By Avis Berman
Copyright September 1993, Smithsonian Magazine
His 19th-century novel celebrating “la vie de boheme” spawned plays and films-and had young women heading for artists' garrets Josef von Sternberg was accused of being Marlene Dietrich's Svengali, and the same was said about Diaghilev's association with Nijinsky. Everyone knows that to call someone a "Svengali" is to label that person a sinister being who uses his or her power to dominate others. The name has been absorbed into the language as irrevocably as "Simon Legree" as a definition of cruelty, or "Scrooge" of parsimony. But unlike these other archetypal literary characters, whose failings have entered our vocabulary as synonyms for infamy, Svengali's origins are forgotten, and the novel in which he was introduced is now hardly ever read.
Yet Svengali, who made his debut 100 years ago, was the villain-literally, the mesmerizing force-animating one of the most spectacular best-sellers of the 19th century. The book, a Gothic melodrama titled Trilby, by George du Maurier, was amazing not only in volume of sales, but in the influence it had in glamorizing a romantic social phenomenon. For what Uncle Tom's Cabin was to the abolition of slavery and A Christmas Carol was to the Christmas-cheer industry, Trilby, with its thrilling familiarity with Parisian art-student days in the Latin Quarter and models who posed in the nude, was to the glorification of la vie de boheme.
Laughable as it may seem today, respectable, novel reading young ladies searching for a way to assert themselves fantasized about emulating Trilby, the tragic young artist's model. Since du Maurier's heroine lived on her own and by her wits, she symbolized independence and free-spirited adventure to those whose parents or husbands controlled their destinies. A first step toward liberation, it seemed, was to move-or more likely, to talk about moving-to an attic in New York or Paris and be immortalized on canvas or in bronze. This alarmed the clergy and other guardians of morality. The book became the target of two years' worth of debates, sermons, editorials, pageants, parodies and advertising pitches. Trilby erupted into a boom, a craze, a mania and a publicity bonanza, and its impact rivaled any media frenzies that our mega-sellers like Shirley MacLaine and Robert Ely have whipped up when they purveyed their own private mythologies.
Trilby's genesis was as freakish as its popularity was overwhelming. George du Maurier did not apply himself to writing until the age of 55, with only another seven years to live and a whole other career behind him. Since the early 1860s, du Maurier had been a prominent cartoonist for Punch, his satirical realm the snubs, pretensions and maneuverings of the drawing room and other catchpools of English social life. His great friend Henry James hardly knew what to make of du Maurier's unsuspected talent, marveling about people who "begin to dash off brilliant novels in the afternoon of existence."
No one would call Trilby brilliant anymore, and James himself admitted that he was mystified by the popularity of the story of Trilby O'Ferrall, a Scotch-Irish grisette adored by three British art students living and working in Paris. Nobly rethinking her engagement to one of them, she flees and falls into the hands of Svengali, the evil musician. Trilby turns into a great singer under Svengali's hypnotic influence, only to lose her voice when his death releases his grip on her. The combination of the sprightly Left Bank setting, then a surefire attraction, and a plot turning on the manipulation of a beautiful young woman by the usurpation of her will took the public by storm.
The twofold world of Trilby seemed to appeal to almost everyone. Readers of gentle impulse were charmed by du Maurier's humorous portraits of the bohemian art students in Trilby and Svengali's orbit. More sensationally, du Maurier fascinated and frightened audiences with the notion of an alien power conquering that dearly held Victorian quality of will-and by implication, sexual resistance.
Another reason why Trilby sold and sold is that the novel's main characters are intriguingly fraught with paradox. Svengali, a masterly villain, is menacing, unscrupulous and physically dirty, but he is not a charlatan. As a first-rate professional musician, he is a considerably more impressive artist than the dull, selfrighteous Englishmen who are presented as the story's heroes. James perceptively noted that it was Svengali who had "infinite feeling" and "the sacred fire," invoking the myths of Orpheus and Prometheus.
Svengali is endowed with terrifying psychic powers which, as an expert mesmerist, he exerts on unsuspecting womanhood. The victims become his lovers and protegees. Part god, part devil, he can make a woman sing like an angel by hypnotizing her-is this subjugation or the bestowal of a stunning gift? Svengali might seem to be confected of the purest literary hokum, but George Bernard Shaw, who wrote his own dazzling dramatization of the Pygmalion story, was sure the source was closer to home. He suggested that Svengali was based on George Vandeleur Lee, a dark, longhaired music teacher who started by giving Shaw's mother voice lessons and went on to exercise complete control over her life. Lee moved in with the family when Shaw was a boy. Shaw said that du Maurier, who met Lee and his mother at a musical soiree in the 1880s, observed the pair closely and made sketches of them. Trilby, the focus of the artists' and Svengali's erotic fantasies, was an equally daring conception. Like most heroines of the day, she was sweet, pretty, generous and impulsive. But Trilby also smoked, swore and, most dreadful of all, she had slept with several men and felt no guilt about it. Even more controversial than Trilby's lack of chastity was her larger relationship to conventional morality. Her bohemian friends use her as a model, a cook and a seamstress, and they encourage her in her role as a household drudge. Only by her association with Svengali does Trilby become a creative artist, with her own talent to enchant the public. No matter how diabolical, Svengali offers her a much more dynamic future than do the narrow minded art students who represent the forces of respectability. Very pointedly, it is not Svengali, the sexual predator, but the adoring painter Little Billee and his family, the sexual prudes, who destroy Trilby. This renegade sentiment was strong fare for the times. Born in 1834 to an English mother and French father, George du Maurier grew up bilingual and binational, passing his childhood mainly in France and Britain. His ambition was to be a painter or a singer, and in 1856 he enrolled in the Parisian atelier of Charles Gleyre, spending most of his free time in the Latin Quarter studio used by himself and four other easygoing students. Two of them, Thomas Lament and Thomas Armstrong, remained minor figures in the English art world. The other two were a different story. The third Englishman, Edward Poynter, was a pedestrian stylist and already a bit stuffy. Later, full of honors, he became director of the National Gallery in London. The fourth man, a flamboyant American most un-Poynterish, was James Abbott McNeill Whistler. French novelist Louis-Henri Murger, author of Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, was his role model, and tales were already circulating about his eccentricity. One hot day when he had no money, Whistler pawned his coat for a cold drink and went around in his shirtsleeves for three days until he had the money to redeem it. Avis Berman writes on the arts; her biography James McNeill Whistler was published by Abrams in October.
Du Maurier had never known such wonderful camaraderie, and the adventures of these "brothers in art" would be minutely recalled in Trilby. As in the book, he and his gang copied Old Masters at the Louvre, chaffed each other at Gleyre's, argued, sang, danced and prepared a Christmas dinner for the neighborhood. Their Paris days were an interlude of freedom and experiment, to be cherished before reputations and responsibilities set in. After Paris, du Maurier went to study in Antwerp. While in class one day, he suddenly lost the sight of his left eye. He had evidently suffered a detached retina, but poor treatment left the injured eye permanently blind. Convinced that he could never be a painter, du Maurier spent many months bemoaning his fate until a friend sent him a copy of Punch, the great English humor magazine. Du Maurier studied its lively pages and saw that a career as an illustrator could be worth pursuing.
Arriving in London in May 1860, du Maurier looked up the old crowd in hopes of re-creating the carefree Paris days. For a while he did, smoking, drinking and tumbling around London until all hours. He shared a one-room studio with Whistler, who had settled in London the year before. Armstrong, Whistler and others gave du Maurier introductions to editors, and within a few months he was mak ing a modest living as a freelance draftsman.
In early 1863, du Maurier got mar ried, and in November 1864 he was asked to join the staff of Punch, on its way to becoming a national institution precisely because it was so British.
With these great changes in his life, notwithstanding his French ancestry and his affection for Paris, he became extremely English and adopted the Punch point of view: an unconventional person was apt to be affected and was probably a mountebank. Du Maurier began to distance himself from his old friends, especially the stillgregarious Whistler, who lived with a model and mingled with such disreputable types as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne.
Du Maurier's increasing conservatism endowed him with the perfect pictorial sensibility for Punch. He] excelled at capturing drawing-room] vanities, yet his best barbs often were, aimed at artists with whom he was oncei intimate. What Henry James called du( Maurier's "most brilliant episode of his long connection with Punch" was his pouncing on the absurdities of the Aesthetic Movement via a decade of inspired cartoons lampooning local devotees of the precious in art and life. Du Maurier began with takeoffs on the vogue for collecting blue-and-white china, and settled in with his two star creations-Maudle, an Aesthetic painter who had his Whistlerian moments, and Jellaby Postlethwaite, an epicene poet obsessed with lilies. Postlethwaite was an obvious caricature of Oscar Wilde, lately down from Oxford and then known more for his poses and attitudes than for any literary achievement.
Often the most trenchant element of a du Maurier cartoon was the imagined conversation the artist composed for the caption, and years of writing these dialogues sharpened his prose style. By the late 1880s his drawings had become formulaic, and he worried about his good eye, which he was sure was deteriorating. He confided these misgivings to James, whom he got to know well when he illustrated the English and American editions of James' Washington Square.
On the evening of March 24, 1889, the two men met for a long talk. James was sometimes unable to concoct plots for his novels and tales, whereas du Maurier's mind was always teeming with themes and incidents. He had given James the idea for his short story "The Real Thing," and that spring day offered another story line. As James recalled, it was about a "servant girl with a wonderful rich full voice . . . who is mesmerized and made to sing by a little foreign Jew." (Du Maurier's antiSemitism and racism, which disfigure Trilby as well as his other writings, help explain why contemporary readers cannot enter into the novel's world with much sympathy.)
James declined du Maurier's suggestion, insisting his friend write the story himself. Du Maurier went home and started writing, but the novel he produced was Peter Ibbetson, based on his early childhood in France. He sent it to Harper's New Monthly Magazine, which published the book in installments. Harper & Brothers came out with it as a complete work in 1891.
Du Maurier persevered with writing, working throughout 1892 on the manuscript of what would become Trilby.
The opening chapters recollecting his musketeering youth with Poynter, Lament, Armstrong and Whistler, evoked in an easy conversational tone and patterned on Murger's Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, are a pleasure to read to this day. These are moments intensely savored, a succession of rosy yet achingly wistful memories that reveal a touching vulnerability. For at his best, du Maurier was a novelist of the backward glance.
Into this milieu are introduced the two fantastical characters and plot contrivances: Trilby, the working girl who poses for artists "in the altogether" (a phrase apparently coined by du Maurier, who was enough of a Victorian to avoid words like "naked" and "nude"), and Svengali, the malevolent music teacher who ogles Trilby loathsomely. Although Little Billee, the boyish English painter-to-be, is appalled that Trilby has surrendered her virtue, he is madly in love with her and her dainty feet, which he sketches on the wall of the communal studio. Somehow he overcomes his scruples and implores her to marry him. No sooner does Trilby agree to be his wife, than his mother arrives from England. The righteous matron begs Trilby not to marry her son and ruin his life. Trilby, as pure of heart as she is shamed in body, runs away, and Little Billee has a nervous breakdown. Soon after, the Paris atelier is broken up, and the story resumes five years later in London when Little Billee and his friends, modeled on Armstrong and Lament, are reunited as genteel artistic nonentities.
Hearing of a magnificent singer named "La Svengali," they return to Paris to revisit old haunts and attend a concert given by the new diva, fresh from a sweep of half the capitals of Europe. The trio is shocked to discover that this divine creature is Trilby (who formerly couldn't sing a note), now the lover and protegee of Svengali. As long as she remains in his hypnotic power, she is a vocal phenomenon.
Later, with Trilby onstage in her London debut, Svengali has a heart attack in his box and dies. She awakes from her trance, totally unaware of her triumphs as a recital star, and cannot sing a note.
Knowing that no woman with such a past can escape moral retribution, du Maurier kills off his heroine with prolonged death agonies. Little Billee expires a few pages later, and his compatriots tie up the tale.
Du Maurier had little faith in the market potential of his story which, like Peter Ibbetson, was serialized in Harper's before going into book form, but he had not counted on the reaction of his former friend Whistler. In the magazine version of Trilby, du Maurier had assigned a small but pungent role to an American art student named Joe Sibley, a debonair but unreliable sort nicknamed "the idle apprentice." Sibley wore outlandish clothes, slept through his classes, reneged on his debts, flew into fits over trifles and was mendacious enough to merit a comparison with Svengali. This verbal portrait, abetted by unmistakable illustrations, was instantly recognizable as the saucy and controversial artist who had recently brought out his own book, accurately titled The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Whistler had been making appearances in other people's novels and plays since the 1870s with out complaint, and he had borne du Maurier's occasional jabs in Punch in silence. But in caricaturing him as both a deadbeat and a fraud, Whistler alleged, the author of Trilby had gone much too far.
Whistler charged that the unflattering resemblance between the caddish Joe Sibley and himself, which he had seen in the early serial installments, was damaging to his reputation, his financial and artistic probity. He threatened to sue. After reams of correspondence between Whistler and his solicitors and Harper's lawyers, and coverage in the American and British press, which ignited a furor on both sides of the Atlantic, du Maurier agreed for the book edition to soften the portrayal of the Sibley character, change his name to Antony and make him a Swiss. He promised to delete the offending passages and a likeness of Whistler, although at least one illustration with him in view did sneak into the published book. The brouhaha was a bookseller's dream-Whistler's taking offense drummed up more publicity for Trilby than any advertising campaign, and Harper's circulation continued to shoot up. The book version of Trilby was launched in September 1894 with all the force of an avalanche.
In concert with its pseudo-expose of the aroused unconscious, Trilby offered an instant guide to finding and fitting into an idealized yet seemingly attainable bohemia. As the Atlantic Monthly commented in 1895, Trilby was a "nineteenth century fairy tale for grown men and women," and quite a few acted it out. Young men dressed up as bohemian art students (based on du Maurier's illustrations) and promenaded around town. As for women, Trilby's publication coincided with their entering the workplace in larger numbers, and with their growing quest for a wider political and cultural scope. Never had belief in the possibility of liberating oneself through the arts been so popular, and Trilby was on the crest of it.
How many Americans were stirred by all these declarations of independence? The novel was hardly a serious vehicle of information, but the newspapers and the ministry kept asserting that homegrown Trilbys were jumping onto model stands all over the country. One Emilie Ruck de Schell, who shared a studio in New York with a female artist, made a bold foray by announcing that she was a dedicated bohemian, writing articles about her adventures as a freelance journalist struggling to survive. Tellingly, a chance to attain true Trilbydom was indignantly refused. When a male artist asked Miss de Schell to pose in the nude for him-after all, he argued, she did so for her roommate-she was enraged at the insult. As the writer Albert Parry observed, even the most advanced American women wanted to be Trilbys only if they could do so without undressing. They had no intention of becoming fallen women, with or without hearts of gold. However, on March 19, 1895, a worried editorial in the New York Tribune headlined "Trilbyismus" fumed at an article in a medical journal identifying Trilby as the "exciting cause of a maudlin mania." Conceding that the country was already "beset by a veritable epidemic of Trilby fads," such as "Trilby accents of speech and Trilby poses of person, Trilby tableaus, teas and dances . . . Trilby clubs and reading classes and prize examinations, Trilby nomenclature for everybody and everything," the writer felt that if the Trilbyismus infection were left unchecked, young women would be gravely imperiled. Despite Trilby's charm, what was she "but a wanton? A reformed wanton, if you will, but even a reformed wanton is scarcely to be taken as an ideal for maidenhood to emulate." But it was too late to stop the Trilby craze. When the first American best-seller list was printed in February 1895, du Maurier's novel was on it. Priced at a hefty $1.75, it had sold more than 200,000 copies and was the number-one seller in nine cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. New York's Mercantile Library had 100 copies in circulation, and the Chicago Public Library estimated that it could have used ten times the 26 copies already on the shelves. This massive following was intent on enshrining Trilby over government portals across the land. Postal officials in Washington, D.C. received petitions from all over the country to name any new post offices after du Maurier's heroine. Those in Franklin County, Ohio, and Schuyler County, Illinois, were indeed allowed to have her name.
The clergy jumped into the debate on Trilby's morality-her good spirits versus her loose living. In Philadelphia, several ministers condemned the story, and one in the Roxborough section wanted the book banned from the public library. A New York clergyman gave a public lecture, endorsing Trilby, allowing that despite the descriptions of "immoral quarters," once Trilby "learns to know right and wrong, she becomes a white lily grown out of a mudbank." And as Trilby "crowns her womanhood with her sacrifice of a life," one "can't read Trilby without feeling better and purer." Where readers and churchgoers went, merchandisers were quick to follow. In homage to Trilby's feet, Trilby shoes were marketed, and fashionable ladies sported a silver scarf pin of a nude foot. The Trilby motif then spread to such foot-related items as socks, shoe laces, garters and bunion chasers. New Yorkers could purchase tootsie-shaped ice creams, there was a Trilby sausage in Philadelphia, and the true worshiper could visit a town cashing in on the boom. A Florida whistle stop in Pasco County, hoping to attract tourists, changed its name from Macon to "Trilby." A street was christened "Little Billee," and the center of town was planned as "Svengali Square."
Trilby's infiltration into the hoopla of everyday life subsided after a few years, though a 1934 survey reported that sales had surpassed a million copies. By then the book was enjoying a second life in plays and films. The honor of Trilby's first dramatization belongs to a production premiering in Philadelphia on December 29, 1894. By a nice irony, the actors were artists, presumably the only interpreters of du Maurier who were bohemians in real life. The idea originated in the studio of the American painter Robert Henri. Recently back from Paris, the great grail of bohemia, Henri became the natural leader of the city's best artist-reporters. Henri's coterie had decided to stage its own comic turn on Trilby. Thus was born "Twillbe," by Charles Williamson, a local mathematics professor and part time dramatist whose farces ably mimicked Gilbert and Sullivan. The demand for tickets was so great that the performance packed the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Henri, as befitting his magnetic effect on his disciples, played Svengali. Everett Shinn was the expatriate painter "James McNails Whiskers," William Glackens was Svengali's henchman, and to John Sloan, who could sing falsetto, was awarded the plum role of the beleaguered "Twillbe A'Barrel." Costumed in a voluminous gown, a Burne-Jones wig and giant feet, Sloan had to jump onto a table at the sight of a mouse. "This violent action caused my busts to fall out," he reminisced many years later. "Henri . . . kicked them into the wings with a serene and magnificent gesture that I shall never forget."
Svengali met his end by being bitten to death by mosquitoes outside of Atlantic City. "Twillbe" received a splendid review in the Philadelphia Inquirer and was then repeated by popular demand.
This glorious effort was superseded by an authorized adaptation of Trilby, performed in Boston, New York, Manchester and London in 1895. Eminent actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree starred as Svengali in the London company. The actor playing Little Billee wore a soft felt hat with an indented crown as part of his costume. It was immediately dubbed a "trilby," a name-and a man's fashion still current in Britain and parts of the United States. The Princess of Wales attended one performance and objected to the leading lady's bare feet. Nevertheless, the play remained on the boards throughout the 1890s and was revived in 1905, 1921 and 1938.
Hollywood inevitably latched on to such a proven box-office champion, and Trilby has been filmed many times. In the movie versions, the dramatic interest fixates more openly on the occult and erotic elements. Accordingly, Svengali was made into a more appealing figure. A silent film of 1922 and its 1931 remake as a talkie were both called Svengali. In the latter, the title role was played with hammy gusto by John Barrymore, a Svengali to sway any leading lady. His mesmerist is a dashing man whose eyes project enough power to keep Trilby in a trance at any distance, through walls and across rooftops. In 1955 NBC broadcast "Svengali and the Blonde," a spoof with the dream cast of Basil Rathbone and Carol Channing. Who would not give all to hear the pre-Svengali Channing squawk "The Last Rose of Summer," as one reviewer wrote, "in a voice like a bullfrog impaled on a fishhook"? The last dramatization of Trilby was a 1983 made-for TV movie starring Jodie Foster as a rock'n'roll singer and Peter O'Toole as her sexy, corrupting mentor.
Perhaps the ultimate psychodrama spawned by Trilby was its baleful effect on her creator. Gladdened at first by the financial gusher that his novel represented, du Maurier soon became embarrassed, overwhelmed and soured by his gargantuan success. Why did this torrent of publicity and acclaim rain down on him when it never came to writers he knew were his superiors? Henry James, who watched his friend weather Trilby, on one visit found du Maurier depressed "in spite of. . .the deafening roar. . .of sordid gold flowing in to him."
Du Maurier felt assailed by his readers; he received at least five letters a day from the United States alone. A target of reform-minded churchwomen, he was far less equipped to deal with the idolaters. He couldn't bear their letters' fatuous salutations
"We wonder at our boldness in addressing you," from a staff of teachers-or the absurd inability to distinguish between fact and fiction, as when correspondents complained that they could not find Little Billee's pictures in the National Gallery.
Such tributes, which had nothing to do with artistic achievement, poisoned du Maurier's personality and outlook. Old friends saw the amusing fellow they knew replaced by a sad, diminished man who hated being a public figure. But strangest of all, du Maurier's decline, which began in late 1894 and continued until his death on October 8, 1896, evolved into a frightful travesty of his own best-seller. Just as Svengali secured Trilby an international following that sapped her life, Trilby made du Maurier into a celebrity and fatally robbed him of everything he valued. If Trilby was partly responsible for murdering her creator, his demise underscored the archetypal truth of his message. A Svengali lurks in every unconscious, and when our psyches fall prey to intolerable pressures, our lives are no longer our own.
Page 111 cutline -The 1931 film “Svengali” glamorized its male characters, with Bramwell Fletcher as the less wispy Little Billee, Marian Marsh (here as Trilby and as painted by Billee) and John Barrymore as a heartthrob Svengali. The author (above) was so plagued by the novel's acclaim he said his next title would be "Soured by Success."