Svengali in the Altogether : George Du Maurier – “Trilby”

I’m quite romantic, but rarely about romance. Romance brings out my cynicism; whenever I stumble across love, I feel like I’m stepping on the pretty, colorful tail of a long animal that ends in deadly claws and jaws.

However, I still get tricked into romanticism by friendship. In my eyes, the great romantic novel is Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers.” Lust may last a few months, love a couple of years, but (I fool myself) friendship lasts a lifetime. There’s no jealousy or unfaithfulness in friendship, (indeed, it has a healthy “the more the merrier” promiscuity that petty love could learn from.) There’s no need for awkward break-ups or acrimonious divorces.

Of course, none of that is true. A circle of friends can be as vicious as any other circle, and its dissolution as painful as any other fall-out.  “Friends will arrive, friends will disappear,” goes the Bob Dylan line.  Time is the great divorcer of all things human; it eventually divorces us even from our former selves.

ABOVE: Three musketeers of the brush, an illustration by George Du Maurier.

Here’s an ode/ eulogy to friendship from George Du Maurier’s “Trilby”:

“Oh, ye impecunious, unpinnacled young inseparables of eighteen, nineteen, twenty, even twenty-five, who share each other’s thoughts and purses and wear each other’s clothes, and swear each other’s oaths, and smoke each other’s pipes, and respect each other’s lights o’ love, and keep each other’s secrets, and tell each other’s jokes, and pawn each other’s watches and merry-make together on the proceeds, and sit all night by each other’s bedsides in sickness, and comfort each other in sorrow and disappointment with silent, manly sympathy – ‘wait till you get to forty year!'”

“Trilby” was once phenomenally successful. It concerns three young painters ( Little Billee, Taffy and the Scot Laird,  “three modern musketeers of the brush” ) and their years of apprenticeship in 1850s France. The novel’s more interesting aspects, though, deal with Trilby O’Ferrall, the explosive grisette thrown in their midst.

Trilby’s an expatriate half-English girl who happily provides “modeling services” for many a Bohemian creative in the Quartier Latin. As Du Maurier teasingly puts it, she is rather like that Biblical character to whom much is forgiven because she has loved much. Except Du Maurier says it in Latin: the novel makes any number of assumptions about the cosmopolitan education of its audience, and a full third of it is in untranslated French, ( with some German and Italian dabs). If you don’t read French, prepare for a little frustration.

ABOVE: “Sing, mein engel von musike!”

Trilby not only provides love but also provokes it: in our three heroes, and in the slimy Svengali, a manipulative, possessive German musician whose Semitism Du Maurier insists on bringing up. There’s no other way of putting it: Du Maurier paints Svengali as a dirty Jew. And not in some metaphorical “unwashed by Christian baptism” way, but in a concrete “why take a bath when you’re just gonna get dirty again” way. An “Oriental Semite Hebrew Jew” – I’m quoting here – is how the author redundantly slurs the character in a scene in which the courageous Taffy gets fed up and grabs Svengali (naturally) by the prominent Hebrew proboscis.

Svengali would replace Trilby in titular pull: the 1931 movie version of the novel, starring John Barrymore, is simply called “Svengali,” as is the relatively recent abortive attempt at a Broadway musical by Frank Wildhorn.

ABOVE: John Barrymore as “Svengali.” In this rare still, Barrymore can be seen in an unusual state of mild intoxication, as opposed to his habitual state of raging drunkenness.

Svengali is a mesmerist who hypnotizes poor Trilby into becoming a singing sensation – all the while doing things to her that Du Maurier only alludes to. If that sounds familiar, it’s because “Trilby” is now best remembered, when remembered at all, by some plot ideas that would recur in Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera.” Of course, it also made three memorable additions to the English language:

1) “Trilby”- as in: “that Anglo-phile celebrity is wearing a Trilby hat”; or “There is actually a city in my state of Florida named “Trilby,” and no celebrities have ever come from it.”

ABOVE: Hats! Why did they ever go out of style?

2) “In the altogether” – as in: “when they found the celebrity’s cell-phone it contained many selfies of her posing in the altogether.”

3) and of course “Svengali” – as in: “That manipulative Svengali is responsible for forcing the feeble celebrity to give half her proceeds to a questionable octopi-worshiping cult.”

The bildungsroman aspects of “Trilby” are severely hampered by the fact that the three musketeers are clearly romantic projections of Du Maurier and/or beloved friends, and therefore impervious to growth. They’re also unforgivably passive. No one does things in “Trilby”; things simply “happen” when it’s time for plot advancement.  No wonder that Svengali ends up being the most lively character: he at least machinates, and guides the sleep-walking Trilby through her triumphant appearance on the Parisian stage, (“five years later,” as Du Maurier says with an ackowledged nod to Dumas.)

Not only does Trilby charm Little Billee, Taffy and the Laird, she also charms Berlioz and Gounod (and antagonizes a grumpy Wagner) with an improbably haunting take on “Malbrough S’en Va-t-en Guerre,” which, adjusted for inflation, would be like winning “The Voice” with a soul-shattering cover of “Old McDonald Had a Farm.”

Trilby also trills through Schumann’s “Der Nussbaum”:

…and Chopin’s Impromptu.

ABOVE: “It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at Little Trilby’s death.”- Oscar Wilde.

SPOILER: Then, (because as I said the novel is passive to a fault), Svengali just… dies… in the middle of a performance. Out of nowhere. No one kills him to free Trilby from the mesmeric spell: the dude just sort of gets a heart attack. I would like to think this was some subversive meta-commentary on the expectations raised by sentimental narratives, (after all, sometimes bad guys do randomly perish before their time, even if it’s to the plot’s detriment). But it’s more likely Du Maurier just needed Svengali gone, and refused to mark any of his beloved characters as a murderer.

After all, Svengali’s sudden death is just the set-up for Trilby’s not-so-sudden one.

And what a protracted death scene, by the way! It must have rendered many a dainty handkerchief useless with snot! The whole decaying thing literally lasts weeks, with all three musketeers keeping morbid watch by her bedside, and Trilby being brave and pious (although, typical of that atheist fin-de-siecle, she dismisses the idea of an afterlife.)  The model here is half Fantine from Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”; half Marguerite from Alexandre Dumas, fils’ “The Lady of the Camellias”; and presumably a third half Violetta from “La Traviata,” Verdi’s operatic version of the Dumas’ novel/play. (Remarkably, “Trilby” anticipates Puccini’s “La Boheme” by two years, but their milieu is one and the same.)

In the end, the music that lingers with us isn’t Schumann’s or Chopin’s, but the one that is closest to Trilby’s un-hypnotized heart: the folksy, plaintive “Ben Bolt.” It functions, novelistically, as a signpost both of Englishness in exile and of nostalgia for what we lose, as youthful friendships get their pretty tombstone in the graveyard of yesteryears.

“And don’t you remember the school, Ben Bolt

And the master so kind and so true,

And the little nook

By the clear running brook,

Where we gathered the flowers as they grew?

On the master’s grave grows the grass, Ben Bolt,

And the running little brook is now dry,

And of all the friends

Who were schoolmates then,

There remain, Ben

But you and I.”

RATING: COOL! Except for all the Jew-hatin’.


Little Billee is named after a ballad about high-seas cannibalism by William Makepeace Thackeray, ( he of “Vanity Fair” fame. )

There were three sailors of Bristol City

Who took a boat and went to sea

But first with beef and captain’s biscuits

And pickled pork they loaded she. 

There was a gorging Jack, and guzzling Jimmy,

And the youngest he was little Billee.

Now when they’d got as far as the Equator,

They’d nothing left but one split pea. 

Says gorging Jack to guzzling Jimmy,

“I am extremely hungaree.”

To gorging Jack says guzzling Jimmy,

“We’ve nothing left, us must eat we.” 

Says gorging Jack to guzzling Jimmy,

“With one another we shouldn’t agree!

There’s little Bill, he’s young and tender,

We’re old and tough, so let’s eat he.” 

“O Billy! we’re going to kill and eat you,

So undo the button of your chemie.”

When Bill received this information,

He used his pocket-handkerchief. 

“First let me say my catechism,

Which my poor mother taught me.”

“Make haste! make haste!” says guzzling Jimmy,

While Jack pulled on his snicker-snee. 

Then Bill went up to the main-top-gallant-mast,

And down he fell on his bended knee,

He scarce had come to the Twelfth Commandment

When up he jumps–“There’s land I see!” 

“Jerusalem and Madagascar,

And North and South Amerikee,

There’s the British flag a-riding at anchor,

With Admiral Napier, K.C.B.” 

So when they got aboard of the Admiral’s,

He hanged fat Jack and flogged Jimmee,

But as for little Bill, he made him

The captain of a Seventy-three.


4 thoughts on “Svengali in the Altogether : George Du Maurier – “Trilby”

  1. Brilliant post! I had no idea about the Wildhorn musical. If any of my students express an interest in working on du Maurier/Trilby/mesmerism in literature or related topics for their dissertations, I’m going to send them here 🙂

  2. Pingback: Evil Under the Sun : Patricia Highsmith – “The Talented Mr. Ripley” | THE PAGEAHOLIC

  3. Pingback: The Ties that Bind : W. Somerset Maugham – “Of Human Bondage” | THE PAGEAHOLIC

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