Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Trilby, the forgotten melodrama

By EscutcheonBlot
George du Maurier (1834-1897) careened through numerous vocations, including opera singer and Latinist, before settling upon the life of an artist. After a long and successful career in London working as an illustrator and writer for the satirical weekly Punch, du Maurier, his eyesight beginning to fail, sat down and wrote a novel, Peter Ibbetson. He, naturally, illustrated it himself.

In 1894, he followed his successful debut with the serialized Trilby in Harper's Weekly. It was an immediate and overwhelming success. At the end of that year, more than 300,000 copies in the English-speaking world had been sold, and presumably, read. A town in Florida was named after the heroine (it's still there), as well as a man's hat, and various other items to be eaten or otherwise enjoyed (sausages, shoes, silver pins, etc..). After a few years, the mania faded, and died away quickly after du Maurier himself passed away at the age of 62. He left behind a daughter, Sylvia Llewellen Davies, whose children inspired J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, and a son Gerald du Maurier (a prominent actor) whose daughter, Daphne du Maurier, became an important novelist in her own right. Trilby had its own descendants, spawning the potboiler The Phantom of the Opera in 1910, as well as numerous stage and screen adaptations of the book itself.

Trilby's fascination for its public lay in its being what I consider one of the first, and only truly cinematic novels. Du Maurier, as an illustrator first and novelist only a distant second, conceived of characters on a startlingly visual rather than textual basis. Trilby is one of those few integrated wholes in all of literature (William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience being the most famous exemplar in this narrow field). The immortal evil of Svengali, whose many graphic portraits in the book, both as man and as spider(!) were so convincing as to cement his character firmly in the psyche of fin-de-siecle Western Civilization. Indeed, the first film adaptation of the novel was a 1922 effort entitled Svengali.

Du Maurier was one of the 19th century's great polymaths (a breed which has all but ceased to exist in this age of specialization), and his experiences in music, art, and literature combined helped him create a novel which rollicks through all the great art forms (excluding ballet — where rollicking can get you injured). While theater is not specifically dealt with in the novel, the story itself is so theatrically, visually created that to read the 1894 edition with du Maurier's 120 illustrations is an evening at the theater in and of itself.

The story centers around the love triangle of Trilby O'Ferrall, an English girl born and raised in Paris, who works as a model for the many artists of the left bank. In 1850s Paris, while the artists themselves could often move at the periphery of the best society, an artist's model was considered to be little better than a prostitute — and du Maurier more than hints that Trilby has shared her favours rather more than befits a 19th century lady. The second of this triangle is he whom many consider to be the actual protagonist of the novel, Little Billee, an extraordinarily gifted young English artist, studying his craft with a pair of his countrymen in the various ateliers of Paris. The third, sinister antagonist is pianist, teacher and mesmerist, Svengali.

An aspect of the novel that is truly difficult to swallow is the fervid anti-Semitism with which du Maurier paints the portait of Svengali. His Jewishness is an essential part of his evil for du Maurier, although the author himself straddles that peculiar line of bigotry that praises aspects of the hated people to the sky: Svengali is a great musician and a genius; no attempt is made by du Maurier to denigrate his abilities, just his character. Indeed, he is accepted into the English expatriate circle primarily because of his extraordinary playing; his filthy personality, and indeed, person (du Maurier is not the most subtle of racists) are tolerated rather than accepted by the upper-middle class, clean Englishmen.

Trilby is a physically large, but beautiful girl with an extraordinary speaking voice. Svengali, entranced by the voice, wishes to hear her sing. She, obligingly, caterwauls her way through an English folk song (Ben Bolt). The girl with the most magnificent voice in Europe can't carry a tune! She laughing admits to it, but Svengali stores away this information in his darkest of dark hearts. He falls in love with Trilby, just as Little Billee, his polar opposite in all but talent, also succumbs to the unknowing spell of the wholly inappropriate artist's model.

Little Billee, English, upper-middle-class, respectable, sweet, honest-if-a-bit-priggish, is set up as the counterweight to Svengali's mittel-European, Jewish, lower-class, dirty, scandalous, cruel and dishonest spectre. Like I said, subtle, it ain't.

After 20 fruitless proposals, Trilby, knowing she can never be accepted in Little Billee's world, against her better judgement agrees to become his wife. Immediately the mother, sister, and vicar uncle of Little Billee swoop down upon Paris, convincing the overwhelmed Trilby to vanish from Billee's life — for both his and her own good. Little Billee, in the best tradition of Victorian fiction, falls deathly ill with a "nervous fever." He recovers, of course, but is left unable to love; a painting machine — intent on becoming the greatest painter of his time.

Years pass, and we find our Little Billee in London, famous, successful, and unhappily unmarried. He hears of a great singer, currently making her rounds on the continent. "La Svengali" piques his interest — figuring that Svengali finally found a pupil he could impart his immense knowledge of music and of singing; all the while pitying the poor hapless victim of this bearded monster. Seizing the chance to visit his old friends, he goes to Paris to see this wonder of singing. They all go to a highly publicized concert where they are astonished to see an expressionless, gaunt Trilby, first singing simple songs, absolutely beautifully, but then with an ever increasingly difficult program, ends by singing the Chopin "Impromptu in A-flat" — a piano work — as a wordless vocalise (an almost incomprehensible feat of vocal virtuousity). Trilby bows mechanically to tumultuous applause.

Later Trilby and Svengali (whom she has married, according to the newspapers) see Little Billee walking on a Paris street. They cut him mercilessly. Crushed, Little Billee flees Paris for the comfort of London, but the Svengalis appear in London, to great fanfare. Having been injured in a fight with his first violinist, the cringing Gecko, Svengali must watch the concert from a box above the stage, rather than conduct as was his constant wont. Svengali sees Little Billee sit down in one of the first rows. A grin of hatred spreads his face, and he leans back in his chair.

The orchestra begins but Trilby doesn't sing. As if waking up from a deep sleep, she asks in French where she is and why she is on this stage. She doesn't remember anything about singing ... indeed when the crowd demands she sing, she rather reluctantly complies with the horribly atonal folksong she sang in the artists atelier years ago in Paris. The conductor appeals to Svengali, who stays seated, his face still in the rictus of a horrible grimace. He is dead! The hatred he felt for Little Billee was too much for his dark ,dark heart — and it failed him.

Trilby, unable to remember anything about her great singing career, goes into a rapid decline, although she reaffirms her love for Billee, and explains that she had never married Svengali. She is nursed in her final days by Little Billee's grieving mother, who finally sees the worth of this Bohemian girl. When she happens to see a photo of Svengali in his uniform, she goes into a trance and suddenly starts singing the Chopin Impromptu. Higher and higher she goes, ending on a pianissimo high E, then leaning back in her bed, with the words "Svengali, Svengali, Svengali" on her lips, dies. Trilby is followed in death shortly therafter by Little Billee, unable to withstand losing her twice, and unable to tolerate the fact that she died with the monster's name on her lips. His fever returns, and this time is too strong for the little painter.

Years later, Billee's sister and her husband, one of Billee's best friends, meet a dying Gecko in Paris (the Victorians were big on dying). He then explains what had happened — how Trilby miraculously became the greatest singer in Europe. Svengali had mesmerized her before every lesson, later, before every concert. With his conducting, he controlled every phrase, every note, playing the unconscious Trilby, rather like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wishing to play Hamlet as a flute. When Svengali died, the connection was broken, and Trilby was Trilby again, but so broken by those few cruel years, that death must quickly follow.

This is not a great book, from the standpoint of literary quality, but it is a great story. The illustrations (which I have photographed out of my copy, please forgive the quality) make this a truly visual novel. (Henry James, who despised the illustrated novel, felt nevertheless compelled to praise du Maurier.) In short, one ideally suited for a screen adaptation. There have in fact been several, as well as a very popular stage adaptation at the beginning of the 20th century. These adaptations have always been limited by the fact that no mortal can sing the Chopin Impromptu. As du Maurier himself states, it is a very difficult piece which most pianists can't even play. The earlier films were apparently not particularly memorable, and the last effort, with Jodie Foster as a pop-singing Trilby, I would rather bite my own eyes out than watch.

With the advent of digital manipulation of recorded voices (like the blue alien in Bruce Willis' The Fifth Element, and rather less successfully, Farinelli), it is possible to create vocal performances impossible in real life, including the un-singable Impromptu. Anna Netrebko is quite beautiful, a very acceptable singer, and a good actress (one of the problems with Farinelli was that the actor was no singer, and looked, frankly, ridiculous in his gyrations). She could be joined by Elijah Wood as Little Billee. Wood is perfect for the soulful little prig-er-painter ... as long as he refrains from being so face-slappingly sweet (his Frodo ruined Lord of the Rings for me). And I can think of no one better for Svengali than Alan Rickman.

Aspects of the book, particularly the blatant anti-Semitism, would have to be excised, naturally, but that is done all the time with Dickens, so why not du Maurier? The whole film is there in the 1894 edition. If you wish to see all of the illustrations (they are nowhere to be found online), then go to or and type in title, author, and the keyword 1894. There were more than a quarter of a million copies printed in that year ... they're not expensive ($3 or $4 at most). Just a thought.

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Of course, I'm familiar with the character of Svengali (especially from the John Barrymore version of the tale) but I had no idea about its origins. Quite interesting to learn.
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