Trilby (novel)

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This article is about the 1894 novel by George du Maurier. For other uses, see Trilby (disambiguation).
Cover of the first edition of the novel (1895)

Trilby is a novel by George du Maurier and one of the most popular novels of its time. Published serially in Harper's Monthly in 1894, it was published in book form in 1895 and sold 200,000 copies in the United States alone.[1] Trilby is set in the 1850s in an idyllic bohemian Paris. Though it features the stories of two English artists and a Scottish artist, one of the most memorable characters is Svengali, a Jewish rogue, masterful musician and hypnotist.

Trilby O'Ferrall, the novel's heroine, is a half-Irish girl working in Paris as an artists' model and laundress; all the men in the novel are in love with her. The relationship between Trilby and Svengali forms only a small, though crucial, portion of the novel, which is mainly an evocation of a milieu.

The novel has been adapted to the stage several times; one of these featured the lead actress wearing a distinctive short-brimmed hat with a sharp snap to the back of the brim. The hat became known as the trilby and went on to become a popular men's clothing item in the United Kingdom throughout various parts of the 20th century, before enjoying a revival as a unisex clothing item in the United States in the 2000s.

Plot summary[edit]

Trilby is tone-deaf: "Svengali would test her ear, as he called it, and strike the C in the middle and then the F just above, and ask which was higher; and she would declare they were both exactly the same."

Svengali hypnotizes her and transforms her into a diva, La Svengali. Under his spell, Trilby becomes a talented singer, performing always in an amnesiac trance. At a performance in London, Svengali is stricken with a heart attack and is unable to induce the trance. Trilby is unable to sing in tune and is subjected to "laughter, hoots, hisses, cat-calls, cock-crows." Not having been hypnotized, she is baffled and though she can remember living and traveling with Svengali, she cannot remember anything of her singing career.

Possible genesis[edit]

It was popularly believed that the hypnotic control Svengali has over Trilby was modeled after the relationship between the French harpist and composer Nicolas-Charles Bochsa and the English operatic soprano Anna Bishop.[2][3][4] Anna Bishop had left her husband Henry Bishop (later Sir Henry), the composer of "Home! Sweet Home!", who was 23 years her senior, although Bochsa was only three years younger. Bochsa became her manager as well as her lover. She sang in many opera houses on their extensive travels throughout Europe (particularly in Naples, Italy), North America and Sydney, Australia, where Bochsa died suddenly in 1856 and is buried there. Sir Henry Bishop had died the previous year. Anna Bishop later remarried, continued travelling and singing professionally into her 70s, and died in New York.



Trilby inspired Gaston Leroux's novel The Phantom of the Opera (1910) in part.[5] It was also known for introducing the phrase "in the altogether" (meaning "completely unclothed") and the term "Svengali" for a man with dominating powers over a (generally female) protegee, as well as indirectly inspiring the name of the Trilby hat, originally worn on stage by a character in the play based on the novel. The novel contained a thinly veiled portrait, (in the character of the pompous and eccentric "idle apprentice" Joe Sibley) of painter James McNeill Whistler. Whistler threatened to sue for libel unless the character was removed and Du Maurier apologized. The writing was revised and no public apology was made.

The novel was adapted into a long-running play, Trilby, starring Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Svengali, first presented in 1895 in London. In New York Wilton Lackaye originated the role of Svengali and Virginia Harned played the title role.[6] The play was revived many times, including at the Apollo Theatre in the 1920s. The play was so popular that it was travestied, including as A Model Trilby; or, A Day or Two After Du Maurier by Charles H. E. Brookfield and William Yardley, with music by Meyer Lutz, at the Opera Comique, produced by the retired Nellie Farren.[7] There were three silent films: Trilby in 1915, starring Clara Kimball Young and Wilton Lackaye;[8] Trilby in 1923, starring Andree Lafayette, Arthur Edmund Carewe and Creighton Hale; [9] and a German silent in 1927, starring Paul Wegener as Svengali.[10] John Barrymore played the title role in the Warner Brothers release Svengali (1931);[11] there was a British film in 1954 starring Donald Wolfit;[12] and a TV movie, Svengali (1983), starring Peter O'Toole and Jodie Foster.[13] A musical adaptation by Frank Wildhorn entitled Svengali, was staged twice in 1991. The Trilby story was parodied in Mighty Mouse cartoons in the 1940s that featured Pearl Pureheart and Oil Can Harry.

A fandom developed around the Trilby character, which was criticized in Belsham's Essays. Trilby is referenced several times in William Gaddis' novel, JR, wherein Edward Bast the protagonist becomes a mirror of Little Billee, a prominent artist in Trilby. The character Little Billee in Trilby is a reference to an eponymous ballad by William Makepeace Thackeray.[14]

An inside look at Trilby and Henry James's friendship with Du Maurier (Kiki) can be found in David Lodge's novel Author, Author (2004).

The celebrated Polish World War II Special Operations Executive agent Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, used Svengali as a metaphor when saying of her second husband, Jerzy Giżycki: "He was my Svengali for so many years that he would never believe that I could ever leave him for good."[15]



  • Brown, Thomas Allston. A History of the New York Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901, New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1902.
  • Davison, Neil R. "'The Jew' as Homme/Femme-Fatale: Jewish (Art)ifice, "Trilby," and Dreyfus." Jewish Social Studies 8 (Winter–Spring 2002): 73–111. Accessed through JStor on 4 September 2009.
  • Masson, Madeleine, Christine: A Search for Christine Granville, G.M., O.B.E., Croix de Guerre, with a Foreword by Francis Cammaerts, D.S.O., Légion d'Honneur, Croix de Guerre, U.S. Medal of Freedom, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1975; republished by Virago, 2005.
  • McNaught, W. "George du Maurier and Trilby." The Musical Times 81 (November 1940): 435–438. Accessed through JStor on 4 September 2009.
  • Parry, Albert. Garrets and Pretenders: Bohemian Life in America from Poe to Kerouac. New York: Covici-Friede, 1933.
  • Taylor, Jonathan. "The Music Master and 'the Jew' in Victorian Writing: Thomas Carlyle, Richard Wagner, George Eliot and George Du Maurier." In The Idea of Music in Victorian Fiction. Edited by Sophie Fuller and Nicky Losseff. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Weliver, Phyllis. "Music, crowd control and the female performer in Trilby." In The Idea of Music in Victorian Fiction. Edited by Sophie Fuller and Nicky Losseff. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Weliver, Phyllis. Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2000.

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