Trilby | Svengali, Jewishness, Englishness, & Colonialism

Drawing by George du Maurier

Trilby and The Three Angliches. Drawing by George du Maurier

Allo Allo,

I just finished George du Maurier’s (1834-1896) Trilby (1894). You may recognize du Maurier’s name. There is a Canadian cigarette brand named after his son, Gerald du Maurier. Speaking of children and whatnot, Gerald is Daphne du Maurier’s father. So three generations of artistic du Mauriers. In addition to the well-accepted fame of the surname, du Maurier was a gifted artist, who made many illustrations for Punch, the charivari magazine. He wrote three novels, and I will be discussing Trilby here. Whilst, Trilby’s name is relatively unknown, we will, mostly, all recognize, the name of the identified core villain, Svengali. The name has come be a commonplace term to describe a person who controls an artist or, in the courts any person, through manipulation.

Svengali’s character and the characterization of Jews as evil, manipulative, dirty, cheap, and less than human exist throughout the novel. Svengali, from the beginning of the novel, terrorizes Trilby, a young, poor English woman living in Paris—a figure model (nude) for the aspiring bohemian artists of the Latin Quarter. When Trilby and Svengali are discussed side-by-side, Trilby’s whiteness is emphasized in subtle ways. She is “English.” She is made into a “girl”. That is not to disregard the daily sexism women experience(d), but these contradistinctions do not exist when Trilby is discussed next to other English or French characters. Indeed, Svengali hypnotizes and terrorizes Trilby to become La Svengali, the greatest singer of all time. She may only sing under his hypnosis (unaware, of course), because her conscious singing voice is cacophonous. Indeed, we should be cautious to understand Svengali’s manipulation as part and parcel of Jewishness. It is racism perpetuated in literature. It is and was a lazy way for authors to signify a dubious character. We should also recognize that this trope of the demonic Jew was imbedded culturally, in literature, and socially—ghettos and dehumanization.

Svengali described as a spider. Drawing by George du Maurier.

Svengali is a manipulative character in du Maurier’s text. He is articulated as the kind of person we do not want to know. He’s the person that you try to avoid at parties, group gatherings, and daily. But everyone wants him there because he is an exceptionally talented musician. People (the right kinds, of course) want him around because when he plays the piano, they feel something beyond themselves. For a moment, they escape into a synaesthesiac abyss. Music, in the novel, is a powerful force. Indeed, the stereotype of Jewishness that Svengali is able to hypnotize Trilby is exaggerated because whilst others are hypnotized by his very power of music itself, she is not. Indeed, at the beginning of the novel, she is quite unaware that he even plays. Whilst the others are listening intently, she calmly eats her lunch and smokes a cigarette looking out into the temporal world rather than experiencing the spiritual through the sensuousness of his music. She has not interest in him and his music. She is more interested in the painters and sculptors.

Trilby, model to the bohemians, but not “in the altogether” to the three artists around whom du Maurier’s story centres: Little Billee, Taffy, and the Laird. Trilby is in love with Little Billee, and so she integrates herself into their lives. She darns their socks, finds them props for their scenes, cooks them meals, and loves each artists (platonically or otherwise). We are aware of Trilby’s affection for Little Billee for quite some time, but we only later learn that Billee has proposed to her twenty times. On Christmas Eve, she finally accepts. But of course, what middle-class English mother would let her son marry such a “girl” as Trilby. Is this where everything changes? —

I’m getting ahead of myself. Indeed, both Trilby and Little Billee are in love. But all of the Latin Quarter is in love with Trilby. Her feet are accepted as the finest in creation. Many artists have sketched, sculpted, and painted her feet. Du Maurier describes her has quite unaware of her body as a source of shame–as women are taught to do. She models her feet and in the nude. She does not comprehend her body as sinful. Du Maurier repeats that she was uninhibited by the social mores of covering one’s body to save from “womanly” shame. For example, he writes,

“She would have ridden through Coventry, like Lady Godiva–but without giving it a through beyond wondering why the streets were empty and the shops closed and the blinds pulled down–would have even looked up to Peeping Tom’s shutter with a friendly nod, had she known he was behind it.” (Du Maurier, 60)

Du Maurier wants the reader to be aware that Trilby’s nudity is unabashed because it is not sexualized by herself. She does not see herself as an object of lust or sex, and so when she poses in the nude, she sees it as commonplace. Of course, this mentality must change for the patriarchy. Eve did not get to wander around Eden forever—there had to be a fall. Trilby’s prelapsarian reign over the Latin Quarter ends when Little Billee goes to the studio where he and fellow aspiring artists study—and there he sees a naked Trilby modelling. He makes a scene and runs out of the studio. It is at this moment that Trilby recognizes shame. I suspect that this is, in fact, when everything changes. It is here that Trilby tries to model herself, rather than being the model, into a pious and respectable, young, English lady.

Trilby is antagonized by realization that Little Billee was scandalized by her nudity. “The new-born feeling of shame was unendurable—its birth a travail that racked and rent every fibre of her moral being, and she suffered agonies beyond anything she had ever felt in her life.” (Du Maurier, 74). Indeed, Little Billee’s moralizations render the Edenic Latin Quarter a place where brother will kill brother; Trilby’s fall from grace makes her vulnerable to Svengali—to the “devil”. But let’s not consider it so easy. After all, Svengali doesn’t interfere with Little Billee’s plans to marry Trilby, that award goes to his mother and uncle. His mother meets Trilby and asks her to back away from her son; doesn’t she know she isn’t respectable for such a talented artist? Surely, Trilby should recognize that Little Billee would be turned away from all respectable places with her at his side!

Let’s really think about that. Ruminate upon it. Digest it. It’s shit. Svengali’s domination and manipulation of Trilby, making her into the most sought-after woman in the world, shows that people easily forget class and origins when they want something. Suddenly, her parentage is respectable. It was not respectable enough for Little Billee’s mother. Left alone, Trilby’s brother dead, and willingly ready to die, she sought out Svengali. He puts her under hypnosis, and whilst in this state, he trained her to sing, and, later, perform. La Svengali (Trilby’s stage name) becomes something everyone wants to have. Yet, her voice is ephemeral. Her voice is lauded as the greatest there ever was and will be. No one, but those who hear her, will have ever experienced such greatness. She is a luxury commodity; and she, of course, makes a lot of money for Svengali (since she is actually unaware). But royalty wants her. The middle classes want her. People on the streets want her. Advertisements pronounce her arrival. Svengali’s manipulation of Trilby is often discussed as something that he does. He is the guilty party. Yet, isn’t it more accurate to understand society as the real perpetrator? Svengali just makes them pay. Doesn’t Svengali’s character actually, subtly, expose how ludicrous, greedy, and money-grubbing everyone else is? Indeed, Trilby is respected for her talent, and the whole farce of Svengali’s manipulation reveals the fractures of Little Billee’s mother’s polite society. Ultimately, Svengali has the last laugh because Trilby hypnotizes and entrances the world. The things they fear the most, the Jew and the classless “girl,” who models in the nude, enchants the world; these two (conscious and not) usurp the whole system.

Little Billee’s mother will not permit her son to marry Trilby because it destroys his prospects. Do we sympathize with her because we think he is more worthy than Trilby? Do we sympathize with her because, good, English boys are not stereotyped as greedy or manipulative? Trilby’s brother died because she left Paris, at Little Bille’s mother’s request–he was an English boy. We cast stones at Svengali’s character, and, indeed, he did predatorily seizes upon Trilby, but other characters are similarly manipulative. We excuse the behaviour from white characters because we see their motivations as valid and not through a stereotyping lens. Yet, Svengali’s character is easily demonized because he is Jewish. What if we expand our parochial view of Englishness to one of Empire and colonization—does our view of the polite rules that rule out Trilby as a desired mate for a proper, English man change? I think it should. The fairy tale isn’t quite so simple, is it?

I am going to leave the review here, and I will post another about the way mental health is treated throughout the novel and give Trilby more of an opportunity to speak for herself.

Heaps of love,
WordPlay Xx

The Silly-ad Iliad

Hades agreed to represent Achilles’s rage. // Disney / GIPHY

Yes, Achilles sulked. And it is humorous to regard his sulking as the petulance of a child, but we must recall that the opening of the epic tells us of Achilles’s rage. We are meant to envision rage. Indeed, it is what gives Homer’s tale a beginning. The Iliad does not review the full Trojan War. Rather, we land somewhere about the end–after nine years of battling. Achilles’s rage devours nine-years worth of war, and it makes the reader forget that they’ve been fighting for so long. His rage overpowers the entire act of war-making. That is some pretty powerful rage.

Achilles stops fighting because Agamemnon dishonours him by taking Brisēís, a woman Achilles won in battle, to recover Agamemnon’s loss of his own trophy. He was forced by Apollo to return Chryseis to her father, who offered a large ransom for her return. Achilles and the wiseman Calchas, alone, stand up to Agamemnon to say that the woman should be returned to her father. So, Agamemnon takes revenge and takes Achilles’s woman. Essentially, the men aren’t very concerned over the women as people but as property and conquests of war. To them, the women represent property won in battle. These women are representative of the men’s status as a warrior, but they are not represented—as humans or characters in the text. Indeed, even the beautiful Helen, for whom the Trojan war is being fought, represents the defamation of Menelaus’s honour because she ran off with Paris. Helen is much desired for her beauty and the property—her booty, in the many senses of the word. But these attributes are meant to be consumed by the men in her life; her husband(s).

These women are representative of the men’s status as a warrior, but they are not represented—as humans or characters in the text.

Troy will meet its destruction for the battle over honour; but, because Agamemnon dishonours Achilles, the Achaeans almost lose. Honour is constructed by many facets of war and warfare. As we have thus far seen, the conquest of women and objects signifies honour to other warriors and, especially, the people of one’s own race. (I use race here not in its modern sense but to refer to ones countrymen or allies). Furthermore, honour is signified by the performed masculinity of fighting and one’s armour. The gods urge on certain men, breathing courage and energy into their bodies. The gods discourage other men, casting fear and uncertainty into their hearts. Yet, the true warriors are men capable of destroying MANY other men. In an ironic twist, one man who eliminates hundreds of others is the pinnacle of masculinity. Man-ness determined by de-manning; the ultimate game of survival of the fittest. Hector, King Priam of Troy’s son, is beloved for his skill as a warrior. Likewise, Achilles, a man who easily kills many other men, is also distinctly male. Except that he sulks. For this reason, the listener/reader must be made aware, indeed, of Achilles’s rage.

Much of the plot is moved by Achilles’s anger at Agamemnon. The parallels between his dishonour and Menelaus’s is fleshed out. We are left in no doubt that Agamemnon committed the same sin that Paris did. Achilles’s similar rage and intra-Achaean act of warfare is sanctioned by Zeus, who allows the Trojans to, seemingly, win until Achilles re-enters the battle. If Agamemnon and Menelaus can begin full-scale war with Troy, then Achilles can rage his own fury. Indeed, borrowing from Homer’s many metaphors, the scales of battle are tipped in favour of the Trojans, and the warfare ebbs and flows like the tide against the sandy beach. This drama-filled poem contains many graphic scenes of warfare and the many men whom death covers. The ultimate scenes of battle occur when Achilles re-enters the fray, and his rage has intensified.

A quick note on the pace of the poem. The rapidity and the softness of pace that compels you onward. Most of the poem takes place in very fast-paced moment of war. What is extremely fascinating is the pace of the text. At times, many things are happening in what seems like mili-seconds, but there is a grace to the way words take their time and stamp their own authority over the timing of the events. Moreover, at times when fast-paced scenes unravel, gods or other characters will take a moment to interject and monologue, and these moments seem to be a false eternity before the eternity of all eternities: death

The ultimate scenes of battle occur when Achilles re-enters the fray, and his rage has intensified.

(More-revealing spoilers below)

Achilles is a hero for the Achaeans (and somewhat of an anti-hero, generally); crucially, Hector is the true hero of the poem. The poem ends with the Trojans and the listener/reader mourning Hector. Even Helen, who has cursed both Paris and Menelaus honours Hector as a great man. But let’s look a little closer at what happens on the battlefield. Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles’s BFF, and this prompts Achilles to re-enter the war. Hector removes Achilles’s armour–so Momma Thetis goes to Hephaestus and asks him to make Achilles’s another set (MORE ON THIS LATER). Achilles seriously mourns Patroclus’s death. The depth of their friendship is revealed, and Achilles’s sorrow moves the listener/reader. Quite so, he must avenge his death, aside from the fact that he must kill the Trojans to win, anyway. So, as Achilles re-enters the war, the scales are forever turned in the Achaean’s favour. BUT ARE THEY?

At one point, Zeus is tempted to save Hector from death at Achilles’s hands. Surely. this would be the greatest dishonour to Achilles. (22.167-4). Zeus says:

How dreadful! A man I love is being pursued
around the wall of the city, My heart grieves for Hector

But now Achilles, whom no one can match running,
is chasing [Hector] down. All of you–we must decide
whether to save him from death or allow Achilles
to finish him off, brave fighter though Hector is.

Athena quickly quells Zeus’s desire to save Hector. She knows that Achilles must be the one to kill him, or he will never be satisfied. And Athena rather likes Achilles and the Achaeans. But look at the way Zeus offers to save Hector. He loves him and he grieves over his likely death. He wants to save Hector, but he also wants to allows him the chance to fight Achilles because he trusts his bravery. Parent-like, Zeus wants to protect Hector but also allow him to prove himself brave, even it means he dies.

Die, he does. Achilles tries everything to defile Hector’s body, but the gods protect his corpse so he may be honoured by his family with a proper death. Of all the raging men in The Iliad, Hector has his honour intact throughout. Hector is given a full burial rights; the gods ensure this too. How beguiling! A Trojan is the mourned hero of the epic. Indeed, Hector’s proper burial rites gives Homer’s tale it’s ending, not the end of the war or even Achilles’s death. The burial of a hero and not the triumph the the Achaeans, who will destroy and enslave Troy, ends Homer’s epic.

Now, to return to Achilles’s armour. Hephaestus’s craft-godship is perfectly and staggeringly breathtaking. Book 18 contains the magic of Homer. The detail of the armour is spectacular. One could study endless pages on the relationship between the scenes on the armour and the themes of the entire epic. (18. 521-531):

Upon it he set rich farmland that had been lying
fallow the year before. It had just been plowed [sic.]
three times, and the plowmen were wheeling their teams across it,
back and forth and up and down the deep furrows.
When they reached the edge of the field and before they turned,
a man would hand them a cup of honey-sweet wine;
then they would turn back, eager to plow through the soil
and reach the other edge of the field for the next turn.
And the land darker behind them and looked as if
it had just that moment been slowed, although it was fashioned
pure gold: so marvellous was the craft of its forging.

And this is only a brief taste of Hephaestus’s skill. As a final note, I want to remind the reader of the fact that in Homer’s Iliad the only two characters who create are Helen and Hephaestus. Helen sits at a loom making a purple robe with scenes of the battle. Both characters also destroy. Helen is at the centre of the Trojan war. Hephaestus helps save Achilles from an angry river god by casting his fires upon the water. Just like the ultimate claim to manness is de-manning the battlefield, these characters create and destroy. An unholy balance is somewhere set at equal by these characters.

The ending was always clear. The Trojans would lose and the Achaeans would leave triumphant; Odysseus would his famous journey home. Do not let these facts stop you. For, within this text, is heart-breaking language that will stir your soul. Of course, there are many problematic issues with the text: glorification of warfare and the appalling treatment of women–bitch is a recurrent word. But, for the beauty of language, the eloquent use of metaphor and imagination I would recommend this to all. I will definitely revisit this text again and again.

Hector's Theme song:  'Only bad people live to see their likeness set in stone'

Readtrack to the Iliad — Sivu’s Better Man Than He

It Crowd / Tumblr

Achilles is sulking. War is raging. Helen is looming. Well, actually, she is working at a loom before she is called before Priam, who tells her that Paris and Menelaus will fight for her in front of and between the Achaean and Trojan armies. Still, Achilles sulks. Dishonoured, he sulks. But a sulk full of rage and sanctioned by Zeus–a divinely manly sulk, if you will. I think one of my favourite descriptive phrases is when Priam recounts Odysseus’s speech. Odysseus seems awkward, bulky, stupid, and taciturn, but when he speaks, Priam says, “[Odysseus’s] words began falling fast like snowflakes in winter, / then no other man on earth could compete with Odysseus.” (3.208-209). How lovely an image. I can just see massive snowflakes that should be graceless caress the wind as they fall, full of wonder, to the earth. Coating the world in splendour and sparkle. Delicious. It calls to mind hearths and warm drinks. It calls to mind standing in a snow fall and somehow becoming one with the falling sky and the receiving earth. Hugged between it all.

There is a fantastic song that I am currently entirely in love with. I am going to share it here, because it is so filling, like Priam’s description of Odysseus. Like snow falling, no one could compete.

Enjoy with this:

And as a fire burns through a boundless forest
on the mountain crests, and from far off the flare can be seen:
Just so did the gleam from the polished bronze of their armor
flash through the whole sky, up to the very heavens.
And as the great flocks on the Asian wetlands—wild geese
or cranes or long-throated swans–by the streams of Cäyster 
wheel this way and that way, glorying in their wings,
and with loud cries keep settling, and the whole marshland resounds:
just so did the troops pour forth from the ships and huts
beneath the feet of the men and the hooves of the horses,
and they stood there massed in Scamander’s flowery meadow
as measureless as the leaves and flowers in their season.
And just as great hordes of flies keep swarming around
a sheepfold in springs, when milk overflows the buckets:
in such vast numbers the Argives stood massed on the plain
against the Trojans, eager to tear them to pieces.
The Iliad (2.438-454)

Current Fling


Hear ye, Hear ye! I am, indeed, reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I wanted to save some initial reviews for when I have finished this tome, but I’d like to add some preliminary remarks here. 

This novel reminds me of flicking through television stations only to notice that the same actor appears in almost all of the stations. Which somehow, miraculously, or perhaps the late hour, allows you to thread together a plot line without an end game. I do not note this as a failure of the novel, quite the contrary. It is quite a feat to organize so many different ideas and origins into one seemingly round-about story line. I find myself trusting the author to deliver something that keeps me hooked, and every so often that appears. From Lucille Ball references to random Russians, Gaiman intrigues. Of course, I am still waiting for that strong finale. 

As of right now, I’d say the novel is sitting at about 3 missed meals out of five. It is, yes, well-written and entertaining, but I am not certain it is amongst the best things I’ve read. I do appreciate the text, and I look forward to reading it to its conclusion. 

Dear American Gods, a rather long fling only because your page count is rather high. More than a bed-and-breakfast trip away from it all—more like a sketching trip gone awry and we’re still sorting through the broken heels. 

– fin.

On Reading Camus’s The Plague

To begin with, I decided to read The Plague in connection with a project on which I am currently working.  I was highly optimistic, for some unknown reason, but I am now realizing that reading this text is contributing to my high blood pressure.  I cannot explain it, but I have an (ir)rational fear of the bubonic plague.  Ever since I was really little, I was afraid I could catch the plague just by reading about it.  Even then, I thought to myself, “if I read books from the period…can I catch the plague…what is the incubation period of the plague?”  While, of course, the plague is not something that is held static in history, and, in fact, it continues to live on and infect, I always imagined it as something frozen in time.  I remember walking out of the room when a documentary came on the television about the plague.  If my memory is correct, scientists were unburying dead bodies in order to see if the plague had laid dormant, and, in fact, it had.  I cannot be too sure whether or not this is true, but the memory is quite vivid.  Scientists digging and white parkas.  A seemingly innocuous image is also terrifying beyond belief.

I am currently reading The Plague.  It seems like a bad idea, but that cliché of having to face one’s fears comes just as clear to my mind.  Reading this book is highly distressing to me, but there are certain things, not the horrors of disease, that I intend to extract from the novel.  Perhaps, that could be the very basis of my own mantra…using Camus’s existentialism to get through this horrifying novel.  I am on page 17.  But, I intend to make my own meaning from this book.  I am looking for what is not obvious, and I am looking for, not redemption, but a moment of meaningless meaning.  Perhaps, it will be fleeting, and even worthless to my project, but it seems foolish not to try.

I am reading The Plague because, while this feeling is not addictive, it certainly is catching.  One only has a few days before they are taken captive to the plague and its particular necrosis.  In this case, I am not looking towards death in a straightforward way.  Not at all, but just the way ideas come and go, eat and fester, cure and humble.  While my reaction may seem melodramatic, perhaps setting down on metaphorical paper the apprehensions I face is the only way I will Pester on and make a new meaning out of something with which I have been, largely, uncomfortable.


–fin, until next time