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