Part II A Review: Trilby by George Du Maurier
April 29, 2009
George Du Maurier
Review by R.E. Prindle
Du Maurier is interesting as a possible influence on Burroughs. Du Maurier not only borrows from authors he admires but tells the reader he’s borrowing. Burroughs borrows without creditation. The great literature of the nineteenth century was written during Du Maurier’s lifetime. Thus Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers of 1845 was a new book. It was also a book that overwhelmed Du Maurier’s imagination while having a later profound effect on Burroughs. Thus Du Maurier tells the reader his plot is based on The Three Musketeers. Like Burroughs Du Maurier incorporates several sources in an obvious manner. He was apparently fascinated by Henry Murger’s Scenes De La Vie Boheme of 1851. I haven’t read the book as yet but other reviewers say the influence is there. I pick up an influence from La Dame Aux Camellias by Dumas fils also. Du Maurier refers to many poets and writers whose writing left him helpless but as I am not that well grounded in many aspects of early nineteenth century literature I can’t identify the influences myself but they are as plentiful and obvious as with Burroughs himself.
In his own life Du Maurier had aspirations to be an opera singer but lacked the powerful voice. He then aspired to be an artist but lacked that talent becoming one of the premier illustrators of the century instead. And then as he felt death approaching he turned to writing. Thus a failure as a singer, a failure as an artist but success as an illustrator he became a huge success as a novelist. The careers of his protagonists generally follow the same course.
He is also a nostalgic writer as he lovingly recreates the scenes of his youth and life. He always retained the impress of La Boheme living his life in a genteel bohemian style. I suppose today he would be like an old hippy walking around in a gray pony tail, sandals and the garb of the sixties while making a fortune as a stock broker.
Thus Trilby opens in an artist’s atelier on the Left Bank of Paris in the Latin Quarter. The Latin Quarter of his time may be compared to New York’s Greenwich Village or San Francisco’s North Beach of the fifties and sixties. Du Maurier himself lived such an existence for a couple years at the end of the eighteen fifties.
We are thus introduced to his three musketeers- Taffy, the Laird and Little Billee. They are fine comrades living the Bohemian life style much as some upper middle class hippies took to a bohemian life style with torn jeans and the pose of the impoverished in the nineteen-sixties.
The whole ensemble is gathered thogether in the atelier for the opening section. Taffy, The Laird and Billy are letting the studio. As Du Maurier says on the title page this is a love story. Trilby O’ Farrell the love interest turns up immediately. She and Billy love each other but Trilby is classed as a grisette which was apparently the equivalent of a hippy chick who was somewhat free living. Trilby declassed herself completely by posing as an artist’s model in the altogether or, in another word, nude. This was no small thing to all concerned although the bohos tended to be a little tolerant.
After Trilby arrives come Svengali and his sidekick Gecko. They are musicians. Svengali is billed as an incomparable musician which is to say performer. He was a great pianist. He taught Gecko his violinist everything he knew.
We are discussing the nineteenth century and nineteenth century views in context. The story can’t be told any other way. If the attitudes and opinions of other times and other people offend y0u be forewarned and proceed at you own risk. I will bowlderize history to suit no one’s whims. As Walter Duranty facetiously said: I write as I please. Du Maurier, the gentlest of men, nevertheless had well formed opinions. Svengali is a Jew and pretty much a stereotype of the Jew at the time. He appears to be a beteljew from the Pale actually although he is said to be German but the accent Du Maurier gives him could just as well be Yiddish as German. It is important to bear all this in mind because in the contest for the possession of Trilby between Billy and Svengali the latter is going to obtain her.
There’s an interesting contrast here the meaning of which isn’t exactly clear to me. Trilby has a beautiful foot, the kind that drives fetichists wild. After this first encounter Billy, the consummate artist, sketches the foot on the wall to perfection. All the others are amazed at the likeness. This sketch occupies as central place in the story as does Svengali’s hypnotism of Trilby. Svengali on the other hand demands that Trilby open her mouth wide so he can look in. Raises your eyebrows when you read this. Not only does Trilby have a beautiful foot but she has a cavernous mouth that made for an amazing sound chamber, the kind that comes along apparently once in ever.
The problem is that Trilby can’t put two notes together nor can she even find the note while finding the key is bothersome. Much is made of her inability to sing as she screeches ludicrously through Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt. (Ben Bolt was one of the most popular songs of the century on both sides of the Atlantic. Due to the wonders of the internet if you’ve never heard Ben Bolt you can get a good performance on the net. I’d heard of the song but never heard it until I checked it out on the net. Just amazing.)
Her rendition was a cause of great merriment. So you have the European sketching the foundation of the girl while the Jew is inspecting the intellectual possibilities. The Jew will win because he’s at the right end. As I say the mystery of these images float over my head. I’m merely making a stab at the meaning. I know there’s a contest and what it’s about but the symbolism is shaky to me.
And so the introduction ends with everyone agreeing that Svengali is a cad after he left and all three musketeers falling in love with Trilby.
There is much description of the fine times the musketeers have. One gets the impression that Du Maurier was living the life in the sixties in Paris but such was not the case. He signed on at Punch in 1860 and thus was working as an illustrtor for them from that date until his death. He seems to have been familiar with the Pre-Raphaelite painters of London of whom he speaks highly most especially of Millais. He seems to have been friends with a Fred Walker who he thought was a great artist but who seems to have been lost in the mists of time. I’d never heard of him anyway but one can find his pictures on the internet. Du Maurier loved the artist’s life.
Much of this book as well as the other is a loving recreation of the times and his memory of the times is one of wonderful things. Very refreshing against the unremitting negativity of modern literature. The book is set mainly in the sixties but the ‘horrible’ year of 1871 and the French Commune obtrudes. Du Maurier while recognizing its ugliness nevertheless passes over it quickly with a shrug and back to the good times. He introduces some additional charming characters but then come the crisis.
Billy had asked the declassed Trilby to marry him nineteen times and she had always refused because she knew she wasn’t in his class. After an amazingly wonderful Christmas feast in the atelier Billy asks again. Trilby, as she says, in a moment of weakness accepts. When the news reaches Billy’s mother, Mrs. Bagot, she scurries over to Paris from London to check Trilby out. When she learns that Trilby had posed in the altogether she persuades Trilby to give up her son.
Trilby leaves town without a goodbye. When Billy finds out he has his brain fever or a nervous breakdown that prostrates him for weeks. There was a chance he wouldn’t make it. He does but with psychological consequences. He can no longer love while he lives in a deep melancholia. There are some who know where that’s at. After he recovers he returns to England. the wonderful Bohemian rhapsody is over.
Trilby had left Paris to go to the provinces. She had a little brother who she was supporting and bringing up who she took with her and who then dies of a fever. This devastates Trilby who cuts her hair, dresses as a man and walks back to Paris. Her old haunts have disappeared in the interim so she shows up on the doorstep of Svengali who is but too happy to take her in. The hypnotized Trilby is a small part of the book. The next hundred pages or so describe Billy’s wonderful success as a painter and the loss of camaraderie as the young idealists of the Latin Quarter age and lose their affinity for each other. Charmingly told with just the right touch of heartache.
In the meantime and off stage, as it were, Svengali accompanied by Gecko keeps Trilby in a hypnotic trance as he
teaches her to use her tremendous oral cavity to sing. While she has the exact equipment to be a great singer she lacks the musical sense and can’t learn it sober. Svengali instills the musical sense through hypnosis but as Gecko later explains Trilby is merely providing the instrument while Svengali is actually singing through her. For three years they labor in the salt mines, as they say, performing on street corners or wherever. Then Trilby is properly trained becoming the rage of Europe as La Svengali becoming bigger and better than such stars as Adelina Patti or Jenny Lind, two real life divas.
Thus while Billy has lost Trilby’s foot or body, Svengali has captured her soul or oral cavity. That’s about the only way I can make sense of foot and cavity.
Now, in real terms the Jews had been emancipated beginning in 1789 by the French Revolution although occuring at different localities in Europe at different times. With the emanicipation a contest began for the soil and soul of Europe. Europeans owned the soil but the Jews while originating nothing became the cultural virtuosi of Europe. Not only in the performing arts but in finance, science and as entrepreneurs. The soil temporarily remained European but the culture was becoming Judaized. It was then that Freud made his assault on European concepts of morality. So Du Maurier has portrayed the situation poetically in a magnificent manner.
Thus the Jews while offering no Beethovens, Bachs or Mozarts became virtuoso interpreters of the music as performers. As Svengali says: Piff, what is the composition compared to my ability to render it. There you have the exploiter’s motto. The Allen Kleins and Albert Grossmans of the world suck the talent, as it were, out of their performers or, boys, as they call them, as agents taking nearly everything leaving the actual talent a pittance.
Nothing changes, this is what Svengali was doing with Trilby or, in another word, Europe. He was making a fortune while Trilby in her hypnotized state was wasting away. Oh, Svengali dressed her well but for the sake of his appearance not hers. When she died, of the fortune that she had made for Svengali none was left to her. Except for presents she had received in appreaciation of her singing she had nothing. They were supposed to be man and wife but, in fact, Svengali never married her. Here I think we have the real import of the story; the competition for Europe between the Jew and the European. Having given up the soul of Europe Europeans were losing their very substanc, the soil, or Trilby’s foot.
Du Maurier is also describing the rise of the artist from a despised menial to the central position in society that they have attained today, especially movie, TV and musical stars. One only has to look at the position Bob Dylan has attained to see the result today. Here is a man with no qualities revered as if he was the savior while poised to begin a tour of stadiums at 67.50 a head that will sell out earning him a fortune within a couple months. Thus as with Svengali he has conquered the soul and wealth of virtually the world. This is truly astonishing.
So Svengali is on top of the world. Despised as a beteljew in the atelier a short five years ago he now has Trilby/Europe and the fortune that goes with her. Alas, he is sucking the life’s blood from her to do this and she is within weeks of death when the Three Musketeers hearing of La Svengali’s fame travel back to Paris to see her perform.
Of course they are so astonished at seeing someone who looks like Trilby singing that they can’t believe it is indeed her. Svengali harbors ill will toward Billy because Billy is always in her heart while her relationship with Svengali is strictly professional.
The Musketeers and the Svengalis are staying at the same hotel where Svengali meeting Billy can’t resist spitting in his face. Billy, who is actually known in the story as Little Billee is much smaller than the six foot Svengali but he nevertheless goes after him getting the worst of the fight until Taffy, a giant body builder type, shows up grabbing Svengali’s ‘huge Hebrew nose’ between his first two fingers leading him around by the nose. Oh, those unintended consequences. The humiliation is too much for Svengali, he becomes vicious toward Trilby in revenge. Readying for their London debut he bullies Trilby in front of Gecko, now his first violinist, who stabs Svengali in the neck with a small knife.
Svengali while wounded is not hurt that bad but his physicians advise him not to conduct the opening performance. This creates a problem because Svengali must make eye contact to sing through Trilby.
He takes a box directly in front of Trilby. But he spots Billy and the other two musketeers in the pit in front of him. The malice and venom he has toward Billy makes his heart fail. His face freezes into a risus sardonicus as he sits lifelessly leering at the Three Musketeers, triumphant in death. Of course Trilby can’t sing a note on her own so that ends a fine career. Now begins the denouement. While seemingly superfluous this is a very important part of the story giving it its secondary meaning.
The Musketeers take Trilby in charge. No one is aware she had been hypnotized while she has no memory of performing and little of the lost five years. The situation between she and Mrs. Bagot, Billy’s mother, are now reversed. Trilby is the great lady while Mrs. Bagot is merely a middle class hausfrau. One might say Svengali has created the real Trilby. Mrs. Bagot still hadn’t posed in the altogether however. Where was Hugh Heffner when you needed him.
On the surface it looks as though Mrs. Bagot has gotten her comeuppance but as Trilby is the creation of Svengali she would have remained the simple little grisette that Billy loved without him. She would have remained the foot without realizing the potential of her oral cavity. Nevertheless this Trilby was Trilby as she should have been.
The woman was fading fast. Svengali had drawn the vital energy from her in his exploitation of her. Mysteriously, just before she dies, a life sized portrait of Svengali is delivered. The contest between he and Billy is still in effect. Gazing in the painted eyes of the hypnotist Trilby breaks into song as a final effort in her best manner.
Billy is grasping desperately for Trilby’s love. On her death bed he leans close to hear her breath out- Svengali, Svengali, Svengali. Thus he believes she loved Svengali more than he. His brain fever is reactivated, he dies. In grand operatic style the love story ends. All because Mrs. Bagot was a snob. But, I think a correct one. Although, what the heck, Billy was just a boho painter.
As an anti-climax in a final chapter titled Twenty Year After as tribute to Dumas whose sequel to The Three Musketeers was title Twenty Years After, Taffy takes a trip to Paris where he finds Gecko playing fiddle in a music hall. He sends a note that Gecko accepts requesting a meeting at his hotel. There Gecko resolves the mystery filling Taffy in on Trilby’s missing five years. He reveals that Trilby had always loved Little Billee and never Svengali.
The reading public then and now has concentrated on the Svengali-Trilby hypnotism aspect of the novel ignoring the rest. That aspect is actually a very small part of the novel but without it I suppose the story woud have fallen flat. Even today a manager like Colonel Tom Parker is thought of as a Svengali to Elvis Presley, so the name has come into common usage for someone’s inexplicable control of someone else.
Edgar Rice Burroughs who had a fascination with hypnotism was probably charmed by that aspect of the story. In his most detailed reference to hypnotism in Thuvia, Maid Of Mars he seems most influenced by stage hypnotism in which the audience is induced to see what is not there rather than the Svengali type. Still, Thuvia-Trilby and the relationship between Jav and Thuvia and Thuvia and Tario has some resonances. I dout that ERB would have been conscious of his borrowing imagining rather that he was creating the story from whole cloth.
End of Part Two, Go to Part Three the Review of The Martian.