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Certainly of its time
on 18 March 2015
I'm still using my Derren Brown 'Svengali' tour mug which Mum got for me after I saw his show. The historic name is as much a cultural cliche for dark hypnotic power as the word 'Trilby' denotes a certain style of hat. It had never occurred to me to learn where either originated yet it turns out that George Du Maurier's novel is the source for both. Wildly popular in its day, Trilby is now considered a classic, the Wordsworth Classics edition being the one I spotted in a Spanish campsite library. Personally, I am not sure that the novel has aged well! The underlying storyline is a great idea, but its telling is very much of the time.
Told by a condescending first person narrator who doesn't actually feature in the story, we get lots of personal asides (frequently snobbish, sexist and racist) which slow the flowery writing style. I enjoyed the atmospheric descriptions of 1860s Paris, but was often infuriated by Du Maurier's pace - get on with it! The potentially most interesting part of the novel, Trilby's take-over by Svengali and her fantastic musical breakthrough, actually happen 'offstage' so the reader is presented with reports of the fait accompli, and while I'm showing off my French, a warning that Du Maurier does that a lot. Often whole conversations are in French with little or nothing by way of translation. Hopefully much of it was just small talk as, overall, I probably missed half a dozen pages this way.
The characters are strong although, again, very much of their time. Our insipid English hero, Little Billee, is suitably upstanding; his chums are both Good Sorts; etc. Trilby herself is initially a refreshing change. She makes her own money by modelling for artists and is blithely independent. Of course, as time goes by, she is taught to be ashamed of such a lifestyle and to take pleasure from domestic drudgery instead, and her great success comes only at the instigation of a man, but at least she started out promisingly! Vicious antisemitism is the other big problem with the novel. Svengali is a nasty piece of work. I don't mind that - the tale needs a good villain. But Svengali isn't just A Bad Man. It's repeatedly made plain that his badness is due to his being Jewish and Du Maurier's insults descend to real childish namecalling. As he spends the rest of the book trying to impart a sense of his own superiority, this really stands out as bizarre.
I'm not sure if I enjoyed reading Trilby or not. Some sections are beautifully written with energy, atmosphere and a real knowledge of the Paris of the day. Other sections are slow, ridiculously sentimental or simply pointless. A note to current authors: if you feel the need for your hero to start talking at length to a dog, please don't report it to your readers!