October 7, 2010

It occurred to me this morning that probably a lot of you haven’t read Trilby. This, it seems to me, is a problem, and should be rectified. Trilby was published in 1894, but set in the 1840’s or ’50s, and it was massively popular — Wikipedia says Dracula was more popular, but I don’t think Dracula inspired hats, and I’m quite sure it didn’t inspire foot-shaped ice cream.

It’s hard to explain what makes Trilby so special, but it undoubtedly is. Part of it is probably George Du Maurier’s illustrations — he was a staff member at Punch before he was a novelist, and the characters in Trilby are as much visual creations as literary ones. The book is also full of songs and bits of poetry, so it’s sort of a multimedia experience in a way that’s only beginning to be discussed again now with the advent of ebooks. Actually, some kind of enhanced ebook version of Trilby would probably work really well.

Anyway. Trilby is the story of three artists — Taffy, Little Billee, and the Laird — who live in the Latin Quarter of Paris, and Trilby, a model with questionable morals and impossibly beautiful feet. Du Maurier spends quite a lot of time on Trilby’s feet in the early parts of the book, but at the same time he convincingly sketches an almost idyllic existence for our three young artists and their friends. Later, they all move on, but both the characters and, I think, the reader look back to the Latin Quarter with nostalgia.

The enjoyably melodramatic plot revolves around hypnotism. And singing. Trilby has an exceptionally strong voice,but she’s absolutely tone deaf, and her singing is painful to listen to. Enter Svengali, who you’ll probably have heard of even if you were unaware of Trilby’s existence before today. He’s a kind of skeevy guy who also hangs out in the Latin Quarter, and who can cure Trilby’s headaches by hypnotism. She finds him indefinably creepy, but later on she goes to him for help when she’s in trouble and, um, places herself in his power. Apparently, by hypnotizing her, he can make her sing beautifully, but when she sings, she’s…not herself.

It’s hard to do Trilby justice. I can’t explain how awesome Taffy is, or how Little Billee’s pining manages to be so endearing, any more than Du Maurier can draw Trilby’s feet well enough to convince us that they’re the most beatiful feet that ever were. It’s also hard to recommend an etext. I know a fair amount of you use ereaders of various kinds, but unless they display pdfs, there’s no adequate text available online, because you really have to have the illustrations. Barnes & Noble may have an illustrated ebook from Google Books, and PG Australia has a text-only version, but the best option, as far as I can tell, is the Internet Archive pdf. Project Gutenberg doesn’t have a copy at all, which is inexcusable, although I see that it’s currently in progress over at Distributed Proofreaders. PG does have Trilbyana, an 1895 essay on Trilby’s popularity that was originially published in the magazine The Critic, which includes the following:

Mr. du Maurier has worse offenses to atone for than the breaking of the Brooklyn man’s silly head. But for his entertaining book we should have been spared the unreadable prose of “Biltry: a Parody on ‘Trilby'” and the unspeakable verse of “Drilby Re-versed,” the former by Mary Kyle Dallas, the latter by Leopold Jordan. In vulgarity and banality, these two precious productions run each other a close race. Of the two we think “Drilby” a trifle the less objectionable, merely because the proportion of text to white paper is somewhat smaller. Both are poorly illustrated, and printed on much better paper than they deserve.



  1. I loved Trilby when I read it lo, these many years ago. Have you ever seen the 1931 movie with an extremely hambone John Barrymore (called Svengali)? Trilby herself was played by Marian Marsh, who looked exactly like the Du Maurier illustrations (but couldn’t act to save her life, sadly). Not one of the great pre-Codes.

    • I haven’t seen that. Did Marian Marsh look as much like Trilby as Dorothea Baird?

      • They had Marian Marsh in a better wig, but Dorothea Baird looks a bit more like her in the face. (But Marian Marsh is quite uncanny.)

  2. I think “printed on much better paper than they deserve” has to be one of the best insults to a book I’ve seen in a long time.

    • Me too! I love it.

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