novel.htm  12/20/02

A collection of reviews for the Novel, "Trilby" and some of its stage and film adaptations as found on the Internet.

Edited with an Introduction by ELAINE SHOWALTER, Princeton University

First published in 1894, the story of the diva Trilby O'Ferrall and her mentor, Svengali, has entered the mythology of that period alongside Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. Immensely popular for years, the novel led to a hit play, a series of popular films, Trilby products from hats to ice-cream, and streets in Florida named after characters in the book. The setting reflects Du Maurier's bohemian years as an art student in Paris before he went to London to make a career in journalism. A celebrated caricaturist for Punch magazine, Du Maurier's drawings for the novel--of which his most significant are included here--form a large part of its appeal.

368 pp.; 50 b/w drawings; 0-19-283351-0


A work that contributed to the romanticizing of the artistic lifestyle was George du Maurier's Trilby, published serially in Harper's Monthly in 1894. The novel's hero, Little Billee, is an artist who gains fame and fortune from his paintings; its heroine is a grisette, his true love, who models for him.

Du Maurier, a frequent contributor to Punch and other satirical journals and grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier, had been in Paris himself as a young man in the 1850s. In spite of this personal experience, however, Trilby is based on little historical fact.

(Cutline for illustration on trilby.htm page)  -- Trilby, hypnotized by Svengali. Svengali's exaggerated features were typical of anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews at the turn of the century. This engraving was done by Du Maurier himself for the first edition of the novel in 1894.

The novel is about a studio of three artists from England and Scotland, the Laird, Taffy, and Little Billee; the grisette and model Trilby; and a Jewish hypnotist named Svengali who teaches Trilby to sing and uses her voice for his own purposes. The first half of the novel takes place in Paris. Trilby meets and falls in love with Little Billee, but, like Fantine in Les Miserables, cannot stay with him because he is of a higher social class. Later, Billee becomes a famous artist in London, then returns to France after a failed love affair and re-meets his two companions. One evening at the theater they see the new singer that they have heard so much about, "La Svengali." To their surprise, it is Trilby, who has never sung in tune before - but now she sings like "a woman archangel ... or some enchanted princess out of a fairy tale" (203). Svengali, the strange suspicious musician the group had feared years ago in Paris, is the conductor.

Mystified, the group sees her again in London. However, as he stands in the box overlooking his protégée, Svengali dies of a heart attack and his spell over her suddenly breaks - she can no longer sing in tune. Little Billee takes her into his chambers where she relates her story, saying that she remembers nothing of her singing career. However, by this point she is very weak, near death. As she is writing her will, she sees a portrait of Svengali among her possessions. Upon seeing it she goes into her trance, singing Chopin's Impromptu in A flat as she had on the stage and dying with his name on her lips. Many years later Svengali's assistant, Gecko, tells Taffy that there were "two Trilbys," the one they knew, an "angel of paradise" (Du Maurer 287) and a "singing machine" when under the spell of Svengali (288).

"Du Maurier's bohemian Paris is as much an invention as a reality, and as much a projection of the 1890s as a recollection of the 1850s," writes critic Ellen Showalter (xiii). Many of the details are far from historically accurate: du Maurier has his artists reading Zola and Maupassant before those authors published any works (Showalter xiii). The novel's importance as a historical document, then, is based more in the feelings of interdependent, artistic Bohemia than in any of its specific incidents or details.

Upon publication, the novel caused a sensation in Britain and America. In its first year of publication, the book sold 200,000 copies in America (Showalter ix). "Svengali" became a usual name for any hypnotist; the book was turned into a popular play, and one town in Florida named its streets after the characters (Showalter x). It sparked a resurgence of interest in Bohemian life, as had not been seen since Murger. Years after Paris ceased to be the center of Bohemian life, the culture of the artists still attracted attention.



Internet review by Kevin Mims

In its time, "Trilby" achieved a popular success that is almost impossible to fathom nowadays. The old tale about how New Yorkers lined up in the harbors awaiting each new installment of Dickens' "Old Curiosity Shop" is almost literally true of "Trilby." It was serialized in Harper's magazine before being published in book form, and it sold out on the news stands practically overnight. As one American reviewer put it, "There are people not a few who will remember the first half of 1894 not for the hard times, not for the strikes, nor any other thing of public interest or private concern, so much as for the pleasure they had in in reading 'Trilby.' Never before did the month intervening between installments seem so long nor did so many readers anxiously await the next development in a novel..." A city in Florida named its streets after the characters in the novel. A theatrical incarnation of the book inspired a fashion trend known as the Trilby hat. And the name of the book's villain, Svengali, entered the English language as a noun describing an overbearing mentor who exerts a sinister hold on his protege.

What's odd about all this is that it seems to describe a book entirely different from the one I read. The famous "Trilby hat," for instance, was a product solely of the dramatic version of the story, it is never mentioned in the book. What's more, Trilby and, especially, Svengali (who by the way is a Jew, and described in the novel in terms that are offensively anti-Semitic) are not even among the book's three main characters. The vast majority of the novel deals with the bohmeian lifestyle of three English painters living in Paris during the 1850s. The novel's overriding concern is the recreation of this lifestyle, which the author -- and, presumably, his readers -- seemed to be a lot more interested in, and charmed by, than any contemporary reader is likely to be. Svengali probably appears onstage in only about thirty of the book's nearly 300 pages, and the story of his mesmeric influence over Trilby and her subsequent rise to international fame as a singing sensation, is a mere subplot in this novel and takes place almost entirely offstage, the few details of the relationship that do appear in the book are dispensed rather offhandedly in the final few pages.

All in all, I found the book interesting but disappointing. Contrary to what the cover blurb says, the book is not really about "the diva Trilby O'Ferrall and her mesmeric mentor, Svengali," but rather about bohemian life in Paris, circa 1859. As a portrait of said life, it is in fact interesting and remarkably frank for its time. But as a story, "Trilby" is scattered and unfocused, more a series of character sketches than a bona fide novel.


SVENGALI (1914/Wiener Kunstfilm) 6 reels. BW. Silent. Austria. Aka: DER HYPNOTISEUR.
Credits: Dir: Luise Kolm & Jakob Fleck. From the novel "Trilby" by George Du Maurier.
Cast: Frl. Nording, Ferdinand Bonn.

SVENGALI (1927/Terra Film) BW. Silent. Germany.
Credits: Dir: Gennaro Righelli & H. Grund; Sc: Max Glass; Art: Hans Jacoby.
From the novel "Trilby" by George Du Maurier.
Cast: Paul Wegener, Anita Dorris, Alexander Granach, Andre Mattoni.
Svengali, (Wegener), commands a young girl's thoughts and actions with his powers of hypnotism.

(1931/Warner/Vitaphone) 83mins. BW. US. Shooting title: TRIBLY.
Credits: Dir: Archie Mayo; Sc: J. Grubb Alexander; Ph: Barney McGill; Ed: William Holmes; Art: Anton Grot; Sfx: Fred W. Jackman & Hans F. Koenekamp; Mus: David Mendoza.
From the novel "Trilby" by George Du Maurier.
Cast: John Barrymore, Marian Marsh, Donald Crisp, Bramwell Fletcher, Carmel Meyers, Lumsden Hare, Luis Alberni, Paul Porcasi, Ferike Boros, Adrienne D'Ambricourt, Yola D'Avril, Henry Otto.
"All Paris desired her, but Svengali owned her! Weirdest romance ever pictured! With the screen's genius and his new find!"
Svengali, (Barrymore), an impoverished opportunist teaching music in 1890's Paris, but he is also an evil hypnotist who mesmerizes a woman named Trilby O'Farrell, (Marsh), to acheive fame with her singing in the hope that she will love him. To this end Svengali tries to control her, but although he can control her voice, he cannot control her heart.
The first sound adaptation of du Maurier's popular novel is turned into a Victorian melodrama with some sinister overtones and effectively bizarre sets by Polish art director Anton Grot that work superbly in tandem with Barney McGill's lighting.
Unfortunately the film fails to captivate once Barrymore is off the screen, a role he reprised in The Mad Genius released the same year.
The close up shots of Svengali's eyes were influenced by Dracula.
Photography and Art received Academy Award nominations.


Review from Moving Picture World, Sept. 18, 1915

A Skillfully Constructed Screen Version of Du Maurier's Story Opened at the Forth-fourth Street Theater, New York, on Labor Day--Clara Kimball Young and Wilton Lackaye Are in the Cast.
Reviewed by Edward Weitzel

Monday evening Sept. 6th, another of New York City's leading theaters entered the moving picture field, a five reel version of "Trilby," produced by the Equitable Motion Picture Corporation, opening for a run at the Forty-fourth Street theater. In addition to the Du Maurier story, a series of war pictures entitled "With the Fighting Forces in Europe," taken by C.H. Murray, and embracing views of military life and incidents in Serbia, Austria, Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, England, Japan, Turkey and Italy are on the program; also a well-selected orchestra of fifty members, led by Dr. Hugo Reisenfeld, contribute a specially composed overture and the incidental music, the entire performance being under the direction of S.L. Rothapfel. The theater was filled with an audience that expressed hearty approbation for the war pictures, and followed the fortunes of Trilby O'Farrell with every manifestation of interest and delight.

Any one at all familiar with the George Du Maurier novel might easily have foreseen that it would make an excellent photoplay. The result obtained by Maurice Tourneur and the cast under his direction place this motion-drama among the finest examples of its kind. To start with, the scenario displays keen appreciation of what was required. The character of the Rev. Thomas Bagot has been dispensed with, and "Zou-Zou," "Dodor," and Madam Vinard, and, to a lesser degree, "Taffy," "The Laird" and Gecko have been kept in the background and Trilby and Svengali given the center of the stage, such an arrangement being necessary in order to compress the novel into five reels. The almost entire absence of "cutbacks" puts "Trilby" in the true drama class, where the human will be shown in action and tells its own story--not by the use of the narrative form. This makes for a firmer grip on the emotions, a stronger response from the hearts in the audience. While all the scenes in which the characters of the play appear were taken in this country, the atmosphere of the Latin Quarter in Paris is reproduced most convincingly. One slight blemish mars the artistic worth of the picture--the introduction of the vision of Death in the quarrel between Svengali and Gecko. The figure is not impressive. To offset this, there are countless scenes thrown on the screen that are worthy the highest praise: the picture will not quickly be forgotten.

The acting of the cast, in which the names of Clara Kimball Young and Wilton Lackaye come first, is on a par with the most exacting demands of screen histrionism. Mr. Lackaye's impersonation of Svengali has long been recognized as a work of great merit. The triumph that he won for it in the spoken drama, he more than repeats on the screen. Clara Kimball Young makes an ideal Trilby. Her beauty of face, perfection of form and power as an actress fit the part splendidly, and accurately exemplified by Phyllis Neilson-Terry, the soul which animates her creation is the soul of Trilby O'Farrell. Her posing in the "all-together" is without offense. The Gecko of Paul McAllister, Chester Barnett's Little Billee, and the efforts of the remaining members of the cast are all in harmony with the performance, and responsive to every mood of the director's conception.