A year ago I had never heard of painter, satirist, book illustrator and novelist George du Maurier (1834 - 1896). I came to know George through his granddaughter Daphne du Maurier (1907 - 1898), author of REBECCA. Daphne du Maurier believed that each of us is made up of "echoes" of our ancestors: their blood, their environment, the books they read, the enemies they made and much more. The paternal grandfather who died over a decade before she was born became as real to Daphne as her own parents.
This review is about George du Maurier's serialized in 1894 second novel (of three): TRILBY. TRILBY is a far better read than expected, in spite of too much of its text being in untranslated French. Sixtyish George du Maurier showcased six main characters -- and a score of minor ones. Each resembled the real people whom he had known in Paris nearly 40 years earlier: painters and sculptors young and old, male and female artists's models, musicians.
The third person narrator might well be one-eyed painter George du Maurier himself telling the story of beautiful young Trilby O'Farrall and the two very different men who loved her: young genius painter William Bagot and 40ish musical genius Herr Adler who calls himself Svengali. You will lose yourself in Paris and London in the days of Queen Victoria and Louis Napoleon.
The unnamed narrator shares prejudices or attitudes common in Europe from the 1850s into the 1890s: theories of race and culture, hypnotism as a danger to society, mental illness, love of literature, music and art and a belief that physical beauty is good and its opposite a sure sign of something gone wrong.
On one April afternoon in the late 1850s, in short order we meet in glorious Paris under one roof overlooking the bohemian Latin Quarter's Place St Anatole des Arts all six main characters of TRILBY. A high ceiling covers a spacious painters' studio: large windows on three sides and with a couch large enough for three active men to sprawl out across comfortably at once. The three men who rent that space are all painters. In the order they are presented the three young British friends are
-- (1) a tall, very physical and powerful Yorkshireman usually nicknamed Taffy or occasionally the Man of Blood because distantly related to a baronet.
-- (2) a Scotsman variously styled Sandy or the Laird of Cockpen. He especially loved to paint and sell Spanish toreadors, though he had never seen one.
-- (3) a naive 22-year old Devonshire youngster William Bagot, nicknamed, from a poem by Thackeray, Little Billee. He had studied all that morning at the studio of Carrel, drawing from a live model. Young Mr Bagot has a puzzling ailment of some sort and is not terribly robust. "And in his winning and handsome face there was just a faint suggestion of some possible very remote Jewish ancestor ... ."
Next bursts in an eccentric but always welcome pianist to try out the trio's newly imported semi-grand just arrived from England:
-- (4) He is a tall, dark Central European Polish-Austrian Jew named Adler who calls himself Svengali. Svengali sits at the piano and brilliantly plays Chopin. He speaks French with a thick German accent.
Finally, come in at different times two more principal characters: a man and a woman neither previously known to Taffy, Sandy and Little Billee.
-- (5) First there is Svengali's companion, a brilliant violinist taught by Svengali himself: a little swarthy gypsy named Gecko. Throughout their visi, Gecko accompanies Svengali's piano playing.
-- (6) Suddenly there was knuckle-knocking at the door and a very loud voice shouted, "Milk below." Enter Miss Trilby O'Farrall "clad in the grey overcoat of a French infantry soldier." She has been posing one storey higher for a famous sculptor, is now on her lunch break and heard Gecko's fiddle and Svengali's piano. She is the orphaned daughter of a university educated drunkard Irish father Patrick O'Farrall and the Scottish barmaid of a famed faux Scottish watering hole in Paris. Trilby over the following months will become a chum and almost a sister to the three Englishmen. Her one vice: light-hearted random, bestowal of sexual favors. Like Little Billee, Trilby is ill, suffering from blinding headaches.
Two-thirds of TRILBY merrily portrays the gay, carefree bohemian artist life of young internationals living and working in Paris around 1860. Scores of avenues and alleys, palaces and theaters are named and lovingly described. We go on outings, to the theater, we picnick. We are young and gay.
But the plot turns dark as soon as it becomes clear that Little Billee and dark Svengali both love Trilby O'Farrall. She is in love with neither but positively dislikes Svengali. Unfortunately for Trilby Svengali is a master hypnotist and uses his powers to take her headaches away from her and tranfer, he says, their pain to himself. Svengali suffers from a bad heart.
At Christmas, against her better judgment Trilby accepts a tipsy Billee's 24th proposal of marriage. But within days Billee's mother and uncle arrive in Paris from England and persuade "unworthy" Trilby to break the engagement.
Trilby then disappears, falls under the hypnotic influence of Svengali who successfully transforms tone deaf Trilby into the greatest female singer Europe had ever known. He had done much the same for Gecko as violinist but by non-hypnotic methods.
Taffy, Sandy and Little Billee eventually discover that the suddenly world famous La Svengali is their old friend and/or lover Trilby. Her health is visibly failing and Svengali's power of her is so complete that he largely prevents her from re-expressing her one time love to Little Billee.
Read TRILBY to see how things turn out for the six principals!
TRILBY has been criticized as anti-Semitic and Svengali an even worse parody of an evil Jew than Shakespeare's Shylock. Du Maurier's novel is without doubt full of characters and a narrator fascinated by racist theories. We are made very much aware of Trilby's entirely Celtic blood and of the northern European dimensions of the Laird, Taffy and Little Billy. Gecko is probably a gypsy. Svengali is pure Jew. But even Little Billee looks a bit Jewish and bully for him! Jewish blood explains his genius.
For Jewish blood, in TRILBY, is an essential catalyst for genius even in men of other races. Too much Jewish blood, on the other hand, like too much of anything else, is bad. But in the proper proportion a touch of Jewishness is indispensable for greatness, as in young genius painter Little Billee Bagot.
As the narrator argues: Little Billee's handsome face hinted at a remote Jewish ancestor: showing "just a tinge of that "strong, sturdy, irrepressible, indomitable, indelible blood which is of such priceless value." Du Maurier then generalizes: "Fortunately for the world, and especially for ourselves, most of us have in our veins at least a minim of that precious fluid, whether we know it or not. Tant pis pour les autres! (Part First)
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