When I saw a few of you were reviewing du Mauriers I thought, I’ve got a du Maurier on a flash drive somewhere, Trilby, started listening, sounds C19th, must be historical. But of course Trilby (1894) is by George du Maurier (1834-1896), Daphne’s grandfather. Then to my further surprise I learned also that Svengali was was not an historical figure but du Maurier’s invention.
You’ll be pleased to learn that George Louis Palmella Busson du Maurier was not of French aristocratic stock, escaped to London to avoid the guillotine, but was in fact the grandson of a tradesman, Busson, who left Paris in a hurry to avoid fraud charges. George studied art in Paris but seems to have lived mostly in London. He joined the staff of Punch as an artist in 1865 and all the drawings on this page are by him. I couldn’t find a name for the crowd scene in the artists’ studio but the others are “Au clair de la lune”, “Wistfull and sweet”, and “Repentance”. If you want to see more, the Project Gutenberg ebook (here) is fully illustrated.
The novel opens with some lines from a French popular song –
“Mimi Pinson est une blonde,
Une blonde que l’on connaît;
Elle n’a qu’une robe au monde,
Landérirette! et qu’un bonnet!”
listening, there’s quite a bit of French which went straight over my head, but reading, I can make out the gist – and goes on to describe the large, airy studio above with views out over the street and to the Seine in the distance, walls lined with reproductions of famous paintings, a kitchen in one corner, a piano, and lots of sporting equipment. The studio is occupied by three English artists – Taffy, an ex-soldier, the Laird, and Little Billee. Taffy and the Laird paint for popular consumption, while Little Billee is more serious.
Enter two musicians –
First, a tall, bony individual of any age between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well-featured but sinister. He was very shabby and dirty, and wore a red béret and a large velveteen cloak, with a big metal clasp at the collar. His thick, heavy, languid, lustreless black hair fell down behind his ears on to his shoulders, in that musicianlike way that is so offensive to the normal Englishman… He went by the name of Svengali, and spoke fluent French with a German accent … His companion [Gecko] was a little swarthy young man—a gypsy, possibly—much pitted with the small-pox, … and carried a fiddle and a fiddlestick under his arm, without a case, as though he had been playing in the street.
I don’t know what to say about du Maurier’s depiction of Jewishness. Racial/ethnic/religious stereotyping was so common up until the 1960s that what can you do but throw up your hands (I have been planning forever to review Scott’s Ivanhoe simply because the female lead is Jewish and favourably described).
Svengali and Gecko give an impromptu performance, on piano and violin, interrupted by a knock on the door and in walks a tall, beautiful young woman, dressed in an army greatcoat over a petticoat, an artists model from nearby, “Ye’re all English, now, aren’t ye?” she exclaimed. “I heard the music, and thought I’d just come in for a bit, and pass the time of day: you don’t mind? Trilby, that’s my name—Trilby O’Ferrall.”
This is a book of two halves. In the first, Trilby hangs out with the painters, we discover she has an atrocious singing voice, she and Little Billee fall in love, on his twentieth proposal she gives in and says Yes, he makes the mistake of writing and telling his proper, middle class mother and she comes over to Paris. Trilby readily agrees with her that it would be a mistake for Little Billee to marry her. She goes away into the country, and LB goes into a decline.
Three years later the painters are now in London. At a party the latest singing sensation from Europe is being discussed –
“You are talking of la Svengali, I bet,” said Signor Spartia.
“Oui, parbleu! You have heard her?”
“Yes—at Vienna last winter,” rejoined the greatest singing-master in the world. “J’en suis fou! hélas! I thought I could teach a woman how to sing till I heard that blackguard Svengali’s pupil. He has married her, they say!”
“That blackguard Svengali!” exclaimed Little Billee … “why, that must be a Svengali I knew in Paris—a famous pianist! a friend of mine!”
“That’s the man! also une fameuse crapule (sauf vot’ respect); his real name is Adler; his mother was a Polish singer; and he was a pupil at the Leipsic Conservatorio. But he’s an immense artist, and a great singing-master, to teach a woman like that! and such a woman! belle comme un ange—mais bête comme un pot. I tried to talk to her—all she can say is ‘ja wohl,’ or ‘doch,’ or ‘nein,’ or ‘soh’! not a word of English or French or Italian, though she sings them, oh! but divinely! It is ‘il bel canto‘ come back to the world after a hundred years….”
“But what voice is it?” asked Little Billee.
“Every voice a mortal woman can have—three octaves—four!
The painters attend La Svengali’s first London concert. She is of course Trilby, mesmerized by Svengali into overcoming her tone deafness – but only it later turns out if she is looking him straight in the face – and also into marrying him.
There is an accident. Trilby becomes ill, loses her memory of being La Svengali. The rest you will have to read for yourselves. It is is well written, describing a London (and Paris) that I think du Maurier knew well, and I enjoyed it.
George du Maurier, Trilby, first pub. 1894. Audio book: LibriVox (here)
(Daphne) du Maurier reviews:
Booker Talk, Jamaica Inn (here)
Brona’s Books, Jamaica Inn (here)
Brona’s Books, My Cousin Rachel (here)
ANZLitLovers, Rule Britannia (here)
ANZLitLovers, The Scapegoat (here)
Grab the Lapels, Rebecca (here)
Reading Matters, Rebecca (here)