Trilby is a novel by George du Maurier and one of the most popular novels of its time. Published serially in Harper's Monthly from January to August 1894, it was published in book form on 8 September 1895 and sold 200,000 copies in the United States alone.Trilby is set in the 1850s in an idyllic bohemian Paris. The late nineteenth-century novelist George Gissing read the "notorious" novel in May 1896 with "scant satisfaction". Though Trilby features the stories of two English artists and a Scottish artist, one of the most memorable characters is Svengali, a rogue, masterful musician and hypnotist.
Trilby O'Ferrall, the novel's heroine, is a half-Irish girl working in Paris as an artist's model and laundress; all the men in the novel are in love with her. The relationship between Trilby and Svengali forms only a small, though crucial, portion of the novel, which is mainly an evocation of a milieu.
Luc Sante wrote that the novel had a "decisive influence on the stereotypical notion of bohemia" and that it "affected the habits of American youth, particularly young women, who derived from it the courage to call themselves artists and 'bachelor girls,' to smoke cigarettes and drink Chianti."
The novel has been adapted to the stage several times; one of these featured the lead actress wearing a distinctive short-brimmed hat with a sharp snap to the back of the brim. The hat became known as the trilby and went on to become a popular men's clothing item in the United Kingdom throughout various parts of the 20th century, before enjoying a revival as a unisex clothing item in the United States in the 2000s.
Three English art students in Paris (Taffy, Laird, and William Bagot alias 'Little Billee') meet musicians Svengali and Gecko and the artist's model and laundress Trilby O'Ferrall.
Trilby is cheerful, kindhearted, bohemian, and completely tone-deaf: "Svengali would test her ear, as he called it, and strike the C in the middle and then the F just above, and ask which was higher; and she would declare they were both exactly the same." To the bemusement of the other characters, Trilby is unable to sing "Ben Bolt" in tune. Yet despite being off-key, her singing voice nonetheless has an impressive quality.
The Englishmen and Trilby become friends. Svengali tries to persuade Trilby to let him train her voice, but she finds him repulsive and even frightening. She and Little Billee fall in love, but his scandalized relatives get her to promise to leave him. She leaves Paris with her little brother, who later dies of scarlet fever. Trilby then falls under Svengali's influence. He hypnotises her and transforms her into a diva, La Svengali. Under his spell, Trilby becomes a talented singer, performing always in an amnesiac trance.
Five years later, Little Billee is a famous painter. He, Laird and Taffy recognise Trilby as she performs at a concert. Trilby sings beautifully but does not appear to be in good health.
Shortly before another performance, Gecko suddenly turns on Svengali and slashes him with a penknife. At the concert, Svengali is stricken by a heart attack and is unable to induce the trance. Trilby is unable to sing in tune and is subjected to "laughter, hoots, hisses, cat-calls, cock-crows." Not having been hypnotised, she is baffled and, though she can remember living and travelling with Svengali, cannot remember anything of her singing career. Suddenly an audience member yells:
As she leaves the stage, Svengali dies. Trilby is stricken with a nervous affliction. Despite the efforts of her friends, she dies some weeks later—staring at a picture of Svengali. Little Billee is devastated and dies shortly afterwards.
Some years later, Taffy meets Gecko again and learns how Svengali had hypnotised Trilby and damaged her health in the process. Gecko reveals that he had tried to kill Svengali because he could not bear to see Trilby hurt during their awful rehearsals.
It was popularly believed that the hypnotic control Svengali has over Trilby was modelled after the relationship between the French harpist and composer Nicolas-Charles Bochsa and the English operatic soprano Anna Bishop. Anna Bishop had left her husband Henry Bishop (later Sir Henry), the composer of "Home! Sweet Home!", for Bochsa. Bishop was 23 years her senior and Bochsa was 20 years older than Anna. Bochsa became her manager as well as her lover. She sang in many opera houses on their extensive travels throughout Europe (particularly in Naples, Italy), North America and Sydney, where Bochsa died suddenly in 1856 and is buried. Sir Henry Bishop had died the previous year. Anna Bishop later remarried, continued travelling and singing professionally into her seventies, and died in New York City.
The novel contained a thinly veiled portrait, in the character of the pompous and eccentric "idle apprentice" Joe Sibley, of painter James McNeill Whistler. Whistler threatened to sue for libel unless the character was removed and du Maurier apologised. The writing was revised and no public apology was made.
Trilby inspired Gaston Leroux's novel The Phantom of the Opera (1910) in part. It was also known for introducing the phrase "in the altogether" (meaning "completely unclothed") and the term "Svengali" for a man with dominating powers over a (generally female) protégée, as well as indirectly inspiring the name of the trilby hat, originally worn on stage by a character in the play based on the novel.
Trilby has generated much obloquy for its depiction of Svengali, which some find to be anti-Semitic. Most notably, George Orwell wrote that the novel is overtly anti-Semitic. Specifically, Orwell believed that du Maurier attributes all of Svengali's villainous and rapacious qualities to his Jewishness. While du Maurier does introduce another Jew into the work who possesses more virtuous qualities, he is careful to note that this is due to his Sephardic ancestry. Furthermore, du Maurier seems to believe that possessing Jewish blood gives one an advantage. According to Orwell, this type of anti-Semitism was popular in du Maurier's time.
The novel was adapted into a long-running play, Trilby, starring Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Svengali, first presented in 1895 in London. In New York Wilton Lackaye originated the role of Svengali and Virginia Harned played the title role. The play was revived many times, including at the Apollo Theatre in the 1920s. The play was so popular that it was travestied, including as A Model Trilby; or, A Day or Two After Du Maurier by Charles H. E. Brookfield and William Yardley, with music by Meyer Lutz, at the Opera Comique, produced by the retired Nellie Farren.
The novel has also been adapted to film numerous times:
A fandom developed around the Trilby character, which was criticised in Belsham's Essays. Trilby is referenced several times in William Gaddis' novel JR, wherein Edward Bast the protagonist becomes a mirror of Little Billee, a prominent artist in Trilby.
An inside look at Trilby and Henry James's friendship with Du Maurier (Kiki) can be found in David Lodge's novel Author, Author (2004).
The celebrated Polish World War II Special Operations Executive agent Krystyna Skarbek, a.k.a. Christine Granville, used Svengali as a metaphor when saying of her second husband, Jerzy Gi?ycki: "He was my Svengali for so many years that he would never believe that I could ever leave him for good."
In 2011 and 2012, the British illusionist Derren Brown performed a stage show called Svengali in which he makes multiple reference to the character throughout the show.