Three stars: a classic novel but not as great as its reputation might suggest.
George du Maurier was an Anglo-French Victorian artist who, having studied in Paris alongside James Whistler, became a contributor to Punch (both satirical writing and cartoons) who wrote three novels late in life, the second being the best-seller Trilby. He was the father of actor Gerald du Maurier and grandfather of novelist Daphne du Maurier whose biographies of Bramwell Bronte and Francis Bacon I have reviewed in this blog.
Artist's model Trilby O'Ferrall, living in Paris of mixed Anglo-French parentage, meets three British artists. All three fall in love with her but one, nicknamed Little Billee, proposes. Then his mother, horrified that he is going to marry a woman of an inferior social class (and one who has posed nude) interferes and persuades Trilby to promise to leave Paris and never see Little Billee again. Little Billee becomes ill through grief and is taken back to England.
Five years later all of Europe is rocked by the sensational singing star Madame Svengali. Little Billee, now a successful artist, meets up with his three old friends to return to Paris to see her. They realise that she is Trilby. This is a surprise because the old Trilby was tone deaf. Herr Svengali was an acquaintance in Paris; he was a marvellous pianist. They meet him but he spits at Little Billee and they fight.
How has Trilby learned to sing? Will Little Billee be able to meet her again and propose again? Will true love conquer all?
True to his satirical nature, du Maurier's tone throughout is light and teasing. This makes the creation of the monster Svengali, who became a Gothic Horror character along the lines of Dracula or Frankenstein, more compelling. But the bulk of the novel focuses not on Svengali and his evil plans but on Little Billee and his tribulations and on his two mates. This is a shame because while Trilby is a brilliant character and Svengali, although stereotyped, is a worthy villain, Little Billee is a colourless milksop. Indeed, the three British artists make up a single character between them. Du Maurier's main intent seems to be on making gentle fun of the artistic bohemian community in 1850s Paris; the story sometimes seems incidental to this. In fact, the true chief villain is Little Billee's mum whose narrow bourgeois sensibilities prevent love's true dream.
Du Maurier is clearly critical of the suffocating late Victorian society in which marriage was only possible between two people of appropriate class. Other characters include a French Duke who marries an ugly American for her father's millions and a gentlemen who damns himself by going into trade (retail drapery no less) and then marries the boss's daughter. DM also dislikes the Church: Little Billee is an avid reader of Darwin's Origin of Species and argues with a clergyman who might otherwise have been his father-in-law; Trilby makes an impassioned speech explaining why she didn't need religion to be assured of a place in heaven. But at the same time, DM is a racist (Svengali is the stereotype evil German Jew, wickeder and more horrible than Fagin) and hints at a belief in eugenics (he endorses Trilby's nude modelling on the basis that if we were all nude it would have the advantage that ugly people wouldn't marry and propagate their ugly genes and he makes the same point about the ugly American heiress).
In many ways this is a complex and fascinating book (even if sidetracked from the main story for most of the time). However, it is made virtually unreadable by the author's repeated use of French within the narrative. There is some French on nearly every page. I was fortunate to have a book with notes which translated almost all of this but I had to continually flick to the back to discover what was going on. To make it even less readable, Trilby talks in slang Parisian, Svengali talks with a heavy German accent rendered by the author by the swapping of letters such as b and p (so that bien becomes pien and petit becomes betit) and one of Little Billee's friends speaks French with a heavy English accent, thus combiang for combien and je prong for je prends. So even Google Translate would find this difficult! I have repeatedly in this blog condemned the use of untranslated foreign language in books on the grounds that it is only there to make the author look clever and the reader feel stupid but the frequency of DM's use of French, whilst no doubt adding to the characterisations, made Trilby far less readable than it would otherwise have been.
I was interested by the expression 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Gentleman, Apothecary, Ploughboy, Thief' which is presumably is a late Victorian version of the modern 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief'.
An interesting book which perhaps betrayed the fact that du Maurier was but a beginner as a novelist. January 2014; 302 pages.
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57