Trilby (novel)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Trilby, a gothic horror novel by George du Maurier published in 1894 was one of the most popular novels of its time, perhaps the second best selling novel of the Fin de siècle period. It is set in the 1850s in an idyllic bohemian Paris. Though it features the hijinks of three lovable English artists—especially the delicate genius Little Billee—its most memorable character is Svengali, a Jewish rogue, a masterful musician, and an irresistible hypnotist.

Trilby O'Ferrall, the novel's heroine, is a magnificent half-Irish girl working in Paris as an artists' model and laundress; all the men in the novel are in love with her. The relation between Trilby and Svengali forms only a small portion of the novel, which is mainly an evocation of a milieu, but it is a crucial one.

Plot summary

Trilby is literally 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 the highest; and she would declare they were both exactly the same."

Even so, Svengali hypnotizes her and transforms her into a great diva, la Svengali. Under his spell, Trilby becomes a talented singer, performing always in an amnesiac trance. At a performance in London, Svengali is stricken with 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 completely baffled and cannot remember anything about Svengali or her singing career. Suddenly an audience member yells:

"Oh, ye're Henglish, har yer? Why don't yer sing as yer ought to sing — yer've got voice enough, any'ow! Why don't yer sing in tune?" she cries "I didn't want to sing at all — I only sang because I was asked to sing — that gentleman asked — that French gentleman with the white waistcoat! I won't sing another note!"

She is stricken with a nervous affliction and dies tragically some weeks later. Little Billee and his pure love soon follow.


The novel was adapted into a long-running play starring Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Svengali; John Barrymore played the role in a 1931 film. A musical adaptation by Frank Wildhorn, entitled Svengali, was staged twice in 1991.

The novel inspired Gaston Leroux's novel The Phantom of the Opera and introduced the phrase "in the altogether" (meaning "completely unclothed") to the English language, as well as indirectly inspiring the name of the Trilby hat (worn on stage by a character in the play).

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, as he was wont to do, threatened to sue for libel unless the character was removed and Du Maurier apologized. The writing was revised; no public apology was made.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Trilby (novel)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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