Bohemianism and Counter-Culture

Trilby

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 Another work that contributed to the romanticizing of the artistic lifestyle was George du Maurier's Trilby, published serially in Harper's Monthly in 1894. The novel's hero, Little Billee, is an artist who gains fame and fortune from his paintings; its heroine is a grisette, his true love, who models for him.

Du Maurier, a frequent contributor to Punch and other satirical journals and grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier, had been in Paris himself as a young man in the 1850s. In spite of this personal experience, however, Trilby is based on little historical fact.

Trilby, hypnotized by Svengali. Svengali's exaggerated features were typical of anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews at the turn of the century. This engraving was done by Du Maurier himself for the first edition of the novel in 1894.

The novel is about a studio of three artists from England and Scotland, the Laird, Taffy, and Little Billee; the grisette and model Trilby; and a Jewish hypnotist named Svengali who teaches Trilby to sing and uses her voice for his own purposes. The first half of the novel takes place in Paris. Trilby meets and falls in love with Little Billee, but, like Fantine in Les Miserables, cannot stay with him because he is of a higher social class. Later, Billee becomes a famous artist in London, then returns to France after a failed love affair and re-meets his two companions. One evening at the theater they see the new singer that they have heard so much about, "La Svengali." To their surprise, it is Trilby, who has never sung in tune before - but now she sings like "a woman archangel ... or some enchanted princess out of a fairy tale" (203). Svengali, the strange suspicious musician the group had feared years ago in Paris, is the conductor.

Mystified, the group sees her again in London. However, as he stands in the box overlooking his protegee, Svengali dies of a heart attack and his spell over her suddenly breaks - she can no longer sing in tune. Little Billee takes her into his chambers where she relates her story, saying that she remembers nothing of her singing career. However, by this point she is very weak, near death. As she is writing her will, she sees a portrait of Svengali among her possessions. Upon seeing it she goes into her trance, singing Chopin's Impromptu in A flat as she had on the stage and dying with his name on her lips. Many years later Svengali's assistant, Gecko, tells Taffy that there were "two Trilbys," the one they knew, an "angel of paradise" (Du Maurer 287) and a "singing machine" when under the spell of Svengali (288).

"Du Maurier's bohemian Paris is as much an invention as a reality, and as much a projection of the 1890s as a recollection of the 1850s," writes critic Ellen Showalter (xiii). Many of the details are far from historically accurate: du Maurier has his artists reading Zola and Maupassant before those authors published any works (Showalter xiii). The novel's importance as a historical document, then, is based more in the feelings of interdependent, artistic Bohemia than in any of its specific incidents or details.

Upon publication, the novel caused a sensation in Britain and America. In its first year of publication, the book sold 200,000 copies in America (Showalter ix). "Svengali" became a usual name for any hypnotist; the book was turned into a popular play, and one town in Florida named its streets after the characters (Showalter x). It sparked a resurgence of interest in Bohemian life, as had not been seen since Murger. Years after Paris ceased to be the center of Bohemian life, the culture of the artists still attracted attention.