10/3/11 - svengali, trilby, and the first modern best seller

In today's excerpt - in the late 1800s, immersed in the craze for hypnotism, British author George (Kicky) Du Maurier wrote Trilby, the first modern best seller—surpassing even the sales of Charles Dickens. In it, a German-Polish musician named Svengali used hypnotism to transform an otherwise tone-deaf young girl named Trilby into a singing sensation. It ended as Svengali, Trilby, and the guileless young man who loved her all tragically died. The book set off a craze, turning bohemianism into a style among young women, and yielding "hats, boots, shoes, collars, toothpastes, coats, soaps, songs and dances named after Trilby":

"In 1894, George du Maurier's second novel, Trilby, was published. ... The book, which was published first in America, became the number one bestseller in 1894, and by the end of the year had sold 300,000 copies. That was only the beginning. It was 1900 before a reporter in New York declared that the Trilby craze was over. It was 'probably the biggest selling novel of all time,' according to its publisher, Mcllvaine at Harper. 'Not even Dickens had attracted such a wide and devoted audience.' It was 'the first modern bestseller', the first to use a sophisticated marketing strategy. In its marketing, as well as in its embrace of modern psychology, Trilby was a turning point. ...

"Smoking roll-up cigarettes, living for freedom, truth and beauty, and on precious little else, Trilby is the very image of bohemianism and innocence, without a sly or nasty cell in her body. Hers is an unusual beauty, subtle, hidden from the casual eye. ... Trilby has, however, one imperfection. She is incapable of appreciating music, as [her] three artist [friends] discover when a German-Polish musician called Svengali arrives and plays 'some of his grandest music', which passes Trilby by. When she herself sings, she reveals a full voice, but, alas, it is excruciatingly out of tune. Rather embarrassingly, because of course she cannot hear it, Trilby is completely tone-deaf. Svengali is fascinated by her. In threatening contrast to childlike Billee [the young artist who loves her], he is a dark Satanic figure possessed of a controlling personality. ...

"He fancies he can bring Trilby to self-expression beyond her wildest dreams. First he hypnotises her therapeutically, to cure her neuralgia. Thereafter, time and again he invades and dominates her mind, and she worships his hypnotic power over her by releasing from her lips the most heavenly music the world has ever known. ... In deep hypnosis but alert to the world, Trilby holds audiences in thrall with her singing. [Yet] hers is a continuing nightmare existence not because she is unhappy—dressed in sables, rouged and pearl powdered, she is, and causes, a sensation—but because her mind has been commandeered. Svengali is in occupation of the control-tower of her thinking. In religious terms, he has her soul; in occult terms, it is a case of possession; in legal terms, it is the ultimate form of psychological abuse. ...

" 'Trilby turned bohemianism into a style,' wrote Jon Savage. 'It was particularly attractive to young women, who, according to Luc Sante, 'derived from it the courage to call themselves artists and bachelor girls, to smoke cigarettes and drink Chianti.' Bohemianism swept Britain and America. Kicky received thousands of letters, both from women identifying with Trilby and from men lusting after her, such that the offer to Kicky of $10,000 for a signed drawing of Trilby in the nude, proposed by David Lodge in Author, Author, seems hardly an embellishment of the truth. John Masefield recalled: 'I well remember hats, boots, shoes, collars, toothpastes, coats, soaps, songs and dances named after Trilby.' "


Piers Dudgeon


Neverland: J.M Barrie, the Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan


Pegasus Books


Copyright 2009 by Piers Dudgeon


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