Monday, August 6, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“TRILBY” by George du Maurier (first published 1894)

            There’s something about book awards that always makes me want to hold forth about the transience of taste, and the fact that this year’s award winner could possibly be completely forgotten next decade. But the fate of one age’s best-sellers more neatly illustrates the theme, so an antiquated best-seller is what I pick up as this week’s “Something Old”.

            Some novels are better known for one small episode than for their totality. Readers can be deceived into assuming that the whole novel is in the spirit of that one small episode.

            Those who sit down to read Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor are hoping for the scene in which a bride, driven mad, stabs her husband on her wedding night. That’s because this wild episode was highlighted in Donizetti’s famous opera Lucia di Lammermoor. But pick up the original novel and you find yourself trudging through pages of Scott’s wearisome, pompous, Latinate prose and plot-spinning before you get to the episode in question – and even then, it is knocked off most undramatically in a couple of pages.

            Something the same is true of George du Maurier’s Trilby. A huge best-seller of 1894, Trilby is best known for the relationship of Trilby O’Ferrall, the artless “artist’s model”, and the demonic and manipulative Svengali.

            Svengali turns the tone-deaf Trilby into a great concert singer by hypnotising her. This image is so persuasive that the term “Svengali” has come to be used for any showbiz entrepreneur who controls completely the life of one of his performers. (“Brian Epstein tried to be Svengali to the Beatles” etc. etc.). I’ve come across reprints of Trilby which re-title it Svengali, playing up to this well-known episode.

            But, sad to say, the Trilby-Svengali episodes are only a small part of the novel. I wish they were more central. I wish the novel were more like the bravura, semi-Gothic 1932 movie version (titled Svengali, of course,  and starring manic John Barrymore) which I’ve watched a number of times on DVD. But it isn’t. In an early episode in the novel, Svengali uses hypnosis to cure one of Trilby’s headaches, but then he virtually disappears from the novel until its last seventy or eighty pages. Most of Trilby is taken up with other matters, and it’s those other matters that now interest me.

            I’ll start with a prejudice. Trilby is basically trash.  It’s a very good example of yesterday’s best-seller which reflects yesterday’s tastes and prejudices so completely that it would now be forgotten were it not for the fact that the Svengali legend has taken on a life of its own.

            An Englishman of French descent, George du Maurier (1834-96 ) was best known as an artist and comic illustrator in Punch. Only in the last few years of his life, when his eyesight was going and he couldn’t draw so well, did he turn to writing novels. Of the three he wrote, Trilby was the one that most caught the public’s fancy and was most designed to do so. (As a sign of its success, the trilby hat is named after the one worn by the novel’s eponymous character.) There’s the irony that the populist, vulgarian du Maurier was friends with the fastidious and super-literary Henry James, whose own novels never became best-sellers on the scale that Trilby did. David Lodge’s novel Author! Author! (2004) amusingly dramatises Henry James desperately trying, and failing, to win the same sort of public applause that his friend won.

            Trilby is mainly concerned with the idealised Bohemian life of three young British artists in Paris in the 1850s – the Laird, Taffy and Little Billee who falls hopelessly in love with Trilby O’Ferrall. All three of them are described in terms of caricature, the better to suit the illustrations that (despite his fading eyesight) du Maurier himself drew for the first edition. As du Maurier was himself a young artist in Paris in the 1850s, he was clearly indulging some nostalgia here, but he was also filtering out the really louche stuff so as not to alienate his magazine and lending-library audience.

            I would describe the novel’s prose style as debased Thackeray (appropriate inasmuch as Thackeray was another talented artist who illustrated his own novels). It is all man-of-the-world chitter-chatter which would go down well with coffee, brandy and cigars, although perhaps the ladies would be able to stay and listen as late-Victorian euphemism is used liberally and nothing really unseemly is said. Let’s not beat about the bush. This is the world of Punch.

            We are told that Trilby O’Ferrall has posed nude for many artists. It is delicately suggested that she might have given her sexual favours around. Du Maurier even indulges in a few naughty pages in which he says nudism might be a tonic for the world. But the proprieties are observed. The Laird, Taffy and Little Billee experience Trilby only as a picturesque waif in the over-sized coat and striped skirt that went down so well in the illustrations. There is no acknowledgement that in 1850s Paris, most artists’ models were also part-time prostitutes.

            When Little Billee proposes to Trilby, she accepts, but then she rapidly backs down after Little Billee’s mother and his (vicar) uncle persuade her that she is not the right sort for a respectable young man. Of course a fallen woman accepts this reasoning. Of course, too, the fallen woman goes off and conveniently dies at the end of the novel so that (like the heroine of Camille and La Traviata) she can be a sweet romantic memory to the young middle-class man without actually encumbering him in real life.

            The bowdlerised Bohemia of the novel, then, pretends to defy convention, but actually buys into it. And isn’t that what best-sellers always do? There is similar  shadow-boxing when Little Billee has ten pages of “doubts” about organized religion. How daring! How advanced! And how totally predictable for a novel written in the 1890s.

            So in the end, the interest of reading Trilby is only the interest of discovering what another age’s prejudices were. Always, du Maurier would have us believe that fine art and la vie de Boheme are appropriate for adventurous youths sowing their wild oats, and maybe for funny foreigners; but that in the end mature men prefer the roast beef of old England. By novel’s end all three young Britishers are packing up their easels to leave their Parisian garret forever, and two of them are respectably married to nice English gels.

            Speaking of another age’s prejudices, there is also the fact that Trilby has a minor strain of anti-semitism.  Svengali is a German-speaking Polish Jew. We are often told that he is slovenly and physically dirty. There are comic episodes about his amusement that Englishmen like to take a bath every day. He has a big fleshy nose which is tweaked by Taffy in another comic episode. He is sadistic in his dealings with Trilby and devious in his money dealings. Dirty, grotesque, sadistic, devious – yet a brilliant musician with a flashy technique and hypnotic powers.

            What is this but a caricature of those clever, artistic European Jews? In du Maurier’s world view, Svengali is yet another reason why la vie de Boheme isn’t for true Englishmen – or even Franco-Englishmen like du Maurier himself, who was happier with comic-satiric drawings in Punch than with high art.

            Does any of this defunct world-view have anything to do with us? Only this, I hope. Reading novels like Trilby should help us better to understand that huge best-sellers always say the things that the mass audience of their time wants them to say. If we now find the assumptions of Trilby either quaint or grotesque, it is because in our own time the mass reading audience wants to be told other lies. And of course our own best-sellers will look quaint or grotesque one hundred years hence. 

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