(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

George Du Maurier 1834-1896

English illustrator and novelist.

Known primarily for his three popular and largely autobiographical novels, Du Maurier was also a much-acclaimed illustrator for novels and magazines, most notably Punch. He is credited with being one of the first British authors to introduce the idea of the unconscious mind and the dualities of personality into the novel, exploring such concepts as memory and hypnotism in his departure from the structure of the traditional romantic novel. His most famous fictional character, the villain Svengali, appeared in the novel Trilby (1894).

Biographical Information

Du Maurier was born in Paris to a French father and English mother and spent much of his childhood and youth in France. His parents sent him to a French boarding school, the Pension Froussard, from which he did not graduate because he could not pass the Latin exam. In 1851 Du Maurier went to London to study at the Birbeck Chemical Laboratory of University College because his father wanted him to pursue a scientific career. This course of study held little interest for him, however, and he returned to France to study art, first in Paris, and then in Antwerp, Belgium. It was in the latter city that Du Maurier suffered the loss of sight in his left eye in 1857. All attempts to restore his vision failed, and he returned to England in 1860. There he began his career as an illustrator, which lasted more than thirty years. By the mid-1860s he was well known and highly regarded in both England and the United States for his satirical drawings in Punch, which gently ridiculed English upper-class society. Through his work as an illustrator Du Maurier met Henry James, who became a lifelong friend and encouraged Du Maurier to try his hand at writing fiction. His novels, most especially his second, Trilby, brought Du Maurier fame and fortune (and a lawsuit from his friend James Whistler), eroding the privacy he had always treasured. Du Maurier preferred the serenity of country life with his wife, Emma Wightwick, whom he married in 1863, and his five children, to the social and literary circles of London. He died in 1896.

Major Works

The first of Du Maurier's three novels, Peter Ibbetson, appeared in 1891, when Du Maurier was fifty-seven. It was followed by Trilby in 1894 and The Martian which was published posthumously in 1897. All of the novels first appeared as serials in Harper's Monthly, are autobiographical in content, and address some aspect of the unconscious mind. Peter Ibbetson is an account of Du Maurier's childhood in France and his early years in London, but its defining characteristic is its melding of the main character's dream life with real life. Ibbetson and the other main character, the Duchess of Towers, after a series of crises, spend the remaining days of their lives entering each other's dreams. Du Maurier's success as an illustrator contributed to the warm critical reception of this novel, especially by such literary figures as Henry James. Trilby was the most successful of Du Maurier's novels and is credited with being the first modern bestseller. In this work, the heroine, a poor artist's model named Trilby, is transformed through hypnotism into the premier singer of Europe. Her mesmerist, Svengali, controls her through his hypnotic powers; she is tone-deaf and literally cannot live without him, dying not long after his death. The novel's popularity spawned what has been called “Trilby-mania” and “Trilby worship,” including parodies of the novel, the naming of geographic locations for characters in the novel, and even a special ice cream molded in the shape of Trilby's foot. Du Maurier's third novel, The Martian, has been called his most autobiographical and was the least well received of his three novels; in it he recounts his school days in Paris and the experience of losing his sight. The narrator and main character, Barty Josselin, attempts suicide after he loses his sight in one eye, prompting the appearance of Martia, the Martian, with whom he now shares his body. Du Maurier also introduces the concept of automatic writing in this novel: while Josselin sleeps, Martia writes and Josselin becomes a world-famous writer. Like Peter Ibbetson, The Martian addresses the idea of life beyond the body.

Critical Reception

In his day, critics praised Du Maurier for his wit as an illustrator and his innovations as a novelist. Although Du Maurier was well known to reading audiences by the end of the nineteenth century, he has received little attention in the twentieth century. According to critics, most readers are probably unaware of the genesis of the term “Svengali,” but it is still used today.