George du Maurier Criticism - Essay

Henry James (essay date 1883)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “George Du Maurier,” in his Partial Portraits, University of Michigan Press, 1970, pp. 327-72.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally written in 1883, James provides an extensive examination of Du Maurier's contributions to Punch, with particular attention to his characterization of the English and French people.]

Punch, for the last fifteen years, has been, artistically speaking, George du Maurier. (We ought, perhaps, before this, to have said that none of our observations are to be taken as applying to the letterpress of the comic journal, which has probably never been fully appreciated in America.) It has employed other talents than his—notably Charles Keene, who is as broad, as jovial, as English (half his jokes are against Scotchmen) as Leech, but whose sense of the beautiful, the delicate, is inferior even to Leech's. But for a great many people, certainly in America, Du Maurier has long been, as I say, the successor of Leech, the embodiment of the pictorial spirit of Punch. Shut up in the narrow limits of black and white, without space, without colour, without the larger opportunities, Du Maurier has nevertheless established himself as an exquisite talent and a genuine artist. He is not so much of a laugher as Leech—he deals in the smile rather than the laugh—but he is a much deeper observer, and he carries his drawing infinitely further. He has not Leech's animal spirits; a want of boyishness, a tendency to reflection, to lowness of tone, as his own Postlethwaite would say, is perhaps his limitation. But his seriousness—if he be too serious—is that of the satirist as distinguished from the simple joker; and if he reflects, he does so in the literal sense of the word—holds up a singularly polished and lucid mirror to the drama of English society. More than twenty years ago, when he began to draw in Once a Week—that not very long-lived periodical which set out on its career with a high pictorial standard—it was apparent that the careful young artist who finished his designs very highly and signed them with a French name, stood very much upon his own feet. The earliest things of his that we know have the quality which has made him distinguished to-day—the union of a great sense of beauty with a great sense of reality. It was apparent from the first that this was not a simple and uniform talent, but a gift that had sprung from a combination of sources. It is important to remember, in speaking of Du Maurier—who is one of the pillars of the British journal par excellence—that he has French blood in his veins. George du Maurier, as we understand his history, was born in England, of a French father and an English mother, but was removed to France in his early years and educated according to the customs of that country. Later, however, he returned to England; and it would not be difficult for a careful student of his drawings to guess that England is the land of his predilection. He has drawn a great many French figures, but he has drawn them as one who knows them rather than as one who loves them. He has perhaps been, as the phrase is, a little hard upon the French; at any rate, he has been decidedly easy for the English. The latter are assuredly a very handsome race; but if we were to construct an image of them from the large majority of Du Maurier's drawings we should see before us a people of gods and goddesses. This does not alter the fact that there is a very Gallic element in some of Du Maurier's gifts—his fineness of perception, his remarkable power of specifying types, his taste, his grace, his lightness, a certain refinement of art. It is hard to imagine that a talent so remarkable should not have given early evidences; but in spite of such evidences Du Maurier was, on the threshold of manhood, persuaded by those to whom it was his duty to listen to turn his attention, as Mrs. Micawber says, to chemistry. He pursued this science without enthusiasm, though he had for some time a laboratory of his own. Before long, however, the laboratory was converted into a studio. His talent insisted on its liberty, and he committed himself to the plastic. He studied this charming element in Paris, at Düsseldorf; he began to work in London. This period of his life was marked by a great calamity, which has left its trace on his career and his work, and which it is needful to mention in order to speak with any fairness of these things. Abruptly, without a warning, his eyesight partly forsook him, and his activity was cruelly threatened. It is a great pleasure, in alluding to this catastrophe, to be able to speak of it as a signal example of difficulty vanquished. George du Maurier was condemned to many dark days, at the end of which he learned that he should have to carry on his task for the rest of his life with less than half a man's portion of the sense most valuable to the artist. The beautiful work that he has produced in such abundance for so many years has been achieved under restrictions of vision which might well have made any work impossible. It is permitted, accordingly, to imagine that if the artist had had the usual resources, we should not at the present moment have to consider him simply as an accomplished draughtsman in black and white. It is impossible to look at many of his drawings without perceiving that they are full of the art of the painter, and that the form they have taken, charming as it has been, is arbitrary and inadequate.

John Leech died on 27th October 1864, and the first sketches in Punch that we recognise as Du Maurier's appeared in that year. The very earliest that we have detected belong, indeed, to 5th December 1863. These beginnings are slight and sketchy head-pieces and vignettes; the first regular “picture” (with a legend beneath it) that we remember is of the date of 11th June 1864. It represents a tipsy waiter (or college servant) on a staircase, where he has smashed a trayful of crockery. We perceive nothing else of importance for some time after this, but suddenly his hand appears again in force, and from the summer of 1865 its appearances are frequent. The finish and delicacy, the real elegance of these early drawings, are extreme: the hand was already the hand of a brilliant executant. No such manner as this had hitherto been seen in Punch. By the time one had recognised that it was not a happy accident, but an accomplished habit, it had become the great feature, the “attraction,” of the comic journal. Punch had never before suspected that it was so artistic; had never taken itself, in such matters, so seriously. Much the larger part of Du Maurier's work has been done for Punch, but he has designed as well many illustrations for books. The most charming of these perhaps are the drawings he executed in 1868 for a new edition of Thackeray's Esmond, which had been preceded several years before by a set of designs for Mrs. Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, first ushered into the world as a serial in the Cornhill. To the Cornhill for many years Du Maurier has every month contributed an illustration; he has reproduced every possible situation that is likely to be encountered in the English novel of manners; he has interpreted pictorially innumerable flirtations, wooings, philanderings, ruptures. The interest of the English novel of manners is frequently the interest of the usual; the situations presented to the artist are apt to lack superficial strangeness. A lady and gentleman sitting in a drawing-room, a lady and a gentleman going out to walk, a sad young woman watching at a sick-bed, a handsome young man lighting a cigarette—this is the range of incident through which the designer is called upon to move. But in these drawing-room and flower-garden episodes the artist is thoroughly at home; he accepts of course the material that is given him, but we fancy him much more easily representing quiet, harmonious things than depicting deeds of violence. It is a noticeable fact that in Punch, where he has his liberty, he very seldom represents such deeds. His occasional departures from this habit are of a sportive and fantastic sort, in which he ceases to pretend to be real: like the dream of the timorous Jenkins (15th February 1868), who sees himself hurled to destruction by a colossal foreshortened cab-horse. Du Maurier's fantastic—we speak of the extreme manifestations of it—is always admirable, ingenious, unexpected, pictorial; so much so, that we have often wondered that he should not have cultivated this vein more largely. As a general thing, however, in these excursions into the impossible it is some charming impossibility that he offers us—a picture of some happy contrivance which would make life more diverting: such as the playing of lawn-tennis on skates (on a lawn of ice), or the faculty on the part of young men on bicycles of carrying their sweethearts behind them on a pillion. We recommend the reader to turn to Punch's Almanac for 1865, in which two brilliant full-page illustrations represent the “Probable Results of the Acclimatisation Society.” Nothing could be fuller of delicate fancy and of pictorial facility than this prophecy of the domestication in the London streets, and by the Serpentine of innumerable strange beasts—giraffes, ostriches, zebras, kangaroos, hippopotami, elephants, lions, panthers. Speaking of strange beasts, the strangest of all perhaps is the wonderful big dog who has figured of late years in Du Maurier's drawings, and who has probably passed with many persons as a kind of pictorial caprice. He is depicted as of such super-canine proportions, quite overshadowing and dwarfing the amiable family to whom he is represented as belonging, that he might be supposed to be another illustration of the artist's turn for the heroic in the graceful. But, as it happens, he is not an invention, but a portrait—the portrait of a magnificent original, a literally gigantic St. Bernard, the property of the artist—the biggest, the handsomest, the most benignant of all domesticated shaggy things.

We think we are safe in saying that those ruder forms of incongruity which as a general thing constitute the stock-in-trade of the caricaturist fail to commend themselves to this particular satirist. He is too fond of the beautiful—his great passion is for the lovely; not for what is called ideal beauty, which is usually a matter of not very successful guess-work, but for loveliness observed in the life and manners around him, and reproduced with a generous desire to represent it as usual. The French express a certain difference better than we; they talk of those who see en beau and those who see en laid. Du Maurier is as highly developed an example as we could desire of the former tendency—just as Cham and Daumier are examples of the latter; just, too, if we may venture to select instances from the staff of Punch, as Charles Keene and Linley Sambourne are examples of the latter. Du Maurier can see ugliness wonderfully well when he has a strong motive for looking for it, as witness so many of the figures in his crusade against the “æsthetic” movement. Who could be uglier than Maudle and Postlethwaite and all the other apparitions from “passionate Brompton”? Who could have more bulging foreheads, more protuberant eyes, more retreating jaws, more sloping shoulders, more objectionable hair, more of the signs generally of personal debility? To say, as we said just now, that Du Maurier carries his specification of types very far is to say mainly that he defines with peculiar completeness his queer people, his failures, his grotesques. But it strikes us that it is just this vivid and affectionate appreciation of beauty that makes him do such justice to the eccentrics. We have heard his ugly creations called malignant—compared (to their disadvantage) with similar figures in Leech. Leech, it was said, is always good-natured and jovial, even in the excesses of caricature; whereas his successor (with a much greater brilliancy of execution) betrays, in dealing with the oddities of the human family, a taint of “French ferocity.” We think the discrimination fallacious; and it is only because we do not believe Du Maurier's reputation for amiability to be really in danger that we do not hasten to defend him from the charge of ferocity—French or English. The fact is he attempts discriminations that Leech never dreamt of. Leech's characterisations are all simple, whereas Du Maurier's are extremely complicated. He would like every one to be tall and straight and fair, to have a well-cut mouth and chin, a well-poised head, well-shaped legs, an air of nobleness, of happy development. He perceives, however, that nature plays us some dreadful tricks, and he measures her departure from these beautiful conditions with extreme displeasure. He regrets it with all the force of his appreciation of the beautiful, and he feels the strongest desire to indicate the culpability of the aberration. He has an artistic æsthetic need to make ugly people as ugly as they are; he holds that such serious facts should not be superficially treated. And then, besides that, his fancy finds a real entertainment in the completeness, in the perfection, of certain forms of facial queerness. No one has rendered like Du Maurier the ridiculous little people who crop up in the interstices of that huge and complicated London world. We have no such finished types as these in America. If the English find us all a little odd, oddity, in American society, never ripens and rounds itself off so perfectly as in some of these products of a richer tradition. All those English terms of characterisation which exist in America at the most only as precarious exotics, but which are on every one's lips in England—the snob, the cad, the prig, the duffer—Du Maurier has given us a thousand times the figure they belong to. No one has done the “duffer” so well; there are a hundred variations of the countenance of Mr. McJoseph, the gentleman commemorated in Punch on the 19th August 1876; or the even happier physiognomy of the other gentleman who on the 2d November 1872 says to a lady that he “never feels safe from the British snob till he is south of the Danube,” and to whom the lady retorts, “And what do the South Danubians say?” This personage is in profile: his face is fat, complacent, cautious; his hair and whiskers have as many curves and flourishes as the signature of a writing-master; he is an incarnation of certain familiar elements of English life—“the great middle class,” the Philistinism, the absence of irony, the smugness and literalism. Du Maurier is full of soft irony: he has that infusion of it which is indispensable to an artistic nature, and we may add that in this respect he seems to us more French than English. This quality has helped him immensely to find material in the so-called æsthetic movement of the last few years. None of his duffers have been so good as his æsthetic duffers. But of this episode we must wait a little to speak. The point that, for the moment, we wished to make is, that he has a peculiar perception of the look of breeding, of race; and that, left to himself, as it were, he would ask nothing better than to make it the prerogative of all his characters. Only he is not left to himself. For, looking about into the world he perceives Sir Gorgius Midas and Mr. McJoseph, and the whole multitude of the vulgar who have not been cultivated like orchids and race-horses. But his extreme inclination to give his figures the benefit of the supposition that most people have the feelings of gentlemen makes him, as we began by saying, a very happy interpreter of those frequent works of fiction of which the action goes on for the most part in the drawing-room of the British country house. Every drawing-room, unfortunately, is not a home of the graces; but for the artist, given such an apartment, a group of quiet, well-shaped people is more or less implied. The “fashionable novel,” as it flourished about 1830, is no more; and its extinction is not to be regretted. We believe it was rarely accompanied with illustrations; but if it were to be revived Du Maurier would be the man to make the pictures—the pictures of people rather slim and still, with long necks and limbs so straight that they look stiff, who might be treated with the amount of derision justified (if the fashionable novel of 1830 is to be believed) by their passion for talking bad French.

We have been looking over the accumulations of Punch for the last twenty years, and Du Maurier's work, which during this long period is remarkably abundant and various, has given us more impressions than we can hope to put into form. The result of sitting for several hours at such a banquet of drollery, of poring over so many caricatures, of catching the point of so many jokes, is a kind of indigestion of the visual sense. This is especially the case if one happens to be liable to confusions and lapses of memory. Every picture, every pleasantry, drives the last out of the mind, and even the figures we recall best get mixed up with another story than their own. The early drawings, as a general thing, are larger than the late ones; we believe that the artist was obliged to make them large in order to make them at all. (They were then photographed, much reduced, upon the block; and it is impossible to form an idea of the delicacy of Du Maurier's work without having seen the designs themselves, which are in pen and ink.) As the years have gone on the artist has apparently been able to use a shorter stroke, there has been less need of reducing it, and the full-page picture has become more rare. The wealth of execution was sometimes out of proportion to the jest beneath the cut; the joke might be as much or as little of a joke as one would, the picture was at any rate before all things a picture. What could be more charming than the drawing (24th October 1868) of the unconscious Oriana and the ingenious Jones? It is a real work of art, a thing to have had the honours of colour, and of the “line” at the Academy; and that the artist should have been able to give it to us for threepence, on the reverse of a printed page, is a striking proof of his affluence. The unconscious Oriana—she is drawn very large—sits in the foreground, in the shadow of some rocks that ornament the sands at a bathing-place. Her beautiful hair falls over her shoulders (she has been taking her bath, and has hung her tresses out to dry), and her charming eyes are bent upon the second volume of a novel. The beach stretches away into the distance—with all the expression of space; and here the ingenious Jones carries out his little scheme of catching a portrait of the object—an object profoundly indifferent—of his adoration. He pretends to sit to an itinerant photographer, and apparently places himself in the line of the instrument, which in reality, thanks to a private understanding with the artist, is focussed upon the figure of his mistress. There is not much landscape in Du Maurier—the background is almost always an interior; but whenever he attempts an out-of-door scene he does it admirably. What could be prettier and at the same time more real than the big view (9th September 1876) of the low tide on Scarborough sands? We forget the joke, but we remember the scene—two or three figures, with their backs to us, leaning over a terrace or balcony in the foreground, and looking down at the great expanse of the uncovered beach, which is crowded with the activities of a populous bathing-place. The bathers, the walkers, the machines, the horses, the dogs, are seen with distinctness—a multitude of little black points—as under a magnifying glass; the whole place looks vast and swarming, and the particular impression the artist wished to convey is thoroughly caught. The particular impression—that is the great point with Du Maurier; his intention is never vague; he likes to specify the place, the hour, the circumstances. We forget the joke, but we remember the scene. This may easily happen, as one looks over Du Maurier's work; we frankly confess that though he often amuses us, he never strikes us primarily as a joker. It is not the exuberance of his humour but the purity of his line that arrests us, and we think of him much less as a purveyor of fun than as a charming draughtsman who has been led by circumstances to cultivate a vein of pleasantry. At every turn we find the fatal gift of beauty, by which we mean that his people are so charming that their prettiness throws the legend into the shade. Beauty comes so easily to him that he lavishes it with unconscious freedom. If he represents Angelina reprimanding the housemaid, it is ten to one that Angelina will be a Juno and the housemaid a Hebe. Whatever be the joke, this element of grace almost makes the picture serious. The point of course is not that Angelina should be lovely, but that the housemaid should be ridiculous; and you feel that if you should call the artist's attention to this he would reply: “I am really very sorry, but she is the plainest woman I can make—for the money!” This...

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Derek Pepys Whiteley (essay date 1949)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Life of George du Maurier,” in his George du Maurier. His Life and Work, Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1949, pp. 11-35.

[In the following essay, Whiteley provides an overview of Du Maurier's life and work, focusing most extensively on his circle of literary and artist friends.]

To give here more than an outline of du Maurier's life would be unnecessary, even if it were possible. No author was more autobiographical in the compass of his three novels, where are to be found faithful records of his own early experiences and of characters founded on contemporary friends and acquaintances. Henry James once wrote that du Maurier lived his trio of novels rather...

(The entire section is 9893 words.)

Leonée Ormond (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Peter Ibbetson,” in her George du Maurier, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969, pp. 416-30.

[In the following essay, Ormond critiques Du Maurier's Peter Ibbetson, finding the Passy scenes laudable but the rest of the novel somewhat unsatisfactory and disjointed.]

The discovery that Du Maurier could write a romantic novel came as a great surprise to most of his friends. They scarcely knew what to make of Peter Ibbetson, published in Harper's Monthly in 1891. Kate Greenaway's reaction was characteristic: ‘I have always liked Mr du Maurier, but to think there was all this, and one didn’t know it. I feel as if I had all this...

(The entire section is 5152 words.)

Nina Auerbach (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Magi and Maidens: The Romance of the Victorian Freud,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 2, Winter, 1981, pp. 281-300.

[In the following excerpt, Auerbach analyzes the two main characters of Trilby—Svengali as master/mesmerist and Trilby as metamorphosing heroine.]

It is commonly assumed that Victorian patriarchs disposed of their women by making myths of them; but then as now social mythology had an unpredictable life of its own, slyly empowering the subjects it seemed to reduce. It also penetrated unexpected sanctuaries. If we examine the unsettling impact upon Sigmund Freud of a popular mythic configuration of the 1890s, we witness a rich, covert...

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Martha Banta (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Artists, Models, Real Things, and Recognizable Types,” Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Fall, 1983, pp. 7-34.

[In the following excerpt, Banta briefly discusses why Du Maurier's Trilby is superior to Henry James's “The Real Thing.”]

… Two years after the appearance of [Henry] James's “The Real Thing,” Trilby burst upon the reading public in Great Britain and the United States.1 George Du Maurier (who planted the “germ” for James's 1892 story in his friend's mind) had also offered another story-line to James; but James turned it back to Du Maurier. The result was Trilby, a publishing success...

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Mary Titus (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Cather's Creative Women and DuMaurier's Cozy Men: The Song of the Lark and Trilby,Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 27-37.

[In the following excerpt, Titus discusses how Willa Cather's Song of the Lark is indebted to Du Maurier's Trilby in its portrayal of male and female characters.]

… In its sustained attention to male authority and use of masculine approbation, The Song of the Lark represents more a continuity with than a break from Willa Cather's early writing. Although the novel traces the achievement of a woman artist, it does so from a masculine point of view, moving from male...

(The entire section is 2789 words.)

Jonathan H. Grossman (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Mythic Svengali: Anti-Aestheticism in Trilby,Studies in the Novel, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 525-42.

[In the following essay, Grossman examines anti-aestheticism in Trilby, including comparisons with Oscar Wilde's work and a discussion of bohemia and homosexuality in the novel.]

Writing about George Du Maurier in 1897, Henry James finds a “mystery” posed by the enormous public success of Du Maurier's Trilby (1894): “The case remains, … it is one of the most curious of our time.” “Why did the public pounce on its prey with a spring so much more than elephantine?” James asks, pondering both the novel and the...

(The entire section is 7361 words.)