Du Maurier began his writing career late in life and published three novels. Each contains autobiographical elements that supply rich realistic details, and each shapes its plot around an extrasensory phenomenon that was of current interest. Peter Ibbetson (1891) deals with telepathic communication, Trilby with hypnotism, and The Martian (1897, published posthumously) with reincarnation.
Du Maurier’s use of hypnotism was not without precedent. Fred Kaplan, in Dickens and Mesmerism: The Hidden Springs of Fiction (1975), observes that many English people of the nineteenth century, including Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, were fascinated by hypnotism and its possibilities for good or evil and that Charles Dickens described relationships between some of his characters in terms of mesmerism. Mesmerism brought up ethical questions because of the power that the hypnotist, usually male, had over the subject, usually female. Leonée Ormond, in George du Maurier (1969), states that in 1861 and 1862, du Maurier illustrated two stories that used hypnotism as a major theme. In Trilby, du Maurier portrays Svengali as domineering, ambitious, power hungry, and lecherous. The hypnotist uses his powers in a self-serving way, for through Trilby’s singing, he becomes wealthy and famous. By mysteriously enabling Svengali to alter Trilby’s physical tone deafness and allow her to sing to perfection while in a trance, du Maurier extended the use of hypnotism into the realm of the fantastic.
Trilby also falls into the end-of-the-century debate between the proponents of the realistic novel, such as Henry James in “The Art of Fiction” (1884), and the proponents of the romantic novel, such as Robert Louis Stevenson in “A Humble Remonstrance” (1884) and Oscar Wilde in “The Decay of Lying” (1889). Despite its charming presentation of rich realistic autobiographical details, Trilby falls under the heading of the romantic novel and fantasy largely because of du Maurier’s use of the theme of hypnotism.