Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699

The common romantic conception of Paris’ artistic “Bohemia” in the nineteenth century comes not so much from fact or from serious artistic productions of the era as from two highly successful, popular artworks, Giacomo Puccini’s opera LA BOHEME and George du Maurier’s novel TRILBY . Although hardly a serious literary...

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The common romantic conception of Paris’ artistic “Bohemia” in the nineteenth century comes not so much from fact or from serious artistic productions of the era as from two highly successful, popular artworks, Giacomo Puccini’s opera LA BOHEME and George du Maurier’s novel TRILBY. Although hardly a serious literary classic, TRILBY remains an entertaining book, and the elements that made it so successful are still clearly evident.

The first and most obvious quality of the book is the colorful, vigorous picture it paints of life in the Parisian Latin Quarter. It is glamorous, gay, free, and creative. The parties and activities are spontaneous and continuous. The company is loyal, energetic, and highly imaginative. Although the excitement of the life is highly exaggerated, du Maurier gives the milieu an authentic flavor by his use of concrete details, names of real people and places, and intimate descriptions of the rituals, customs, and manners of his Bohemian world. It is all rendered in an ornate, highly charged, hyperbolic prose style that turns the most trivial incident into a major event.

At the same time, there is no real hint of struggle, poverty, or lack of talent among du Maurier’s students. Taffy, Sandy, and Little Billee are well financed, live in considerable comfort, dine in fine restaurants, and pursue assured careers. All of their acquaintances, except Trilby, seem similarly situated. When poverty is hinted at, it is kept at a distance and idealized for its character-building capacities. There is no indolence in du Maurier’s Bohemia; all the characters look forward to material success and respectable social positions for their efforts. Thus, one of the obvious elements in du Maurier’s success with Victorian readers is that, for all the free-spirited living practiced by his young artists, there is a solid basis of middle-class morality behind their actions.

The sexual morality expounded is likewise thoroughly proper by nineteenth century standards. Only two kinds of attraction are acknowledged: man-to-man comaraderie, which is the most prevalent, and pure, overwhelming man-to-woman love. The lightest taint on a lady’s honor, whatever the extenuating circumstances, renders her unacceptable. Neither Trilby’s beauty nor her essential goodness can overcome her social and moral “defects” enough to qualify her as Billee’s bride. This moral judgment is loudly lamented in the novel, but it is never seriously challenged.

In keeping with popular Victorian novels, the emotions in TRILBY are extravagantly expressed, especially between the central couple, Trilby and Little Billee. When their marriage is thwarted by Billee’s mother, they both become ill. “Little Billee’s attack appears to have been a kind of epileptic seizure. It ended in brain-fever and other complications—a long and tedious illness.” At the end of the novel when Trilby is taken from him a second time, Billee’s brain-fever returns, this time fatally. For her part, Trilby’s sacrificial renunciation of Billee starts her on a downward course that includes poverty, the death of her little brother, her alliance with Svengali, madness, and finally death.

Although the novel concentrates on Little Billee’s experiences, it was primarily the Trilby-Svengali relationship that made the book famous. Du Maurier exploits a number of Victorian tastes with that coupling. Although neither, TRILBY combines aspects of both the “Gothic romance” and the sentimental “seduction novel.” Svengali has many traits of the Gothic hero-villain. He is mysterious, impressive, extremely intelligent, and talented. Most important, he possesses strange powers that suggest the diabolical. “He seemed to her a dread, powerful demon, who ... oppressed and weighed on her like an incubus.” Unlike the Gothic heroine who usually escapes, Trilby, however, is “possessed” by Svengali, and like the unfortunate ladies in seduction novels, she must die in the end. A final Gothic touch can be seen in Svengali’s return from the grave, via the mysterious photograph, to “claim” his victim.

TRILBY is a very careful blend of the serious with the popular, the emancipated with the conservative, and the factual with the fantastic. The book remains enjoyable, if excessive, and its heroine and antihero, Trilby and Svengali, have, like Hamlet or Sherlock Holmes, left the confines of the particular work to become figures of popular mythology.

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