This is the fourth in our ‘Five Reasons’ series, which could carry the alternative name of ‘Forgotten Victorians’, since every writer we’ve looked at so far has belonged to that period: our previous posts have been on George Meredith, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Ernest Dowson. Now it’s the turn of George du Maurier (1834-96), or George Louis Palmella Busson du Maurier, to give him his full name. Here are the five reasons we’ve discovered for why we should all know this Victorian writer.
1. He was also a talented cartoonist, who drew what is perhaps the most famous Victorian cartoon. The cartoon in question, ‘True Humility’, appeared in Punch magazine for which du Maurier drew many cartoons from the 1860s onwards. The cartoon (see right), is the origin of the phrase ‘curate’s egg’, used to refer to something that is ‘good in parts’ – a mixed bag, in other words. Well that is what the phrase has come to mean, anyway. It’s something of a mangling of the original sentiment behind the cartoon: the curate, presented with a bad boiled egg by the vicar, is too polite to tell the truth and so assures him that ‘parts of it are excellent’ (the joke being that if parts of an egg are not excellent, then the whole thing is ruined). In another cartoon, du Maurier coined the term ‘bedside manner’ in a satirical cartoon on medicine.
2. He illustrated the first ever detective novel. The Notting Hill Mystery, which appeared under the author name Charles Felix in 1862-3 (though the real author was possibly Charles Warren Adams), predates the more famous claimant for the first detective novel, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, by five years. Du Maurier illustrated this novel, thus helping to make him a little part of (semi-forgotten) literary history.
3. He (indirectly) inspired Peter Pan. This is because he was grandfather to the five boys who inspired J. M. Barrie’s play.
4. He was the grandfather of Daphne du Maurier. So, had he not lived, we would not have had two more classic novels, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca!
5. He gave us trilby hats. Well, in a sense. He gave us the name for them. His 1894 novel Trilby is about a woman (the Trilby of the title) who is a humble artist’s model until she is transformed, under hypnotism, into a hugely successful singer. The hypnotist responsible for this transformation is named Svengali, which is where the word comes from for a person who has a mesmeric power over another. But the linguistic legacy of this novel went further than this. It was so popular that numerous tie-in products were given the name ‘trilby’: soap, toothpaste, and, of course, the famous hat which is the lasting legacy. Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary records the sense of ‘trilby hat’ only third on the list under the entry for ‘trilby’: the name was initially attached to feet, of all things, and then to shoes, before the hat. Nobody appears to know for certain whether the hat was named a trilby after the stage adaptation (where one was worn on stage) or from the novel: the novel makes no mention of the hat, but one of the illustrations features it. Trilby also had a lasting legacy beyond the hat: a city in Florida is named in honour of it, and Gaston Leroux was inspired by the novel’s plot for his Phantom of the Opera (which in turn, of course, would inspire Andrew Lloyd-Webber). The phrase ‘in the altogether’ (meaning completely naked) was also, according to some language historians, first used in this novel.
Image: True Humility © 1895 George du Maurier, public domain.