In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle doffs his hat to a half-forgotten Victorian sensation
Here’s a question for you: what was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era? And who wrote it – Dickens perhaps? George Eliot? Robert Louis Stevenson? It was none of these, though they all enjoyed huge sales. Instead, the accolade arguably goes to a man who was principally known, not as a novelist at all, but as a cartoonist. (I say ‘arguably’ because reliable sales figures for nineteenth-century books are not always easy to find.)
The cartoonist’s name was George du Maurier and the novel is Trilby (1894). Du Maurier had made his name as an illustrator: in 1895 he was responsible for the famous ‘curate’s egg’ cartoon (with its complaisant curate assuring the vicar, concerning the bad egg he’d been served up, that ‘parts of it are excellent’), and he’d even been responsible for coining the phrase ‘bedside manner’ in a medical cartoon of 1884. But owing to failing eyesight, du Maurier had begun to complement his illustrating work with novel-writing as a way of continuing to make a living from his pen. He certainly succeeded: Trilby would become the sensation of the age, not just in Britain but in the United States. In time, even when the novel was largely forgotten, its title would be immortalised in the name of a hat.
Although it was published in the 1890s and so was technically a Victorian novel, Trilby was, in many ways, the start of a peculiarly modern craze. Not just for novel tie-ins – that in itself was nothing new. A novel like Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, published in 1860, had yielded a host of spin-off products, including hats and cloaks, a perfume, and even a type of waltz. No, what really made Trilby the first in a long line of modern literary phenomena was the way in which the source material itself would quickly become eclipsed by all of its associated memorabilia and by the better-known adaptations of the novel. Trilby appeared shortly before the invention of cinema, which would take the ‘adaptation that becomes more successful than the book’ to a whole new level. Du Maurier’s novel would itself be adapted for the silver screen in 1914 – or rather, the stage adaptation of the original novel would be adapted. Adaptations of adaptations. Further film adaptations would follow in 1915, 1923, 1927, 1931, 1954, and 1983. By the 1920s, the mesmeric Svengali had displaced Trilby as the novel’s principal character – the real heart of the story. Both characters’ names would enter into common use, floating free of the novel in which they originated.
Although the word ‘trilby’ is now synonymous with hats, the Oxford English Dictionary reveals the interesting evolution of the heroine’s name and how it was applied to other things first: originally, ‘trilby’ was used as a jocular name for, of all things, the foot, after the heroine’s feet in the stage version of du Maurier’s novel and the fact that they are objects of admiration. At the Broadway production of the novel in 1895, you could even buy ice cream in the shape of Trilby’s feet, bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘put one’s foot in one’s mouth’. (Aptly enough, du Maurier was something of a foot fetishist.) Shortly after this, the word ‘trilby’ was applied to shoes, and then – finally – to the Homburg hat, with which it has been chiefly associated ever since.
The novel’s other lasting legacy was the term Svengali, denoting a person who wields considerable power and influence over others. In the novel, Svengali is a hypnotist who works his powers on the novel’s female protagonist – her of the delightful feet – transforming the tone-deaf Trilby into a musical sensation. It’s little wonder that someone like Simon Cowell has been referred to as a ‘pop svengali’. Hypnotism, it would seem, has simply given way to auto-tune.
Why has Trilby the novel not endured? One reason we can confidently offer is antisemitism. The novel is full of it, and when attitudes to Jewish people began to change in Europe during the twentieth century, especially after the horrors of the Holocaust, a novel like Trilby suddenly seemed strikingly, even abhorrently outdated in its casual racism. It’s true that we tend to pick and choose on such issues – Fagin the villainous Jew remains a well-known character in a much-loved work of literature while Svengali the villainous Jew has been reduced to a cipher – but the strong whiff of anti-Semitic feeling that runs through Trilby is a stumbling block for modern readers.
For these and perhaps other reasons, Trilby will remain largely unread and the hat will always now be more famous than the novel. But readers who are prepared to approach the novel under a critique and overlook, without countenancing, the distasteful characterisation of the lecherous Svengali, will find a novel whose story retains the ability to summon up the Victorian world that we glimpse in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula, full of seediness and secrecy, smog and sexual undercurrents. And if you don’t like it, you can always turn the book into papier-mâché and fashion a crude hat from it. There’d be something oddly fitting about that.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.