George du Maurier’s Trilby: A Victorian Phenomenon

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.

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