decorated initial 'B'y the time he came to write and illustrate Trilby (1894) George Palmella Busson Du Maurier was sixty, in declining health, blind in his left eye and losing the sight in the right. In 1889 he had offered his friend Henry James the plot for Trilby as he began writing Peter Ibbetson. However, either James's lukewarm response, or the nostalgia engendered by trips to Paris, or the success of Peter Ibbetson when serialised in Harper's or his articles and lectures on book illustration (later published as Social Pictorial Satire in 1898) persuaded the artist to write and illustrate the novel himself. Despite the fact that he had had to give up cartooning for Punch because of near-total blindness in 1891, he began work on Trilby in January, 1892, and in November of the same year came to terms with Harper's regarding the book's publication. Contributing to the success of the novel in that magazine, in which it ran from January through July, 1894, were the marvelous and abundant character studies, often in 4 inch by 6 inch format. Of the 112 illustrations, only two are not captioned; consequently, the reader can easily identify the moment illustrated, which is often in very close juxtaposition to the plate. Surprisingly, the first edition of the novel, published by Osgood McIlvaine in 1894, contains none of these splendid illustrations; that by Harper's (New York), which appeared later that same year, did, however, contain the plates, which are reproduced faithfully in the Everyman edition (London: J. M. Dent; Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1931; rpt., 1992, with introduction by Leonee Ormond).

Plate No. 7, "Wistful and sweet," depicts young Trilby O'Farrell, the thoroughly charming non-conformist who thinks nothing of posing for the artists of Paris's Latin Quarter and even, implies Du Maurier, of sharing her sexual favours. Symbolic of her independence, whimsicality, and unconventionality is her male mode of dress, although nowhere in the book does she wear the male hat named for her. She has, the artist suggests, assumed not merely male attire but also the male prerogative of personal freedom. The moment realised in the plate occurs early in Part One, when Little Billee, and his artist-companions, the Laird and Taffy, first meet Trilby. Note how cleverly Du Maurier foreshadows Trilby's later success as a singer under the spell of the evil musical genius, Svengali:

Suddenly there came a loud knuckle-rapping at the outer door, and a portentous voice of great volume, and that might almost have belonged to any sex (even an angel's), uttered the British milkman's yodel, îMilk below!' and before any one could say îEntrez,' a strange figure appeared, framed by the gloom of the little antechamber.

It was the figure of a very tall and fully-developed young female, clad in the gray overcoat of a French infantry soldier, continued netherwards by a short striped petticoat, beneath which were visible her bare white ankles and insteps, and slim, straight, rosy heels, clean cut and smooth as the back of a razor; her toes lost themselves in a huge pair of male slippers, which made her drag her feet as she walked.

She bore herself with easy, unembarrassed grace, like a person whose nerves and muscles are well in tune, whose spirits are high, who has lived much in the atmosphere of the French studios, and feels at home in it.

This strange medley of garments was surmounted by a small bare head with short, thick, wavy brown hair, and a very healthy young face, which could scarcely be called quite beautiful at first sight, since the eyes were too wide apart, the mouth too large, the chin too massive, the complexion a mass of freckles. Besides, you can never tell how beautiful (or how ugly) a face may be till you have tried to draw it.

Complementing Trilby's lack of decorum and somewhat masculine features are the effeminate face, form, and fastidious temperament of the English artist in Paris, Little Billee. When, to please him, Trilby accepts Little Billee's judgment about her attire and her role as artist's model and tries to become more conventionally feminine, she is robbed of her power, charm, and freedom (both moral and economic). He arms akimbo in this plate, Du Maurier captures within his heroine those very opposite qualities of innocence and bravado, of sweetness and toughness, that so characterize her during the first part of the book.

A voice he didn't understand Plate No. 16, "A voice he didn't understand," depicts the poverty-stricken musical genius Svengali accompanying his his first female protege, Mimi la Salope (her name signifying "slut" in Parisian slang, Ormond states that she is based on an actual "artists' model, La Petite Sara, who used to sing colloquial songs while she posed." [Ormond 370) whom he abandons in disgust as unteachable while retaining until his death his male disciple, the faithful violinist Gecko.

Svengali's other friend and pupil was (or rather had been) the mysterious Honorine, of whose conquest he was given to boast, hinting that she was une jeune femme du monde. this was not the case. Mademoiselle Honorine Cahen (better known in the Quartier Latin as Mimi la Salope) was a dirty, drabby, little dolly-mop of a Jewess, a model for the figure — a very humble person indeed, socially

She was, however, of a very lively disposition, and had a charming voice, and a natural gift of singing so sweetly that you forgot her accent, which was that of the tout ce qu'il y a de plus canaille.

. . . . .Svengali had heard her sing at the Brasserie des Porcherons in the Rue du Crapaud-volant, and had volunteered to teach her; and she went to see him in his garret, and he played to her, and leered and ogled, and flashed his bold, black, beady Jew's eyes into hers, and she straightway mentally prostrated herself in reverence and adoration before this dazzling specimen of her race. . . . .

But before he could teach her anything he had to unteach her all she knew; her breathing, the production of her voice, its emission — everything was wrong. She worked indefatigably to please him, and soon succeeded in forgetting all the pretty little sympathetic tricks of voice and phrasing Mother Nature had taught her.

In attempting to imprint his musical knowledge upon his pupil, Svengali robs her of those idiosyncrasies that amount to her personality and individuality of expression; in the end, his impossible demands upon her voice (which she, infatuated with the maestro, attempts to meet) utterly destroy it. In the plate, Du Maurier makes neither of them physically attractive in any respect, although what he termed "the letterpress" in his 1890 article "The Illustrating of Books, from the Serious Artist's Point of View" (Magazine of Art, London) invests her with "gazelle" eyes, "artless art," and unswerving devotion. Svengali listens attentively to her notes, and plays the keyboard with great vigour, failing to appreciate what he is doing to her — indeed, not even seeing her.

A final note upon this passage in Part One and its accompanying illustration: Du Maurier's peculiar stereotyping the Jewish musician as both gifted and diabolic — the novelist implies that his villain is somehow strangely connected to the composer of the divine Psalms and the prophets of the Old Testament on the one hand and to those anti-Semitic figures Shakespeare's Shylock and Barabbas, Christopher Marlowe's usurious Jew of Malta, on the other. Even in the Quartier Latin, refuge of nonconformists and social outcasts, Svengali and his pupil are marginalized figures, barely accepted in the artists' circle because of their obvious Jewish accents (Svengali's, containing so much German-Yiddish, is that much worse than Mimi Salope's) and physiognomies. Racism is never either logical or just — nor can it be excused, even in a novelist or a novel one loves.

Plate No. 37, "I will not! I will not!" (Part Three), depicts the artist Little Billee in company with his two dissolute French friends, the guardsmen, Dodor and l'Zouzou — an Anglo-French trio that Du Maurier proposes not merely as a model of youthful camaraderie (despite the very great differences in their temperaments) but also a a social and political alliance, and a fusion of cultural opposites (which Du Maurier himself represents).

Then there was Dodor, the handsome young dragon de la garde — a full private, if you please, with a beardless face, and damask-rosy cheeks, and a small waist, and narrow feet like a lady's, and who, strange to say, spoke English just like an Englishman.

And his friend Gontran, alias l'Zouzou — a corporal in the Zouaves.

Both of these worthies had met Taffy in the Crimea, and frequented the studios in the Quartier Latin, where they adored (and were adored by) the grisettes and models, especially Trilby. . . . .

It was a pretty dance they led; but our three friends of the Place St. Anatole (who hadn't got to pay the pipers) loved them, especially Dodor.

One fine Sunday afternoon Little Billee found himself studying life and character in that most delightful and festive scene la Fete de St. Cloud, and met Dodor and l'Zouzou there, who hailed him with delight . . . .

They also insisted on Little Billee's walking between them, arm-in-arm, and talking to them in English whenever they saw coming towards them a respectable English family with daughters. It was the dragoon's delight to get himself stared at by fair daughters of Albion for speaking as good English as themselves — a rare accomplishment in a French trooper — and Zouzou's happiness to be thought English too, though the only English he knew was the phrase, îI will not! I will not!' which he had picked up in the Crimea, and repeated over and over again when he came within ear-shot of a pretty English girl.

The plate reveals an incredibly uncomfortable child-man, immaculately and fashionably dressed, gripping his cane; in contrast, his French comrades smoke and swagger, fully confident of themselves and proud of their uniforms. Little Billee's gaze is inward, revealing his introverted and self-conscious nature.


Victorian 
 Web Illustrations George du Maurier

Last modified 31 December 2001