George du Maurier’s 19th century novel Trilby has been on my TBR list for years. I finally read it this past week and it totally stole my heart. You may know the premise: in 1850s Paris, a young artist’s model named Trilby meets a group of artists in the heart of bohemia. She falls in love with one, a sensitive young man nicknamed Little Billee, but because of the society they live in, cannot find happiness with one of his class. Instead, she falls under the hypnotic spell of the evil Svengali, who controls her. It sounds more serious than it is; it’s rather a mix of comedy and utter tragedy.
Trilby is one of those characters who you immediately fall in love with from the first description. Trilby is honest, kind, charismatic, childlike and wholly untouched by the corruption of the world around her. She is an artist’s model who sits “for the figure” a.k.a. a nude model. She also has the most beautiful feet in the world (which is weird) and the most beautiful voice even though she’s tone deaf, a characteristic that the sinister Svengali takes complete advantage of.
As the creature looked round at the assembled company and flashed her big white teeth at them in an all-embracing smile of uncommon width and quite irresistible sweetness, simplicity, and friendly trust, one saw at a glance that she was out of the common clever, simple, humorous, honest, brave, and kind, and accustomed to be genially welcomed wherever she went. Then suddenly closing the door behind her, dropping her smile, and looking wistful and sweet, with her head on one side and her arms akimbo, ‘Ye’re all English, now, aren’t ye?’ she exclaimed. ‘I heard the music, and thought I’d just come in for a bit, and pass the time of day: you don’t mind? , that’s my name—Trilby O’Ferrall.’
You may have heard about this book—that Svengali, an evil musician and accomplished hypnotist, controls the tone-deaf Trilby with his voice and his gaze, turning her into the world’s most famous and talented singer. Trilby travels with Svengali for five years and when she is finally free of her captor, remembers nothing of her illustrious singing career which threw the whole of Europe into a frenzy, and catapulted the unknowing Trilby into fame.
What really struck me about Trilby is how well developed her character is. She’s the most fully developed character in the novel, and her descriptions constantly make clear that the men (and women!) in the book don’t love Trilby just because she’s beautiful. In fact, she’s unconventionally attractive, as tall as a man, and she’s remarkably shameless about her body and about how she expresses her freedom.
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 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…
Also, she had a very fine brow, broad and low, with thick level eyebrows much darker than her hair, a broad, bony, high bridge to her short nose, and her full, broad cheeks were beautifully modelled. She would have made a singularly handsome boy.
As an artist’s model, she’s anything but a respectable “lady,” but Trilby doesn’t realize she’s supposed to feel shame about being a nude model until the lesser, immoral people of the world make her feel shame. She’s pure and clean of the world’s biases and prejudices, but she’s also very impressionable, and is the ultimate example of what happens to pure creatures when they are corrupted by evil.
Written in the 1890s and set in the 50s-60s Paris, this book beautifully, comically captures bohemia. We meet funny, multidimensional characters with names like Taffy, Little Billee, Gecko, the Laird, and many others.
The ending totally wrecked my heart. But this book gave me one more amazing literary heroine to adore and mourn. I completely fell in love with Trilby, just like every other character in this lush, rich and vivid novel. You feel transported to Paris in the 1800s and feel like you know these characters, like they’re old friends.