Discussion Post: Trilby

March 4, 2010 at 7:23 am Leave a comment

The lady herself -- La Grande Trilby!

Congratulations to reader “kberke”, the winner of last month’s Classics Challenge Drawing! You too can be as lucky as he was — just make sure to participate in at least one week of this leg of the Classics Challenge (March 4 – April 30), and you’ll be entered to win a beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic like the one kberke will be receiving.

As promised, this week Literary Transgressions is discussing Trilby by George Du Maurier. This book was the first modern American bestseller when it was published in 1894, and scholars speculate that Du Maurier may have been as well-remembered as Dickens if it weren’t for the facts that there is no definitive edition of Trilby and that no one speaks French anymore. Poor Du Maurier! Next week, we’ll be reading Persuasion by Jane Austen, but for now, on to the questions:

How does Trilby play with gender roles and expectations, especially those of Victorian England? What do you think Du Maurier is doing here? Is he a subverter or preserver of the gender status quo?

No doubt about it, Du Maurier likes playing with gender ambiguity. Trilby and Little Billee, two of the main characters, are continually described in words more often used for the opposite gender; Trilby is “jolly,” wears a man’s overcoat and slippers, is very tall and smokes cigarettes (a typically male habit, especially sans holder), while Little Billee is “delicate,” clean-shaven and is described by his mother as being as innocent as any girl. Even Trilby’s name is actually the name of a male fairy from a popular story of the early 19th century.

It’s notable that only after Little Billee and Trilby are torn apart emotionally that they begin acting in what would have been considered gender-appropriate ways. Trilby becomes more feminine after she stops modeling “for the figure,” but she only becomes the consumptive Victorian female once Little Billee has broken her heart — when Svengali takes her in, she is, as Elain Showalter points out, already an empty shell, on the brink of suicide.

Is this a comment on the inherent emptiness of the type of  life allowed women in the Victorian era? Maybe — but remember that this may only be Du Maurier’s opinion, rather than a reflection of what life was really like.

The virtues of truth versus realism seems to have been a matter of widespread debate at the end of the nineteenth century, as we have seen in The Picture of Dorian Gray and see here in Trilby. Which do the characters in Trilby feel is more valuable, truth or beauty (as Keat’s aphorism that “beauty is truth; truth, beauty” seems to have been rejected)? Can you discern Du Maurier’s opinion?

Actually, I think Du Maurier is all about moderation. While he gently mocks the Laird for his picturesque paintings of things he’s never seen (that sell very well!), he also mocks Taffy for his realist paintings that seem to wallow a bit too much in “realist” squalor. Trilby’s sordid background is belied by her beauty and her cheerful demeanor; Little Billee’s innocent and sweet face belies the fact that he is literally without feeling.

The book itself is a study in nostalgia tempered by tragedy — Du Maurier seems to revel in beauty and pleasure, but recognize that life is full of sadness and brutality as well. It makes for a bittersweet story, but ultimately one that resonates with the reader.

For the titular character, Trilby does not really appear all that much. Why would Du Maurier name the book for her rather than, say, Svengali or Little Billee?

I am tempted to think the book should have been called Svengali, actually. Svengali’s name runs throughout the entire book, even becoming Trilby’s dying word!

But to be fair, Trilby is the thread that ties the story together. Essentially, Du Maurier has written about how Victorian prudishness and adherence to arbitrary social standards can make victims out of otherwise good and decent women — women like Trilby, in fact. Without Trilby, this book would basically be a self-indulgent rehashing of an aging artist’s heyday in bohemian Paris. With Trilby, it becomes a poignant tale of a good person driven to desperate ends by a repressive society. The title helps the reader focus on the eponymous character and what Du Maurier is trying to tell us through her.

These answers owe a great deal to Elaine Showalter‘s introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Trilby. She does an amazing overview of the main scholarly points of interest in this almost-forgotten novel. Also, she’s just all-around awesome.


Entry filed under: LT Classics Challenge. Tags: , , .

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