Another classic, another disaster. I will include a spoiler alert because if you are like me and haven’t heard about this book other than the words – Trilby and Svengali – well you are in for a rude awakening. You may think you know the plot but trust me that is not even the half of it. So, if you want to read the book first, bookmark this page and come back to it after you have finished it.
If you are short on time, I can summarize the theme of the book in two words – Anti-Semitic and Misogynist. That’s all you really need to know but because this is a review, I will elaborate.
Let us start with the titular characters – Trilby and Svengali. Shocker: they are not the protagonists!! They are barely in the story at all! They make up maybe 30%, if I am being generous. The book is actually about a pathetic dumbass painter called Little Billy and his two friends. The story is set in 1800s Paris – or famously known as Belle Epoque Paris and revolves around three European painters. These painters are worse than Werther in some ways – they also possess the holier than thou, straight white male, chastity-worshipping, stalker qualities that were oh so prevalent in that century. All three of them encounter Trilby – described in the second most misogynistic way in the book – while they are spending their days in good old Paris’ Latin Quarter painting, drinking, being pretentious, looking down upon women that ‘sit for the figure’. A big deal is made about how Tribly is the worst singer they have encountered with a gorgeous sound and how much she hates Svengali.
Speaking of Svengali, I stopped reading the book several times because I could simply not get past the Anti-Semitism. The misogyny is horrible, don’t get me wrong but maybe I have just come to expect such nonsense from male authors (even today!) and so it wasn’t as shocking as the racism. It was just as depressing though. It is quite impressive (sarcasm, duh) how George du Maurier was able to fit in an exorbitant amount of racism for a character that barely appears in the book. But since I had started it, I had to finish it.
The majority of the book is about how innocent and pure Little Billy is and how the three men spend their time in Paris. In a twist that everybody saw coming, all three men fall in love with Trilby but Little Billy is the only one that expresses his love and wears her down into saying yes. But immediately after, Little Billy’s mother lands in Paris because she won’t have a ‘figure-sitting loose woman’ for a daughter-in-law. In a turn of events, Trilby abandons Little Billy because he is too good for her. The rest of the book talks about Little Billy’s ‘depression’ brought on by Trilby’s rejection. Unlike Werther, Little Billy is unable to stalk Trilby because he has no idea where she is but it doesn’t make him any less insufferable than Werther. The moaning, the whining, the fetishizing of the ‘virgin’ is all just too much.
The last thirty-something pages of the book get to the actual plot. The entire world is talking about a new singing diva – The Lady Svengali and it is none other than our Trilby. Little Billy is immediately cured of his ‘depression’ – he starts to feel love again but is unable to believe that Trilby is with a man like Svengali. They also notice a huge change in Trilby. She almost seems like an entirely different person. Our three heroes have no idea what to make of it all.
A lot of anti- Semitism later.
Svengali dies during a concert and Trilby has no idea where she is. Her health starts to deteriorate rapidly. Everybody thinks that the grief of losing her husband has made her lose her mind and though it is peculiar that she only remembers parts of her life and none of the diva memories are retained, they are too occupied by her health to worry about these lapses. Eventually, Trilby is at death’s door and a few minutes before her life calls it quit, she encounters a portrait of Svengali. As though in a trance, Trilby belts out one last heavenly rendition of Chopin’s Impromptu in A flat and dies. Little Billy dies shortly afterwards overcome by grief.
The book was extremely tiring to read. It may have been that the translation I read wasn’t the best one but I don’t think so. I generally don’t enjoy reading racist misogynistic characters and I don’t enjoy reading descriptions of music. There are also an incredible number of adverbs used to describe things and it gets old pretty soon. Despite all that the final description of what transpired between Svengali and Trilby as divulged to Taffy by Gecko was one of the most haunting things I have ever read. All I can say is, at least, the ending lived up to the hype. But was it worth it? Tell me what you think in the comments.