I knew two things about this bestseller which was first published in 1894: it was written by the grandfather of Daphne du Maurier and it was the origin of the trilby hat. Having finished the book and been mystified by the hat reference (no one in the book wears anything like a trilby hat), I discovered that it was from the stage adaptation.
I should state now that I did not like this book at all. I feel that other contemporary writers, such as Bram Stoker or Oscar Wilde, would have more successfully matched the narrative with the plot. There is a sinister, supernatural element which is very much subdued until the end, in favour of waffle about the narrator’s bohemian friends (probably thinly-disguised friends of the author), English people being so superior to any other people, and a focus on the least interesting characters. Despite her name being the novel’s title, Trilby O’Ferrall (life model turned singer) is absent from the story quite a lot, as is her mentor, the villainous pianist Svengali. Those two are the most interesting and yet they are not developed enough, held at a distance from the reader so we never get to know them. The majority of the narrative follows Little Billee, a dainty young man who is an atheist and an accomplished artist but manages to be rather prim and boring. His artist mates, strongman Taffy and the easygoing Laird, are boring too.
The author was a cartoonist for Punch and I think that the novel, at least partly, is supposed to be satirical. Even so, the anti-Semitism is one of several barriers to enjoying this novel. Another is the frequent use of French – 1850s colloquial French, indeed – whole paragraphs or verses of it, and there are phrases which could well have been in English. One has to keep turning to the notes at the end for the translations. There is much rhapsodising about how sweet Trilby’s singing is, which is somewhat nauseating. I do know that the book and stage adaptations were all the rage and rather influential. The illustrations are very good, even if all the young women drawn by du Maurier tend to look the same. However, cultural tastes and sensitivities have changed and Trilby is not on a par with many other classics which are deservedly more popular today.
This edition published by Oxford World’s Classics in 2009 with an introduction by Elaine Showalter and notes by Dennis Denisoff.