George du Maurier, 1834 -1896: The First Blockbuster

The nineteenth century saw the first mass market for books and concomitantly the first serious bestsellers.   Dickens and Twain, of course, made quite nice livings by writing, thanks very much, and Harriet Beecher Stowe had more than her fifteen minutes of fame.  But however well these people did, the kind of DaVinci Code phenomenon never really hit the Victorian century.

That is,  not until 1894 when George du Maurier came out of nowhere with the game changing novel Trilby.  And, no doubt to the fury of a generation of would-be scribblers, he wasn’t even a proper writer.

Du Maurier was born in Paris of Anglo-French stock (his grandmother was Regency courtesan Mary Anne Clarke, on whom more next time) and for the better part of his life was chiefly known – well known, in fact – as an illustrator.

His parents had wanted him to follow a more solid career in science, but he failed the Latin requirement and so got to try art instead.  He had trained in Antwerp and later in Paris alongside his good friend James McNeill Whistler in the 1850’s.  Good days and comradeship in that highly charged romantic world, which, of course, could not last forever.

Seeking stability, he moved to London, married,  fathered five children, and embarked on a steady career drawing satirical pictures for Punch (his predecessor had been John Leech) and various other magazines, and the odd book illustration.

It was a comfortable life, but a life that could wear down even the most prolific artist.  Once he entered his fifties, the work began to get a little stale, a little formulaic.  The eyesight in his one good eye (he had lost the use of the other as a young man) was failing. He was anxious for his, and his family’s immediate future.

He was discussing this one day with his friend and fellow member of the Rabelais Club  Henry James, for whom he had illustrated the American and British edition of Washington Square.   James  suggested Du Maurier try his hand at fiction.

It seems a bold suggestion, when you think about it.  But Du Maurier had provided James with various story ideas over the years, and James thought the illustrator might be able to make the transition to words.

And indeed he did.  Du Maurier’s first novel, Peter Ibbetson, came out in 1891.  It was a modest success.

Three years later, he came out with Trilby.  Trilby – it  was a monster.

The novel is the story of Trilby O’Ferrall, a Scotch-Irish grisette and model (Victorian code for good time girl) adored by three British art students living and working in Paris.

Ah, Paris! To be young and in love! The painting, the drinking, the life modeling “in the altogether” (yes, Du Maurier coined that phrase), the laughing, the yearning.

Well, there’s a good deal of romantic backing and forthing and jealousy and pride and True Love thwarted on the grounds of it-can-never-be-for-we-are-of-different-social-standing.  The saddened young man leaves Paris. A few years pass. The saddened young man returns to Paris. He is taken to the theater to witness a new singing sensation.  It is, of course, the girl Trilby.  This tone-deaf wannabee has been made into an great sensation, the toast of all Paris! But how is it possible!?

She has, it seems, come under the influence of a particular gifted enigmatic magnetic impresario by the name of Svengali.

Du Maurier didn’t think much of the work. Neither, apparently did his old friend Whistler, who filed a lawsuit on the grounds that one of the louche young men bore a little too much resemblance to a younger Whistler.

The suit came to nothing, but the publicity was priceless. Imaginations were fired across the English speaking world.  Romantically minded young men (and no one is more romantically minded than a romantically minded young man) began to dress the part of the bohemian artist.  Young women affected a freedom of manner so alarming as to become the subject of Sunday sermons – still more free publicity.  Book circles read and discussed the novel ad nauseum. Marketers jumped on board.  There were Trilby songs, dances, toothpaste, Trilby shoes and of course, the Trilby hat. Gaston Laroux lifted the story wholesale for The Phantom of the Opera (1910).

And it didn’t stop, not for years.  Stage and film adaptations, authorized and not flourished into the 1930s, making a great deal of money for a great deal of people.

Du Maurier did not live to see it play out till the end.  The phenomenon was simply too much for the man. He managed to grind out The Martian, a semi-autobiographical novel concerning – well, less an actual Martian than the theme of reincarnation and eugenics.  The book did not do well. Not that Du Maurier cared.  By the time it was published in 1897, he had been dead for nearly a year, a victim of cardiac arrest.

Henry James grieved over his friend.  We can wonder if he felt any responsibility for getting this ball rolling.  His final word on the matter:  “The doctors said  it was matter about  the heart. But I knew what the matter was, and the matter was Trilby.”

5 thoughts on “George du Maurier, 1834 -1896: The First Blockbuster

  1. Pingback: Mary Anne Clarke, 1776-1852: Let A Woman In Your Life | A History Blog by Bruce Ware Allen

  2. Was not James at the same time envious that his old pal, casually tossing off a piece of romantic fluff, had a popular success vastly greater than James himself did with any of his achingly crafted, lifetime-of-experience works? Or do I think so only because David Lodge made much of this idea in his AUTHOR, AUTHOR?

    • Ah, who can read into the inscrutable mind of Henry James? It’s a good question (yours, not mine), but I don’t know enough about James’ neuroses to venture a guess. (I’ve also not read Lodge’s novel, so cannot address his take on it either. The book’s on the to-read list, but pretty far down. I expect I should boost it a notch or two.)

      • A thought occurs to me – can we trace a change in the character of James’ work after Trilby? The novels become denser and more laborious to read, but could it be James trying to push even harder for literary seriousness to disassociate himself from his buddy DuMaurier? Probably just coincidence, but who knows? Anyway, something for the English majors to gnaw on.

  3. Pingback: Jane Webb Loudon, 1807-1858 | A History Blog by Bruce Ware Allen

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