Trilby, the Novel That Gave Us ‘Svengali’

How Trilby & Svengali, the names of the central characters of a George du Maurier novel, became immortal.

By Emma Garman

Longreads

Emma Garman | Longreads | February 2017 | 6 minutes (1,788 words)

In the fall of 1894, a New Jersey reader wrote to George du Maurier, the Franco-British author and satirical cartoonist whose Harper’s Monthly serial, Trilby, had just come out as a novel. The concerned correspondent asked that his mind be put to rest regarding the decorousness of relations between Trilby, the young heroine, and musical genius Svengali, under whose hypnotic spell she becomes an overnight opera sensation. Du Maurier replied politely but briefly: “I beg to say that you are right about Trilby. When free from mesmeric influence, she lived with him as his daughter, and was quite innocent of any other relation.” His assurance was published in TheArgonaut, a San Francisco weekly, thus alleviating any similar fears for the girl’s reputation among that paper’s readership. In Brooklyn, meanwhile, a woman had a disagreement with her…

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