Trilbymania

January 26, 1994|By BENNARD B. PERLMAN

When the first installment of a serialized novel titled ''Trilby'' appeared in the January, 1894 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, no one, not even the author, could have predicted the unprecedented nationwide appeal and influence it was destined to enjoy.

''Trilby'' is the titillating tale of a beautiful young woman who lived alone in Paris' Latin Quarter, a locale already infamous for unsavory stories of artists and models.

Several painters and sculptors employed her to model -- initially just hands and feet; her left foot was quickly proclaimed ''the handsomest foot in Paris.'' She eventually consented to ''sit for the figure,'' a Victorian expression understood, in an era when even pianos were not referred to as having legs, to mean ''pose in the nude.''

A villainous musician named Svengali was able, through hypnosis, to imbue the otherwise tone-deaf Trilby with a remarkable singing voice. His spells over her were initially limited by a trio of the heroine's male protectors, one of whom, Little Billee, proposed marriage. But the fallen sinner thought herself unworthy of him and fled Paris, only to return five years later as Madame Svengali, the premiere songstress of all Europe.

As in other dark tales of Victorian literature, few of the characters lived happily ever after. Svengali was felled by a heart attack and died during a Trilby concert. Any hope of a romantic conclusion to the story vanished in the last installment when a now-silent Trilby, hopelessly crazed by Svengali's demise, died while staring at his photograph. Little Billee, too, met a premature death.

Charles Du Maurier, the novel's author, was an artist-turned-writer whose own training included studying painting in Paris' Latin Quarter, which explains not only his detailed descriptions of the city, its artists' colony and the main characters, but the creation of striking pen-and-ink illustrations as well.

As public interest in ''Trilby'' grew, attention focused on Du Maurier's inspiration for the individuals in the story. It was revealed that actress Ellen Terry suggested some of Trilby's traits, and the three English artists who befriended the heroine were modeled after a trio of cartoonists for ''Punch,'' the British humor magazine for which Du Maurier worked: Charles Keene, John Tenniel and himself (He created Little Billee in his own image).

Then the New York Sun revealed that one of the less engaging characters named Joe Sibley was actually a caricature of James McNeill Whistler. Writing from Paris, Whistler accused Du Maurier of ''pent-up envy, malice and furtive intent,'' and insisted that Harper's delete any visual or written references to Sibley when ''Trilby'' was published in book form. Harper & Brothers agreed, and printed an apology to Whistler in the October 1894 issue of its magazine.

Publisher Henry Harper had purchased the U.S. rights to ''Trilby'' from the author for $5,000, an amount quickly recovered when the volume appeared and 100,000 copies were sold in less than two months. The director of the Chicago Public Library stated that the institution's 26 copies were inadequate because ''everyone of our 54,000 card-holders seems determined to read the book.''

One newspaper suggested that ''the popularity of 'Trilby' exceeds that of any novel ever published in America, not excepting 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'.''

When ''Trilby,'' the play, was rushed into production, 2,000 actresses, both professional and amateur, vied for the role of the heroine. The U.S. premiere was held at the Park Theater in Boston on March 11, 1895, and was proclaimed an ''astonishing success.''

Among those attending that opening night was William A. Brady, a theatrical manager and actor, who took the midnight train to New York and appeared at the office of Albert M. Palmer, the play's producer. Brady offered to pay him $20,000 and 20 percent of the gross -- an unheard-of arrangement at the time -- for the rights to ''Trilby'' outside Palmer's six-city circuit.

Soon Brady had six touring companies on the road simultaneously, taking the play into all the smaller cities of America. ''Trilby'' was in such demand that in Manhattan it was scheduled for two theaters simultaneously, and ran in that city for nearly two years.

But the clergy had begun questioning ''Trilby's'' morals. A Boston minister titled his sermon ''Have you read 'Trilby'?'' He concluded that the book was ''lacking in healthful flavor,'' and that it was time for ''the pulpit to speak out against art of this kind.'' A preacher in upstate New York called ''Trilby'' ''a dreadfully immoral story.'' One example, scandalous a century ago, was the heroine's appearance on stage in bare feet while assuming the pose of the Venus de Milo.

Spoofs of ''Trilby'' began appearing: A burlesque called ''Thrilby'' opened in June 1895 at New York's Garrick Theatre, with the villain renamed ''Spaghetti.'' Titles like ''Biltry: A Parody on 'Trilby' '' and ''Drilby Re-versed'' came pouring off the presses.

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