Published in 1947, Trilby is the second book issued by the Folio Society. The cover was designed by Alice Hindson and features a repetitive motif of an artists pallette and musical notes
Printed in 12/24 Garamond type and bound by Messrs. Brepols of Belgium. The pencil studies, by the author, in this edition were the basis for the engravings in the original edition some 50 years before. In the 1890s, at the time of its first publication, it was very popular and also made into a successful stage play. Some words/phrases related to this work have entered into popular usage. “Svengali”, “Trilby Hat”, “In the Altogether” are all fairly well known.
A somewhat melodramatic story of the free spirited artist’s model, Trilby and the men who loved her.
The story begins in bohemian Paris where Little Billee, Taffy and the Laird, three budding British artists meet Trilby O’Ferrall, the daughter of a lapsed Dublin cleric and a Paris based Scottish barmaid.
As time goes on Little Billee came to love her, and she loved him in return and she finally accepted his marriage proposal. However his mother was determined that the marriage should not occur as Trilby was not a suitable match. Little Billee was heartbroken, but later on became a very successful artist in his native England. He then started to court a childhood friend Alice but fell out with her father (a parson) over religious issues. Billee had ceased attending church and was an admirer of Charles Darwin. Although Little Billee moved with ease through the highs and lows of society he never developed any other strong attachments.
Meanwhile Trilby, who was at a low ebb in her life, having sacrificed her love for Billee, and lost her young brother through a sudden illness, came under the influence of Svengali. Svengali was a narcissistic musician who had the ability to train and influence other artists to achieve virtuistic performances. His first pupil was Gecko, a violin player, and then Trilby who he taught to sing. She became the most talented and talked about singer of her time. That this happened was due to a hypnotic spell induced by Svengali and Trilby has little recollection of her performances on stage.
Little Billee, and his two friends Taffy and the Laird, attend a performance in Paris and realise that “La Svengali” is in fact Trilby.
Soon after this there is a performance in London. Svengali dies during the performance and Trilby can no longer sing in tune. Little Billee arranges for her to come to his landlady’s establishment but her health gradually fades. She receives a photograph of Svengali which transfixes her, and she starts to sing with great beauty. She then dies, whispering Svengali’s name as she dies.
Little Billee is distraught and believes that Svengali has called to her from beyond the grave and has taken her back again. He pines away and, after a long illness dies at the family home where he has been attended by his mother, sister and his friend Taffy.
Over this time Taffy falls in love with Little Billee’s sister Blanche and they marry. During a visit to Paris they meet Gecko who explains that Svengali used Trilby as an instrument for his own ambitions, and that there were two Trilbys. The “true” Trilby was the one who couldn’t sing a note but was loved by all, and in return was friends to all but only loved Little Billee, and there was the “Svengali” Trilby who was a creature created by and controlled by Svengali.
Although there is the obvious theme of the nature of love and its obsessions (Trilby and Little Billee, Trilby and Taffy, Svengali and Trilby, Little Billee and his mother, Little Billee and Alice among others), there are other themes of interest. Individual belief contrasted to religious dogma is one. As Trilby was dying, her words to Little Billee’s mother were “there’ll be no hell for any of us, except what we make for ourselves and each other down here” when the mother wanted Trilby to receive a visit from a clergyman relative. This was the same relative who the mother enlisted to destroy the relationship years ago.
Other stuff on the web about Trilby
Trilbyana…. a contemporary account about its impact and controversy
It’s time to move on from Trilby. The next work is Aucassin & Nicolette. A chantefable, and the 3rd and last book published by the Folio Society in its first year