Author Archives: Sophie

Origins of Svengali Part 2

The origins of Svengali have intrigued me for years. He appears in what was probably the first international best-selling novel. Trilby by George du Maurier, published in 1894, was a Gothic tale of possession, hopeless love and death. Svengali was its evil engine.

His name is still common currency as I wrote a few weeks ago but the story itself is largely forgotten.

These days “his Svengali” describes the managing partner in a certain type of relationship: he is the puppet master, nearly always evil, who deprives his creature of independent will. Yet most people who use the name have only the sketchiest idea of the story, and some have none at all.

In that, as in some aspects of his reputation, he resembles Machiavelli. Indeed, I once worked with someone who was convinced that Machiavelli was fictional and Svengali was a real person.

Svengali’s Appearance

Image by squarefrog from Pixabay

In contrast to Machiavelli – whose How To book on getting people to do what you want is called Il Principe – Svengali is unprepossessing from the start. He’s dirty, he has no social skills – he laughs in all the wrong places and talks too loudly – he’s a bully and ingratiating coward. The trio of British artists for whom Trilby models tolerate him because – well, he’s one of their Bohemian crowd and he plays Chopin divinely.

They are not afraid of him. He hypnotises Trilby to cure her “neuralgia of the eyes” and, when he asks if she has pain, she says no, she feels as if she’s in heaven. After that Svengali tells the watching artist, the Laird, that she cannot open her mouth and, when the Laird asks her to do so, Trilby manifestly tries and can’t do it.

Oddly, this doesn’t seem to upset her, even after he has brought her out of the trance. She calls him a “rum’un” after he has left. It is only when the Laird warns her, that cold shivers go down her back.

Mesmerism and Music

grand pianoThe Laird tells her: “He’s a bad fellow, Svengali—I’m sure of it! He mesmerized you; that’s what it is—mesmerism! I’ve often heard of it but never seen it done before! They get you into their power, and just make you do any blessed thing they please—lie, murder, steal—anything!  and kill yourself into the bargain when they’re done with you! It’s just too terrible to think of!”

But Svengali has heard her joyous exclamation on being free from pain (imitating the call of a English milkman) and is impressed by the timbre and resonance of her voice. He insists on looking inside her mouth and exclaims, “Himmel! The roof of your mouth is like the dome of the Panthéon.” He goes on to rhapsodise about her throat, her teeth, her beautiful big chest and her heart of gold, lamenting that it has no “musical organisation”.

Trilby, who can’t carry a tune, protests. He has heard her sing Ben Bolt, after all.

Svengali’s Influence

But Svengali has already formulated his plan. When she is in pain again, he says, she must come to him and he will take the pain away. She has never responded to music before, but then he will play her Schubert’s Rosamunde. “And you shall see nothing, hear nothing, think of nothing but Svengali, Svengali, Svengali!”

Rosie M Banks, love ennoblesTrilby agrees to marry Little Billee, the Darwin-reading conservationist and youngest of the artists’ trio. But his shocked parents plead with her and she gives him up. (Shades of La Traviata.) She leaves Paris.

Svengali catches up with her and fulfils his promise. Under hypnosis, her voice is astonishing. By comparison, Adelina Patti and Jenny Lind are apples to her nectarine. “One felt it to be not only faultless but infallible; but the seduction, the novelty of it, the strangely sympathetic quality!”

Trilby  becomes a diva under the name La Svengali. For Svengali has married her.

Fist from mouth to knock down brick wallFive years later Little Billee, now a successful painter, attends a concert with the other two artists. Little Billee recognises Trilby although the others are sceptical. He convinces them, but Svengali sees them off, though artist Taffy roughs him up a bit.

Months later, in London for a performance, Svengali can’t forget that violence. Moreover he is feeling his age.  “He had for his wife, slave, and pupil a fierce, jealous kind of affection that was a source of endless torment to him” – because he knows she is still in love with her artist.

Meanwhile, his previously loyal servant, Gecko, has transferred his devotion to Trilby and stabs Svengali. As a result, for the first time ever, he cannot conduct the orchestra and, though he clearly tries to hypnotise Trilby from a box, he cannot do so.

She tries to sing but, in her own person, can’t hold a tune. The audience jeer and she responds bravely. But she is clearly bewildered and someone leads her off the stage.

Meanwhile “the terrible figure of Svengali still sat, immovable, watching his wife’s retreat—still smiling his ghastly smile.” He is dead.

She is left insane. Little Billee dies of a broken heart.

George du Maurier and Friend

Now this is where my story gets a bit unhinged. And it is one of the reasons that Svengali has always interested me.

Image by Annillart from Pixabay

When I was still a teenager, a commercial artist friend of my parents told me that George du Maurier’s story about mesmerism was based on hypnotism that du Maurier had undertaken himself.

As I remember (and no, I didn’t write it down; I didn’t realise it would stick, the way it has), du Maurier was travelling with a friend and fellow artist, Felix Something, and in Belgium they shared a studio and a model. She was quite a simple girl and they hypnotised her and got her to do odd things for their amusement.

I haven’t found this story anywhere else. But I have found In Bohemia with Du Maurier, a memoir of their student days by Felix Moscheles, based around sketches by du Maurier himself. It is clear that du Maurier saw and approved the volume, although he died just before it was published,

And Felix is quite clear that he, at least, tried his hand at hypnotising people. Indeed, in the Preface he records:

“You’ll see that I’ve used up all your Mesmerism and a trifle more in my new book,” said du Maurier to me, some time before he published his “Trilby”; and that remark started us talking of the good old times in Antwerp, and overhauling the numerous drawings and sketches in which he so vividly depicted the incidents of our Bohemian days. It seemed to me that some of those drawings should be published, if only to show how my now so popular friend commenced his artistic career. In order that they should not go forth without explanation, I wrote the following pages.”

According to Felix they were in some sort friendly rivals for the friendship of a girl called Carry, a tobacconist’s daughter. “She seemed to be born with the intuitive knowledge that there was only one life worth living, that of the Bohemianism,” wrote Felix. He added, “Her soul was steeped in the very essence of Trilbyism.”

Though not a model, she looked up to them “not without cause; du Maurier could draw and I could paint; he could sing and I could mesmerise, and couldn’t we just both talk beautifully!” (That made me laugh out loud. I really like Felix!)

In later life Felix Moscheles became not only a respected painter but also a pacifist and was the first president of the London Esperanto Club.

Svengali and George du Maurier

So where did Svengali come from?

The first thing to say is that Felix Moscheles and George du Maurier were genuinely good friends and remained so until George’s death. They had affectionate nicknames for each other in Antwerp – du Maurier was Rag and Felix was Bobtail.

They appear together in several of du Maurier’s cartoons in the Moscheles memoir. If du Maurier borrowed some of his friend’s characteristics, he worked them into a whole that would be unrecognisable.

Felix and Svengali were both mesmerists and highly musical (Felix’s father, Ignaz Moscheles was a pianist who taught the Royal Philharmonic Society and Mendelssohn, who was Felix’s godfather). They were also both Jewish in origin. (The family had converted to Christianity after their arrival in England, probably before Felix was born.) Du Maurier clearly acknowledged borrowing the mesmerism from Felix. (See Images below) But the casual anti-semitism that he shows in drawing Svengali – although not other Jewish characters, to be fair – convinces me that this is coincidence.

The Mesmerism debate had been going on since the 18th century. Louis XVI set up two Royal Commiissions in1784 under Benjamin Franklin to study the scientific evidence for Mesmer’s magnetic fluid theory. (NB Felix was still talking about “the fluid” in the 1890s.)

Its respectability ebbed and flowed over the years and varied from country to country. In the early 1800s some people thought so-called “Animal Magnetism” would be a tool by which French spies could hypnotise the government and people into accepting invasion.

Charles Dickens was a believer and practitioner in the mid 1840s but his friend Doctor John Elliotson was effectively struck off for using hypnotism in his practice. Papers on mesmerism spiked in 1784; and also around 1852  when Trilby is set.

Mind-controllers in other stories  John Jasper, in Dickens’s Edwin Drood; Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White; Robert Browning’s Mr Sludge the Medium (inspired by the real life activities of medium Daniel Dunglass Hume).

Images  George du Maurier did his own illustrations for Trilby. There are many images of Svengali, but a particularly interesting one is of him at the piano, see image on Page 63 A VOICE HE DIDN’T UNDERSTAND on TRILBY  on Gutenberg. Worth comparing with an old one of himself and Felix Moscheles, with the latter also at the piano in In Bohemia with Du Maurier, illustration “Moscheles or Mephistopheles – which? on page 40.  Also worth looking at are the original Fagin on The Victorian Web  and Mr John Jasper.


I know more than I did. But I still don’t see where Svengali came from.

To be honest, I find the style of the book too stilted to believe in, especially the melodramatic bits. I’m not really in sympathy with any of the characters, even Trilby, who is certainly the most open-minded and practical of the bunch. But I find that Svengali has a sort of internal coherence that the others don’t, especially in his last days with his fears increasing and, one suspects, his powers waning.

Janus gateways to 2016I can recommend a properly balanced and informed review of Trilby from the Compulsive Reader blog, with a particularly clear-sighted assessment of its anti-semitism. It’s a big subject, that, and needed more research than, frankly, I have time for at the moment. And anyway, this blog is probably too long already. But the anti-semitism was much nastier than I remembered and made me recoil.

However, as light relief after all the darkness, here’s a lovely gallop through a more recent exhibition of artefacts inspired by Trilby and its inevitable spoofs. Enjoy!

Sophie Weston Author


Genre Romance – Respect Romantic Fiction

Image from Pixabay

Tweets urging us to respect romantic fiction have been appearing daily in my Twitter feed this week. There is even a new Twitter hashtag: #RespectRomFic.

After the events set out in my last blog, the Romantic Novelists’ Association wrote an open letter to the Sunday Times. It pointed out the significance of romantic fiction to UK publishing. It also took them to task about the paper’s neglect and, indeed, apparent ignorance of the genre.

There has been considerable follow up. Best seller Milly Johnson had an article in The Bookseller. To their credit, The Bookseller reached out, as the phrase goes, and commissioned it.

The RNA sought the views of three of our members who have hit the Sunday Times best seller list: Milly Johnson, Philippa Ashley and Heidi Swain. The blog, called Love in the Time of Snobbery, went up yesterday (Saturday 18th December). Continue reading

Seeking the Invisible Genre

shortlist for Liberta Books shorter romantic novel award 2021Slightly to my surprise, this week I find myself in search of an allegedly invisible genre. Romantic fiction! I was a little surprised. Libertà has sponsored a Romantic Novelists’ Association prize for books in this non genre.

Of course, romantic fiction has not shown its face in the pages of so-called respectable newspapers and magazines, or even on the shelves of major bookshops, for some years now.

But I was taken aback to see a tweet two days ago from Andrew Holgate, Literary editor of The Sunday Times casting existential doubt on the genre in which I have been writing and reading for most of my life. Continue reading

Apologies, Real Life and Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day, Chelsea Pensioner in uniformToday’s blog is not only late but also shorter than usual — just apologies, a brief explanation (real life!) and a bowed head for Remembrance Day.

This picture is a photograph I took some years ago, of the West Gate to the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. This wonderful building by Sir Christopher Wren was built at the instigation of Charles II as a home for old and injured soldiers. And so it is still.

The two people in the photo are a serving policeman, and a resident Chelsea Pensioner. The latter is wearing his famous scarlet coat. When I bump into them in the local supermarket, they are generally equally smart but slightly less startling in navy blue.

I am really fond of that not very good photograph. I took it on a day in November — mist in the air, trees turning to gold before they started to lose their leaves. Very like today, indeed.

Real Life (Mine)

The reason the blog is late is that I have new member of the household.

After my dear Tom Kyd died in July I heard him about the house for weeks.

But then I began to smile more and weep less, when I thought about him. Then I started to feel I wanted to share all that love we generated between us.

The obvious course was to adopt a cat who had somehow lost their own family. So I have, thanks to the rehoming programme at the wonderful Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Continue reading

In Search of Svengali – Part One

Svengali, silent movie

Wilton Lackaye as Svengali (1905)

Looking for Svengali has been in my mind for a while now. I have a Project. (It’s medium term, no need to think I’m abandoning The Book I Need to Finish, Libertà hivies!)

When I realised that today would be Halloween, I thought  the time had come to share a little of my digging so far. After all, on Halloween the novelist’s imagination lightly turns to thoughts of spookiness. And Svengali is surely one of the most unsettling creations of any novelist.

As it happens, last year I got the Halloween brief too . It took me on a wild ride of serendipity. We went to 1938 New York, by way of my neighbours’ pumpkins and The Golden Bough.

So this year please follow me to the nineteenth century in Paris;  and London; and Australia; well all around the world really. Continue reading

October Day

This week has been generally frustrating and guilt-making – except for one glorious October day. Nothing went to plan. It was very exciting in one way but… Well, see what you think.

It started before dawn. I woke up to fog. Real Gothic fog.

Now, from my fourth floor window I normally look across a cityscape of roof and skylight and the odd church tower. The staircase of the nearest block of flats shows a searchlight beam all night. Fantasy-tall cranes in the distance carry a red warning light on skeletal antennae. In the pre-dawn, there are lights in a few attic windows.

But this morning early there was none of that. Just fog, swirling and eddying like sea fret.

I got up and went out. The lights were shifting and formless, like blobs of paint dropped in running water. I couldn’t find a lamppost I knew was there, until I was close enough to touch. It was cold; still and very quiet.

Gothic October Day

So, of course, I came home and wrote up a Gothic scene. A damn good scene, I may say. Good enough to  have had Wilkie Collins gnashing his teeth with envy. Continue reading

Space Breaking Up Text, the Reader’s Friend

Punctuation was invented to help the Reader. And the very first invention was space breaking up text — so you could tell one word from the next. Seriously.

A couple of months ago I was putting the final touches to an online course on punctuation. Not a subject to rock them in the aisles, I thought. Mind you, I love the stuff. But I have learned that, as a subject of conversation, it doesn’t generally draw children from play and old men from the chimney corner.

exclamation mark in fireSo when I was preparing the course, I thought I’d throw in a bit of history for context.

Only then, of course, I had to check online whether what I remembered was a) accurate and b) still received wisdom. And found something new to me: Aristophanes, Head Librarian of Alexandria aged sixty. He was sitting there, receiving rolls in Greek, the language of the prevailing empire.

Most people then, of course, would be illiterate. So the purpose of these scrolls was to provide a text for someone else to deliver in the market place or to perform as an entertainment.

BUT they arrived with all the letters in a continuous line. Presumably to save papyrus and possibly time, as they were being hand-copied by scribes.

So Aristophanes thought of a way of marking up copies of the text to help the Poor Bloody Orator who had to read them out loud. Continue reading

Imperfect Past of Romantic Author

fog of memoryThis week I have been contemplating the imperfect past of a romantic author, namely me.

It is imperfect in two distinct ways. First – it was often a pretty messy present at the time. Second – I’m not at all good with recalling precise details. In fact, the only bits I remember with any clarity are the stuff where I went badly WRONG.

London skyline with St Paul's dome and skyscrapers in fogExample: I’m drifting with a vague image of some day, pleasantly foggy, footsteps on wet pavement maybe. And then BAMM!! I’ve fallen over a stranger’s suitcase.

I’ve probably pushed the poor chap into the gutter, to boot. And he’s bleeding and going to miss his train and I can’t even apologise properly because he doesn’t speak enough English…

You get the picture? Wince-making, right? Continue reading

Pauline Borghese’s House

Joanna’s blog of three weeks ago, set me thinking about Pauline Borghese’s house in Paris. JoannaPauline Borghese's house was talking about her visit to the Villa dei Mulini where Napoleon lived during his first exile. She described an enormous gilt mirror flanked by busts of Napoleon himself and “a woman in antique dress”. Tradition has it that the woman is Pauline Borghese.

Well, I thought that was odd. Maybe it would have been impolitic to take a bust of Josephine. But surely Napoleon had fallen out with Pauline (not for the first time) because she disliked his second wife, Marie Louise of Austria. Why would he want a bust depicting a family he had fallen out with?

So I dug about a little. And it seems that, after her brother’s first defeat, Pauline sold up everything and went to live in Elba. Apparently she was the only one of his siblings to visit him during that time. Continue reading

Inventive Punctuation and the Popular Novelist

exclamation mark in fireLet me start with an admission: I love inventive punctuation. Of course, you can do an awful lot, just by changing a comma into a dash. But some people go the whole hog into brackets, asterisks and the wild excesses of the exclamation mark. It all fascinates me.

Most people, of course, ignore it. Well, readers pick up the writers’ signals, I hope. But they don’t actually play around with the stuff. Why should they?

For some people, though, punctuation is a real headache, indissolubly tied to (horrors!) grammar. It’s a terrible shame.

That was the reason that, several years ago, Elizabeth Hawksley and I wrote a simple guide. Its working title was Punctuation for the Petrified, which the publisher vetoed for excellent reasons. It reflected our feelings, though. We wanted people to learn a few principles, have a source book to check things that worried them and, above all, relax and have fun. Continue reading