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.
When did Svengali Appear?
We must start in London at the end of Victoria’s reign. Two middle-aged gentlemen are strolling on Hampstead Heath one Sunday in March 1889.
One is American, born in New York, a couple of weeks shy of his fiftieth birthday, a bachelor, a writer.
The other is half French, born in Paris, nine years his senior, a cartoonist and illustrator. He is married with 5 children. The youngest, a son, is sixteen. Both live and work in England and both are troubled at the moment. The cartoonist is losing his eyesight, the writer his inspiration. At least he’s lost for a plot right now.
It is about young artists in Paris and an extraordinary musician called Svengali. He has hypnotic powers and uses them to turn a tone-deaf artists’ model into an opera diva. The cartoonist was once such a student artist. He has been mulling on this story for a while.
“No,” says the writer. “I don’t know enough about music. Why don’t you write it yourself?”
What did Svengali do for the Author?
Well, the main character in probably the best-selling novel of the whole 19th century. For the story is Trilby and the cartoonist is George du Maurier.
Henry James (he of The Bostonians, The Wings of the Dove and The Turn of the Screw), who turned the story down, never had a success to equal it in his lifetime. Their relationship is explored in David Lodge’s 2004 novel, Author, Author.
Best selling novel of the whole century? Am I sure?
Well, I haven’t done the sums myself, but that’s what Daniel Pick says in his introduction to the Penguin Classic’s edition.
And it seems only too likely from the phenomenal demand for it reported by American libraries, as described in the brilliant Trilbyana.
“At the Mercantile Library, New York, it was found necessary, at the time when Trilby was in greatest demand, to circulate a hundred copies of the book; at the beginning of June the number in circulation was seventy. Mr. Wingate wrote to The Critic from Boston, in June, that there were six copies of the book in the main building of the Public Library, and one in each of its branches, but that this supply was inadequate, 72 demands for the book having come from the branch libraries in a single day.
“And Mr. Hild writes to us from Chicago that the Public Library of that city has 26 copies, but that they do not begin to supply the demand. ‘I believe we could use 260 and never find a copy on the shelves. Every one of our 54,000 card-holders seems determined to read the book.'”
Trilby in the title
The story is called Trilby, right? She’s the girl he hypnotises. The one who becomes the best singer in the whole world under his influence. She’s the heroine.
Um, yes. And at the time that those American library readers were queueing up to read the book, entrepreneurs were definitely designing Trilby merchandise, including boots, shoes and silver scarf pins.
The hat still survives, indeed. Trilby is, if not quite a cross-dresser, pretty gender-neutral in her choice of costume, at least to begin with.
Svengali the Survivor Stereotype
But Svengali is the character who lasts: the sinister puppet master, in whose hands a jolly, independent-minded free spirit becomes – well – obedient.
Svengali elbows her out of the spotlight, as efficiently as Iago displaces Othello. Only, unlike Iago, Svengali turned himself into a household name at the same time. He is now the template for the sinister manipulator of a front man. His front man may willingly collude, at least to begin with. But soon he becomes a victim, helpless to withstand the stronger will.
In December 2002, The Economist, no less, called Karl Rove “Mr Bush’s Svengali”. And everyone knew what it meant.
And Svengali is controlling and self-interested. He also is usually malign and sometimes downright criminal.
A review of the biography of Colonel Parker in The Seattle Times in July 2003 was headed, “Elvis’s Svengali: Biography of Colonel Tom Parker reads like a thriller.”
Was Svengali Drawn from Personal Experience?
The book was published in 1894, but one of the the trio of artists sharing rooms in Paris is a) not much older than the twenty-year old hero Little Billee and b) an ex soldier who served in the Crimea. So we’re probably talking the late 1850s. One of his sources (like Puccini for La Bohème) was Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème which was published in 1845.
In 1856 the young George du Maurier (aged 21 like Trilby’s admirer Little Billee) was studying art in Paris at Charles Gleyre’s atelier, where he met James Whistler among other artists.
In fact, Whistler subsequently took umbrage at the character of Joe Sibley, “the idle apprentice, the king of bohemia” in Trilby.
Whistler made his displeasure widely known, complaining to the publishers and even to the President of the Beefsteak Club, where both he and du Maurier were members.
He threatened to sue, but never carried it out. Harper’s apologised, and, in the next publication, removed the references and illustrations Whistler objected to.
So yes, the artists and the studio had some elements drawn from real life. But the music? And Svengali? Well…
Svengali and the French Harpist
Now, this is a really odd one. As a child prodigy, virtuoso French harpist Nicolas Bochsa played for Napoleon. Grown up, he played for restored King Louis XVIII, then got involved in a financial scandal and fled to England in 1816. He was convicted in absentia and sentenced to branding for fraud.
He then had a successful career in England, though still dogged by scandal, until he ran away with a married soprano in 1839. They toured the world, performing together, until he died, in Australia, in 1856. That’s the year du Maurier became an art student in Paris and may have started to ponder writing a story set there.
After the publication of Trilby, The Poverty Bay Herald of New Zealand claimed in 1896 that Bochsa was the model for Svengali, quoting the Australian tour manager and US sources. He described Mrs Anna Bishop, the soprano in the case, as “almost childlike in her meek submission and dependence upon him.”
But Trilby and the Huguenot Soprano?
Ann Rivière was a very successful soprano who studied at the Royal Academy of Music under Henry Bishop (composer of Home, Sweet Home). She married him in 1831, one month after his wife died. She was 21 he was 44. They had three children before she ran away with Bochsa. She continued to tour professionally with him until he died.
Thereafter she continued to tour alone and had many adventures including remarriage after her estranged husband’s death, this time to a New York diamond merchant. Then there was a shipwreck, two weeks adrift in the Pacific, as well as singing for both Queen Victoria and Brigham Young.
Both Bishop and Bochsa were more than 20 years older than Anna and, like Chopin-playing Svengali, very talented musicians. In some ways Svengali could have been modelled on either. But I don’t see Anna as Trilby, somehow.
Clearly, there are any number of stories involved in the convergence of these three people. Poor old Henry Bishop was knighted but died in penury. And what happened to the children?
Compelling stuff. But not Trilby.
Svengali in the Story
Nor, more important, can I yet see why he is so fearsome and his mind games so chilling. For he is and they are.
People who have never heard of George du Maurier or Trilby nevertheless recognise the name of Svengali and know that it means power over another human being. That’s big.
So I am going to continue my reading, both du Maurier’s novel and digging around it. There could well be a Part 2 to this blog.
May you have a very happy Halloween and only see the spooks you want to.