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


8 thoughts on “Origins of Svengali Part 2

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Fascinating stuff. I did try to read it once and recall I didn’t understand much. Too young, i think. My father had it in his library so clearly had read it. Love the parodies!
    I must say I find the creepiness of the Svengali control mechanism utterly abhorrent. Not unknown for drugs to be used to do the same kind of manipulation.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Actually, on reading it this time I didn’t find it nearly as creepy as I expected. Liz. The movies make him a lot more sinister.

      But yes, coercion and control make my spine go cold. And the really horrible thing in Trilby is the way she collapses after he dies. She still looks for him and even seems fond of him; when she should be throwing her hat in the air and shouting “Free at last.”

      I wonder why the Victorians all loved it so much? The book really was a phenomenal success.

  2. Rosemary Gemmell

    Another fascinating post, Sophie. A I mentioned in your previous post, my new Victorian Maryanne mystery novella is partly about mesmerism so I’ve been reading lot about it, mostly in relation to Mesmer and Elliotson. Have never known much about Svengali, apart from his name and reputation!

    1. Sophie Post author

      I think a lot of Svengali’s reputation is probably down to the dramatic presentation of him, Ros.

      Beerbohm Tree had the book adapted and made a huge success of the part, took it round the country for hundreds of performances. And I bet an old war horse like that didn’t make Svengali dirty and awkward abd a coward which is what he is in the book.

      And the movie screen always glamourises a villain. There have been at least five of those.

  3. lesley2cats

    Loved it! Went through the jolly exhibition, and particularly liked “Thrilby: A Shocker in One Scene and Several Spasms” – great title. The trouble is, I shall now slip down a rabbit hole with all the other links. And I want to read Rosemary’s novella…

  4. Sophie Post author

    Glad you loved the exhibition as much as I did, Lesley.

    Yes, I can’t wait for Rosemary’s novella either.

  5. Liz Fielding

    I can remember my mother talking about Trilby – undoubtedly one of the movies – and she was clearly smitten. They do tend to glamourize villains in movies. I haven’t read the book and, frankly, not tempted by it, although I did enjoy reading about the background.

  6. Sophie Post author

    Probably wise, Liz. It’s very much of it’s time, I think, and the characters are really hard to relate too. I admit I struggled a bit this time.

    In fact, although I thought I had read it, there was an awful lot that felt so strange, I’m not sure that I can have done. Maybe there was a sort of Readers’ Digest short version that I picked up somehow. Or a reading/play on radio.

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