Trilby by George du Maurier (1895)

‘Y a pas d’quoi!’ said Trilby, divesting herself of her basket and putting it, with the pick and lantern, in a corner. ‘Et maintenant, le temps d’absorber une fine de fin sec et je m’la brise. On m’attend à l’Ambassade d’Autriche. Et puis zut! Allez toujours, mes enfants. En avant la boxe!’

Trilby was a publishing and cultural phenomenon. It was the best-selling book of 1894, selling 300,000 copies by the end of the year. Soap, songs, dances, toothpaste, and even the city of Trilby in Florida were all named after the heroine. Trilby boots, shoes, silver scarf pins, parodies, and even sausages flooded the market, and the type of soft felt hat with an indented crown that was worn in the London stage dramatization of the novel, is known to this day as a trilby hat. The plot inspired Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Phantom of the Opera and innumerable other works derived from it.

The plot in brief

In outline the plot is simple. We are in the bohemian artistic circles of Paris a generation or so before the book’s publication, so sometime in the late 1850s. An uneducated but strikingly beautiful young woman, Trilby, who works as an artists’ model and also does sewing, charring and other odd jobs, is ‘discovered’, by the tall, creepy Jewish musician, Svengali. He discovers that as a consequence of her sweet innocent nature, Trilby is very easy to hypnotise. So he does, and turns her into a concert-level singer and performer. In the right clothes, tall and statuesque and under his rigid control, Trilby is transformed into a singer of classical music who electrifies audiences all across Europe, making Svengali rich and famous.

The Paris background

Du Maurier was himself an art student in 1850s Paris. He attended the atelier of painter Charles Gleyre where he met talented young artists such as the American James Whistler, Thomas Armstrong (later Director of Art at the South Kensington Museum) and Edward Poynter (later, President of the Royal Academy).

In fact Whistler recognised a blatant portrait of himself in the character named Jim Silbey when the story was published in magazine instalments, and threatened to sue, forcing Du Maurier and his publishers to remove the character, and an illustration of him, from the published book.

There were obviously lots of hi-jinks in that high-spirited setting, boisterous students in the 1850s, and a big part of the book’s appeal for 1890s readers was its nostalgia for what was, by then, a bygone era of simpler times.

The fin de siècle reader, disgusted at the thought of such an orgy [of drunkenness] as I have been trying to describe, must remember that it happened in the fifties, when men calling themselves gentlemen, and being called so, still wrenched off door-knockers and came back drunk from the Derby, and even drank too much after dinner before joining the ladies, as is all duly chronicled and set down in John Leech’s immortal pictures of life and character out of Punch.

It seems, from the text, that people (well, men) could get away with a lot more back then.

And it is the most surprising and unexpected thing about the book that this bohemian setting is the dominant theme of the book. It comes as a great surprise to discover that Trilby and Svengali are only really – in terms of time on screen – relatively minor characters in the story.

The first 200 pages (of the 300-page edition I read) are overwhelmingly about, and told from the point of view of, three happy-go-lucky British art students having the time of their lives in Paris.

The setting is the studio rented by these three – nicknamed Taffy, the Laird and Little Billee. They paint away during the week, and host Sunday ‘afternoons’ where all sorts of other artists and musicians come round. They own a variety of exercise equipment, notably several sets of fencing gear, so the Sundays generally involve someone playing the piano, someone singing, a couple of chaps fencing, and a host of others milling among the half-finished paintings, chatting, smoking pipes and cigarettes.

Svengali and his sidekick, Gecko, are initially just two of a gallery of characters who appear at these parties, while Trilby is to start with simply the girl who brings the milk up to the studio every morning. They invite her to take a break and smoke a cigarette while she watches them work, and then she offers to do a bit of cleaning, and then they ask her to model for them and, before you know it, she’s one of the gang, spending many day with the chaps, cooking and cleaning or smoking and relaxing with them.

There’s a wonderful passage in part one which describes a typical day in the life of a bohemian artist in Paris in the 1850s, which involves strolling round Paris enjoying the sights and stopping at cafés to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, going to a cabaret, drinking and smoking some more, and generally having a wonderful time. It is all described with high-spirited humour and conviction. Du Maurier lived this life. Lots of it comes over as simple autobiography and memoir, which is what gives it such verisimilitude.

There’s no sex in the book. In terms of release and escapism, I think it was the happy, uplifting portrayal of youthful high spirits in Paris which contributed greatly to its popularity. Some of it reads like a holiday brochure.

England versus France

The opposition or thematic polarity in the book which is most often discussed is that between the pure, virginal, white Trilby and dark, swarthy, Jewish Svengali. White Western virgin women threatened by dark, Eastern, wicked men, a theme expanded in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published the following year – and in hundreds of thousands of pulp novels and sensational movies from then right up to the present day (the movie Taken was on TV last night in which hard-man Liam Neeson rescues his white virginal daughter from Albanian sex traffickers who are planning to sell her to a rich Arab. Nothing changes.)

Except that for the first 200 pages or so the book isn’t like that at all. We really don’t see Svengali and Trilby together that much. The polarity which dominates the majority of the text is between Britain and France, specifically Paris. Between good, solid, Anglo-Saxon purity and the magic, mystery and ‘immorality’ of legendary, mythical Paris. Innocent Little Billee can’t believe he is here, in Paris, city of poets and artists.

Paris! Paris!! Paris!!!
The very name had always been one to conjure with, whether he thought of it as a mere sound on the lips and in the ear, or as a magical written or printed word for the eye.

Poetic Paris is contrasted throughout with businesslike London – as the humorous, dainty, witty Parisian artists are continually contrasted with ‘Taffy’, a six-foot, former British Army officer, taller and stronger (of course) than any mere Continental and who, in the course of numerous anecdotes, knocks them down, breaks up fights, picks up puny Frenchmen and swings them round his head.

Paris is poetry and art and exquisite cuisine. Britain is roast beef, business and the finest army in the world.

And the Frenchness of the story – and du Maurier’s tremendous confidence in this milieu which he knew so well – extends to the language, because a good deal of the book is actually in French.

Lots of the book is in French

Large chunks of the dialogue, and numerous throwaway words and phrases throughout the narrative prose are in French. Du Maurier not only spent his formative student days in Paris, but he had been born and raised there, was perfectly bilingual, and it shows.

‘Tiens! c’est la grande Trilby!’ exclaimed Jules Guinot through his fencing-mask. ‘Comment! t’es déjà debout après hier soir? Avons-nous assez rigolé chez Mathieu, hein? Crénom d’un nom, quelle noce! V’là une crémaillère qui peut se vanter d’être diantrement bien pendue, j’espère! Et la petite santé, c’matin?’
‘Hé, hé! mon vieux,’ answered Trilby. ‘Ça boulotte, apparemment! Et toi? et Victorine? Comment qu’a s’porte à c’t’heure? Elle avait un fier coup d’chasselas! c’est-y jobard, hein? de s’fich ‘paf comme ça d’vant l’monde! Tiens, v’là, Gontran! ça marche-t-y, Gontran, Zouzou d’mon cœur?’
‘Comme sur des roulettes, ma biche!” said Gontran, alias l’Zouzou—a corporal in the Zouaves. “Mais tu t’es donc mise chiffonnière, à présent? T’as fait banqueroute?’
‘Mais-z-oui, mon bon!” she said. “Dame! pas d’veine hier soir! t’as bien vu! Dans la dêche jusqu’aux omoplates, mon pauv’ caporal-sous-off! nom d’un canon – faut bien vivre, s’pas?’

It’s expecting a lot from your average reader to be able to read extended passages of dialogue in pure French. But it’s worse than that. A great deal of this dialogue is in the French slang from the bohemian circles of mid-Victorian Paris, French which is – as the narrator describes it – ‘droll, slangy, piquant, quaint, picturesque’ – in a phrase, ‘French French’.

The book contains all kinds of French dialects. For example, Trilby’s French is highly colloquial. Where the French students speak student slang (‘studio French’), Trilby speaks a more working class dialect of the street. And Svengali murders French with his heavy Germanic accent. And the three British characters all have different French accents which are phonetically transcribed.  So there are quite a few different types of French on display. Here’s Trilby:

‘Maïe, aïe! c’est rudement bien tapé, c’te musique-là! Seulement, c’est pas gai, vous savez! Comment q’ça s’appelle?’

Here’s the Laird struggling to speaka da lingo:

‘Voilà l’espayce de hom ker jer swee!’ said the Laird.

Here’s Little Billee, trying to keep up with native Frenchman, the sculptor Durien:

Durien came in and looked over his shoulder, and exclaimed: ‘Tiens! le pied de Trilby! vous avez fait ça d’après nature?’
‘Nong!’
‘De mémoire, alors?’
‘Wee!’
‘Je vous en fais mon compliment! Vous avez eu la main heureuse. Je voudrais bien avoir fait ça, moi! C’est un petit chef-d’œuvre que vous avez fait là—tout bonnement, mon cher! Mais vous élaborez trop. De grâce, n’y touchez plus!’

And:

‘Demang mattang, à votre sairveece!’ said Little Billee, with a courteous bow.

And:

‘Dites donc, l’Anglais?’
‘Kwaw'” said Little Billee.
‘Avez-vous une sœur?”
‘Wee.’
‘Est-ce qu’elle vous ressemble?’
‘Nong.’

And here’s Svengali speaking ungrammatical French with a heavy German accent:

“Sacrepleu! il choue pien, le Checko, hein?’ said Svengali, when they had brought this wonderful double improvisation to a climax and a close. ‘C’est mon élèfe! che le fais chanter sur son fiolon, c’est comme si c’était moi qui chantais! ach! si ch’afais pour teux sous de voix, che serais le bremier chanteur du monte!’

The Oxford University Press paperback edition I read has footnotes translating all this and it’s just as well. Every page of the novel has at least some French on it – raw, colloquial slangy French – and some pages have huge great chunks. How did the original readers manage when the dialogue just switched into pure French?

At last she asked Durien if he knew him.
‘Parbleu! Si je connais Svengali!’
‘Quest-ce que t’en penses?’
‘Quand il sera mort, ça fera une fameuse crapule de moins!’

Possibly an ‘educated’ Briton would have less difficulty with the occasional Latin tags which du Maurier scatters through his text:

  • ‘Quia multum amavit!’
  • et vera incessu patuit dea!
  • Omne ignotum pro magnifico!
  • Par nobile fratrum
  • ex pede Herculem!

But what about the patches of German and Italian, which also appear?

The experience of reading the book is not only to be soaked in the lives and jokes and high spirits of 1850s Bohemian Paris, but to be dropped into extended passages of raw French. This is the melodramatic climax of the entire book, when the conductor of the orchestra at her final concert tells Trilby to sing and, without Svengali, she discovers that she can’t:

The band struck up the opening bars of ‘Ben Bolt’, with which she was announced to make her début.
She still stared – but she didn’t sing – and they played the little symphony three times.
One could hear Monsieur J—— in a hoarse, anxious whisper saying,
‘Mais chantez donc, madame – pour l’amour de Dieu, commencez donc – commencez!’
She turned round with an extraordinary expression of face, and said, ‘Chanter? pourquoi donc voulez-vous que je chante, moi? chanter quoi, alors?’
‘Mais ‘Ben Bolt,’ parbleu – chantez!’
‘Ah – ‘Ben Bolt!’ oui – je connais ça!’
Then the band began again.
And she tried, but failed to begin herself. She turned round and said,
‘Comment diable voulez-vous que je chante avec tout ce train qu’ils font, ces diables de musiciens!’
‘Mais, mon Dieu, madame—qu’est-ce que vous avez donc?’ cried Monsieur J——.
‘J’ai que j’aime mieux chanter sans toute cette satanée musique, parbleu! J’aime mieux chanter toute seule!’
‘Sans musique, alors – mais chantez – chantez!’

At key moments throughout the book you need to be really fluent in French, and several other languages – or to be reading an edition which translates these passages – to have a clue what’s going on.

‘Got sei dank! Ich habe geliebt und gelebet! geliebt und gelebet! geliebt und gelebet! Cristo di Dio…. Sweet sister in heaven…. Ô Dieu de Misère, ayez pitié de nous….’

This brings us to another really dominating aspect of the experience of the text – the pictures.

120 illustrations

Du Maurier was a writer only by accident and at the very end of his life. For most of his career he was a highly successful illustrator for magazines and books.

Born in 1834, du Maurier studied art in Paris, then got a job with Britain’s leading satirical magazine, Punch, in 1865, drawing two cartoons a week. He also did illustrations for popular periodicals such as Harper’s, The Graphic, The Illustrated Times, The Cornhill Magazine and Good Words. He illustrated a number of ‘classic’ novels from the time, including several by Thackeray. It was only after 25 or more years of producing a steady stream of humorous illustrations with comic captions that his failing eyesight drew an end to his artistic career and forced him to consider other options.

In 1891 he reduced his involvement with Punch and, at the suggestion of his good friend Henry James, wrote his first novel Peter Ibbetson, which was a modest success. Trilby was his second novel, published in 1894 and a runaway success beyond anyone’s imagining. He spent the next two years getting increasingly fed up with the demands from commercial interests and the book’s thousands of fans, before he died in 1896, leaving a long unfinished autobiographical novel to be published posthumously.

The fact that he was primarily an artist – and a book illustrator at that – explains why Trilby is stuffed with du Maurier’s own illustrations, some 120 of them by my count. These illustrations, like the ones he’d been doing all his life, portray rather stiff and starchy Victorian people but in situations which convey a sense of warmth and humour.

Here is young ‘Little Billee’ with the taller Taffy and the Laird, distracted from studying Old Masters in the Louvre by the sight of a pretty woman art student. It contains humour at the expense both of the easily distracted young man, as well as something satirical in the ‘saintly’ gaze of the fetching student. The entire setting is gently sent-up.

Among the Old Masters

Among the Old Masters

The presence of illustrations on around half the pages makes it feel like a children’s book, half-reminds you of reading Winnie The Pooh or Professor Branestawm. For the first 50 or 60 pages it doesn’t feel at all serious, which means that when you do finally get to the more ghoulish and creepy scenes with Svengali, it has more the sense of pantomime (‘He’s behind you!’) than full-blooded horror.

Combined with the general student hi-jinks of the early scenes, the good-humoured illustrations also contribute to the book’s entertainment value.

Comedy

Trilby so drips with comedy that it is almost a comic novel. The opening setup describing the three British artists in their studios is hugely funny. Their inability to understand the French spoken around them is gently mocked. In fact throughout the book there is a continual stereotyping of British and French national characteristics which is comparable to the outrageous humour of ‘Allo ‘Allo.

The British are characterised by bluntness, philistinism, bad food, bad weather. In particular there is no end to the gentle raillery of the biggest of the three, big Beefy British warrior, Taffy the Yorkshireman or ‘the Man of Blood’.

A Yorkshireman, by-the-way, called Taffy (and also the Man of Blood, because he was supposed to be distantly related to a baronet) – was more energetically engaged. Bare-armed, and in his shirt and trousers, he was twirling a pair of Indian clubs round his head. His face was flushed, and he was perspiring freely and looked fierce. He was a very big young man, fair, with kind but choleric blue eyes, and the muscles of his brawny arm were strong as iron bands.

For three years he had borne her Majesty’s commission, and had been through the Crimean campaign without a scratch. He would have been one of the famous six hundred in the famous charge at Balaklava but for a sprained ankle (caught playing leapfrog in the trenches), which kept him in hospital on that momentous day. So that he lost his chance of glory or the grave, and this humiliating misadventure had sickened him of soldiering for life, and he never quite got over it. Then, feeling within himself an irresistible vocation for art, he had sold out; and here he was in Paris, hard at work, as we see.

He was good-looking, with straight features; but I regret to say that, besides his heavy plunger’s mustache, he wore an immense pair of drooping auburn whiskers, of the kind that used to be called Piccadilly weepers, and were afterwards affected by Mr. Sothern in Lord Dundreary. It was a fashion to do so then for such of our gilded youth as could afford the time (and the hair); the bigger and fairer the whiskers, the more beautiful was thought the youth! It seems incredible in these days, when even her Majesty’s household brigade go about with smooth cheeks and lips, like priests or play-actors.

He is the Roast Beef of Old England made flesh.

Taffy jumped out of his bath, such a towering figure of righteous Herculean wrath that Svengali was appalled, and fled.

And when the art students at Carrel’s studio attempt to carry out the traditional initiation ceremony on Taffy:

He took up the first rapin that came to hand, and, using him as a kind of club, he swung him about so freely and knocked down so many students and easels and drawing-boards with him, and made such a terrific rumpus, that the whole studio had to cry for ‘pax!’ Then he performed feats of strength of such a surprising kind that the memory of him remained in Carrel’s studio for years, and he became a legend, a tradition, a myth! It is now said (in what still remains of the Quartier Latin) that he was seven feet high, and used to juggle with the massier and model as with a pair of billiard balls, using only his left hand!

But then the entire bohemian world comes in for sustained ribbing. Du Maurier finds it all wonderfully entertaining and he invites you to, as well. Even when Svengali is at his most sinister he never loses the heavy German accent which made him such a figure of fun in the first half of the book and which remains right to the end, well, funny.

Du Maurier as intrusive narrator

Du Maurier intrudes a lot as the first person narrator, either directly or in the mocking persona of ‘the scribe’:

That is the best society, isn’t it? At all events, we are assured it used to be; but that must have been before the present scribe (a meek and somewhat innocent outsider) had been privileged to see it with his own little eye.

The present scribe is no snob. He is a respectably brought-up old Briton of the higher middle-class – at least, he flatters himself so.

And that is the question the present scribe is doing his little best to answer.

The present scribe was not present on that memorable occasion, and has written this inadequate and most incomplete description partly from hearsay and private information, partly from the reports in the contemporary newspapers.

And he also invokes the figure of ‘the reader’, an equally stereotyped source of humour, in the tradition of the 18th century comic novelists and of William Thackeray, so many of whose books du Maurier illustrated.

Of course the sympathetic reader will foresee…

Let the reader have no fear. I will not attempt to describe it.

And that, as the reader has guessed long ago, was big Taffy’s “history.”

Fundamentally this is a comic strategy, making the reader a collaborator in the essentially light-hearted and frivolous occupation of telling a story.

It is ironic that du Maurier was friends with Henry James. James was an avowed opponent of the ‘baggy monster’ novels of the great Victorians, stories told in monthly instalments which wandered all over the place and in which the author kept interrupting, introducing himself, making apologies and generally carrying on.

James spent his career developing infinitely more sophisticated narratives in which he explored the implications of different types of narrator. Trilby is a late-flowering example of everything James hated, more like an episode of the Chris Evans radio show than a work of art, with the effervescent presenter continually popping up and commenting on his own story, taking the mickey out of his readers, of Victorian society, of churchmen, of the French, of novels and of his own ability as a storyteller.

Prose constructed from humorous episodes

There’s another consequence of du Maurier’s origins as a creator of humorous cartoons, which is not so obvious but, I think, quietly ubiquitous.

This is to do with the structure of the humorous cartoons which du Maurier spent the majority of his working life devising.

As a rule these cartoons start with the incredibly realistic scene and setting. There is a wonderfully limned background and then the vividly delineated characters. It is only when you have taken in the substantial amount of visual information the artist is giving you, that the eye progresses to the bottom of the picture, there to discover the humorous caption.

These captions are almost always in dialogue form, in which someone says something and then someone else replies with something ironic or revealing.

Take du Maurier’s most famous cartoon (below). It is breakfast time in the household of a pompous vicar. He has invited a curate (a person who undertakes lowly duties in a parish) to attend. But in his epic condescension, the vicar has given the curate only one egg for breakfast, and a rather old one at that. The pompous vicar says:’ I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mrs Jones.’ To which the curate, unctuously keen not to offend his boss, replies: ‘Oh no, my lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!’

The effort expended in creating the illustration is phenomenal. The attention to detail! The characterisation of the balding vicar, with his rigid backbone and hook nose and pompous demeanour, wonderfully contrasted with the young curate’s sloping shoulders and eager-to-please neophyte expression.

But just as important to the overall effect are the faces of the two women sitting aloofly at table. And that’s before you explore the wealth of visual detail, all the cutlery on the table, the pictures on the wall, and the presence of both a butler and a maid in the background.

What I’m suggesting is that du Maurier took a technique he had perfected in his cartoons – a wealth of realistic detail treated solely in order to lead up to a boom-boom punchline – and wrote his prose novels the same way. Realistic, if gently mocking depiction, leading up to a boom-boom punchline.

Take the long passage in Part Two (the novel is in eight parts) describing Svengali’s background, and which includes this paragraph. It is long and thorough and detailed and realistic – and it leads up to quite a good joke. Just like one of du Maurier’s cartoons.

He was poor; for in spite of his talent he had not yet made his mark in Paris. His manners may have been accountable for this. He would either fawn or bully, and could be grossly impertinent. He had a kind of cynical humour, which was more offensive than amusing, and always laughed at the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. And his laughter was always derisive and full of malice. And his egotism and conceit were not to be borne; and then he was both tawdry and dirty in his person; more greasily, mattedly unkempt than even a really successful pianist has any right to be, even in the best society.

All these jokes lead in the same direction. Du Maurier mocks the pomposity and pieties of the mid-Victorian middle class.

The example above doesn’t so much mock pianists themselves, as satirise posh society’s fashionable expectations of what they should be, namely dishevelled in appearance in order to stress their ‘Romantic’ sensibility. He mocking the way this idea – that being greasy and dirty equates to sublime artistic talent – is most piously held among the most refined and precious parts of society.

Same goes for the excerpt below. The Victorians, or Victorian journalists, developed the hackneyed phrase and idea that a piece of contemporary art or literature should be chaste and pure enough so as not to risk ‘bringing a blush to the cheek‘ of a young person.

In part of his lengthy description of Trilby, du Maurier goes into an extended riff which gently mocks this whole idea, invoking the non-existent ‘young person’ and the piety of her supposed parents (specifically, the mother).

Trilby had all the virtues but one; but the virtue she lacked (the very one of all that plays the title-role, and gives its generic name to all the rest of that goodly company) was of such a kind that I have found it impossible so to tell her history as to make it quite fit and proper reading for the ubiquitous young person so dear to us all.

Most deeply to my regret. For I had fondly hoped it might one day be said of me that whatever my other literary shortcomings might be, I at least had never penned a line which a pure-minded young British mother might not read aloud to her little blue-eyed babe as it lies sucking its little bottle in its little bassinet.

Fate has willed it otherwise.

Would indeed that I could duly express poor Trilby’s one shortcoming in some not too familiar medium – in Latin or Greek, let us say – lest the young person (in this ubiquitousness of hers, for which Heaven be praised) should happen to pry into these pages when her mother is looking another way.

Latin and Greek are languages the young person should not be taught to understand – seeing that they are highly improper languages, deservedly dead – in which pagan bards who should have known better have sung the filthy loves of their gods and goddesses.

First of all du Maurier laments that his tale is not pure enough to avoid a blush rising to the cheeks of any virginal young person who looked at it. Then he mockingly laments his fate as the author of such a shameful story. Then he moves on to make a joke about how, on this strict criteria, we ought to ban Greek and Latin since they are crammed full of obscenity.

You could sum it up by saying that the spirit of Punch saturates the entire book.

Anglo-Saxon morality

Anyway, this mention of Anglo-Saxon morality brings us back to the plot of the book, which is not at all what I expected.

For the narrative follows neither Trilby nor Svengali. It turns out all to be about Little Billee, the naive and innocent youngest of the trio of British painters in Paris. He is arguably the most gifted and certainly the most sentimental, always ready – as du Maurier mockingly points out – with a tear poised at the edge of his eye, to burst into tears at the slightest provocation.

So it is that Little Billee falls in love with Trilby. When she is posing (dressed) for Taffy, the Laird and Little Billy, she keeps looking up and seeing his eye firmly focused on her face while he neglects his drawing. Once or twice he goes into studios of other artists, especially the training studio of Carrel and, finding Trilby posing nude in front of thirty or so male students, rushes back out, red-faced with shame and mortification.

Slowly Trilby realises that he has ‘fallen in love’ with her. And at the end of a Christmas Day when the other two Brits have staged an epic party for all their Bohemian friends (described with a Dickensian love of the food and with much mocking and ribbing of the hosts and guests) Little Billee takes Trilby to the top of the garret stairs and proposes to her. In fact this turns out to be the nineteenth time he has proposed to her (comedy!) and she, exhausted and worn down, says yes and then runs off in floods of tears.

Without realising it, Little Billee’s naive obsession proves the catastrophe or turning point of the action. For he writes a letter to his mother and sweet virginal sister back in provincial Devon announcing that he is to be married – but instead of joy, this prompts horror in Mrs Bagot (Billee’s real name) who promptly turns up in Paris with her teenage daughter and accompanied by her brother-in-law who is, rather inevitably, a man of the cloth, the Rev. Thomas Bagot.

They represent, in other words, a full frontal, massed assault of Victorian Values at their most strict and narrow and they proceed to interrogate Taffy about this ‘Trilby’. At which he is forced to concede that she is an uneducated model and cleaner. Can you imagine the response of the respectable Mrs Bagot and the reverend? Suffice to say, it is not favourable.

Then, at just the right moment, Trilby walks in (‘just as in a play’ as the author comments, tongue in cheek) and has a Grand Confrontation with her fiance’s mother. Long story short, Trilby a) presents herself with dignity and honour but b) agrees that she must not come between sweet Billee and his family. So she immediately decides break off the engagement and to leave Paris.

Little Billee discovers this, later in the day, from a letter she sends him – and promptly has a nervous breakdown. He has a complete collapse. He is confined to his bed, doctors tend him, it takes weeks to recover, during which Trilby packs her bags and, taking the younger brother she cares for, flees Paris to an unknown destination. When Billee is better, he is helped to a train and back to England, all the way back to the family home in Devon, where he is cared for by his sweet sister and loving mother.

Taffy and the Laird are left devastated that their happy-go-lucky little household has been broken up, and upset about Billee and worried about Trilby.

As a reader who had been very happily amused and entertained up to this point, I was absolutely furious with Mrs Bagot. She is concerned for her son’s future, for his career, for his place in society, and that he should marry a ‘respectable’ woman who will help him climb the ladder. Nonetheless, Billee’s selfish obsession and his mother’s narrow-mindedness bring the happy-go-lucky first half of the novel to a crashing end, and I couldn’t help resenting her for it.

The odd thing is that du Maurier, having spent 150 pages being amusingly indulgent of the student milieu, having reported their drunkenness, their laziness, their slovenliness, the cheap clothes, their outrageous jokes and the easy way they hang round with models who are ‘no better than they should be’ (it is very broadly hinted that Trilby has had a number of lovers) all of a sudden sits up and becomes pious and sentimental on us, himself.

He takes Mrs Bagot’s concerns seriously. When Trilby leaves the studio she glimpses virginal Miss Bagot in the cab waiting outside and is stricken with guilt at besmirching the name of such a family. Later that day, when Billee reads the goodbye letter from Trilby, he collapses in the arms of his mother and sister i.e. he is won over to their side, and du Maurier gives us some surprisingly pious paragraphs about family honour and so on.

Billee in the arms of his sister and mother

Billee in the arms of his sister and mother

When push comes to shove, du Maurier abandons his youthful high-spiritedness and tolerance – and sides with the enemy. It is almost unbelievable that this one event has such seismic consequences for all concerned, and strips the book of its innocence. From now on du Maurier struggles to recover the high-spirited humour of the first half. The reader, rather like Taffy and the Laird, feels a strong ‘sense of desolation and dull bereavement’.

The passage of time

Instead, five years pass. Billee, now William Bagot, continues painting and becomes a success, a name, an artistic ‘lion’, who is invited to salons by rich society ladies, who mixes with the highest society, is mentioned among the great up-and-coming artists and so on. But inside he is cold and empty. He is as polite as is required, but his heart is dead.

It was as though some part of his brain where his affections were seated had been paralyzed, while all the rest of it was as keen and as active as ever. He felt like some poor live bird or beast or reptile, a part of whose cerebrum (or cerebellum, or whatever it is) had been dug out by the vivisector for experimental purposes; and the strongest emotional feeling he seemed capable of was his anxiety and alarm about this curious symptom, and his concern as to whether he ought to mention it or not.

Du Maurier takes us on Billee’s journeys into upper-class society and, more interestingly, for a page or two, out to the East End where he also becomes well known and takes part in evening sing-songs in squalid taverns… an echo of Dorian Gray’s adventures out East.

Du Maurier says it was the breadth of Billee’s human sympathies which underpinned the warmth and humanity of his art. Which is fine, but there was no such painter as William Bagot. And also, throughout the extensive and detailed sections on art, I can’t help thinking that British art of this period grew steadily more isolated from all the trends on the Continent, almost completely oblivious to Impressionism and the myriad types of post-Impressionism, continuing with ever-more dreamy depictions of sad-eyed women by Edward Burne-Jones or the stately, half-naked ladies of ancient Rome by Frederick Leighton, Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Wonderful in their way, but eventually destined to hit the brick wall of European Modern Art and evaporate overnight.

The book contains very long passages about art, about types and theories of mid-Victorian art, about the difference between superficial and profound art, much humour at the expense of the Laird’s endless attempts to paint toreadors accurately (and a typical joke about the fact that, once he actually visits Spain and starts to paint toreadors from life, his paintings immediately stop selling).

But to a post-modern reader it all seems pre-historic. We are told that one of Billee’s most successful paintings is of a sow in a sty being suckled by lots of little pink piglets, handled with:

An ineffable charm of poetry and refinement, of pathos and sympathy and delicate humour combined, an incomparable ease and grace and felicity of workmanship.

This sounds like the sickly sweet animal paintings of Edwin Landseer, and reminds me of the depiction of the artist Basil Hallward in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) or Rudyard Kipling’s portrayal of the artist Dick Heldar in The Light That Failed (1891). In none of these three books is there a glimmer of the tsunami of modernism which is about to completely revolutionise the very idea of what art is.

Anyway, rather surprisingly du Maurier describes himself as being present in the story – telling us that he was introduced to the Laird and Taffy when Little Billee brought them to a grand party at the house of millionaire Sir Louis Cornely.

And it is here that they hear, from the lips of a great classical singer, of the spreading reputation of La Svengali, the most beautiful woman singer in the world. This gives rise to discussion among the posh chaps present who have seen the famed singer at various venues around Europe, while Billee, Taffy and the Laird listen in amazement, wondering if it can possibly be the same Svengali they knew all those years ago back in Paris.

Darwinism

The novel takes us up to page 200 with a lengthy passage describing Billee’s return from London, where he had attended this party, back to his family in Devon. His mother has ambitions to marry him to Alice, daughter of the local vicar. She is, indeed, a noble, virtuous, shy, well-mannered and devout young lady, and deeply in love with Billee. Billee goes and sits by the sea, with Alice’s own dog, Trey sitting at his feet (in order to give the whole scene a sentimental resonance. Think of Landseer’s sentimental dog portraits.)

There's No Place Like Home (1842) by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

There’s No Place Like Home (1842) by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

Billee would like to please Alice, his mother and his sister, and is sure he could make the lady a good and faithful husband except for one tiny detail… He is an atheist. He is reading On the Origin of Species for the third time and it has demolished his belief in a Christian God. If there is a God, how could he be so cruel and vengeful, flooding the earth, punishing unbelievers, conceiving of Hell?

To round out this scene, as Billee is walking back towards the village, he bumps into Alice’s father, the vicar. The vicar starts questioning Billee about his faith, which church in London he attends and so on, to which Billee has to stumblingly admit that he has no faith and attends no church. By the end of the walk the pair are no longer on speaking terms, and Billee’s engagement to Alice is broken off.

Du Maurier being the satirist that he is, then gives a page-long passage describing the way that this redoubtable pillar of the church (the vicar) in later life came into a small fortune due to acquiring shares in a rising company, and found that the financial independence this gave him allowed him to read widely and, like Billee, to lose his faith. He ends up becoming a Positivist (i.e. a believer in science not religion as the source of truth). The vicar argues with his bishop, loses his post and moves to London where he becomes an atheist lecturer.

So far, so satirical. His daughter, on the other hand, remains sweet and virginal and a devout Anglican. This little homily seems to me to epitomise the split-mind of Victorian men – happy to mock and satirise his fellow middle class peers – but coming over all pious and sentimental at the sight of a young English lady.

Thus du Maurier was quite relaxed and open about the ‘affairs’ of the many models he described in the French scenes – of Svengali’s one-time girlfriend ‘Mimi la Salope’, and of Trilby herself. But as soon as an English lady – Mrs Bagot – and even more, an English virgin – saintly young Miss Bagot – enter the narrative, all open-minded, relaxed tolerance of permissive living vanishes, and the narrative hits a cold hard wall.

As far as I can tell, for the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th, this was a common phenomenon. Young, and not so young, men went over to Paris to have ‘adventures’ i.e. casual sex, and then came back to England to act as stern, upright defenders of British sexual morality.

Fake context

You know the movie Forrest Gump where Gump is made to appear at various key moments of history, for example receiving a war medal from President Johnson, the inclusion of real historical events and personages designed to give verisimilitude to the story.

Same here. Du Maurier invokes a number of figures from the worlds of art and music and literature to lend reality to his tale. Regarding Billee’s success as an artist, du Maurier intrudes into the narrative to ask us whether we remember the first great success of Billee’s painting – ‘The Moon-Dial’ – or the great sale at Sotheby’s where his painting fetched a record price? He makes this effort in order to persuade us that Billee is one of the great contemporary British painters (although we all know that he doesn’t exist).

Similarly, after Trilby’s great appearance singing in Paris, du Maurier claims his fictitious character was reviewed by the entirely real figures of Berlioz (who, he says, wrote no fewer than twelve articles about La Svengali) and Théophile Gautier, who is made to write her a poem.

Back to Trilby

These digressions take up about 50 pages of this 300-page book. Only now do we touch back down five more years after the previous events (the vicar and so on).

Little Billee, Taffy and the Laird reunite to go to Paris to see a performance of Trilby under the management of Svengali. First they take a stroll around all their haunts – which gives du Maurier chance to describe how Paris changed in the 1860s due to Baron Haussmann’s famous boulevard-building programme.

They also bump into a raft of former acquaintances from their student days, most of whom have abandoned art. One of the liveliest of them, Dodor, is now working as shop supervisor in a haberdasher’s store and is engaged to the owner’s daughter. Another, l’Zouzou, a soldier who was, to their surprise, related to a grand ducal family, they meet on an outing to the Bois de Boulogne, where he is entertaining his bride-to-be, a very ugly American lady named Miss Lavinia Hunks, and her incredibly wealthy mother. This is all the opportunity for much knowing satire and mockery.  Such is life. Sic transit gloria mundi, and other truisms.

Our trio then attend the Paris premiere of Trilby’s singing, which du Maurier describes in pages of detail. The humble milk girl they’d known back in the day who could barely hold a note is now the possessor of the greatest voice the world has ever heard. (In a stroke of creative inspiration du Maurier has her sing mostly cheap trite street songs and nursery rhymes, but with such thrilling passion and expression that there is 15 minutes of standing ovation at the end of her brief concert.)

They go away stunned at the impact her performance has on them. Above all, for the central protagonist of the novel, Little Billee, it seems to unblock the cold channels of his heart. Once again he feels the thrill of passion and is swept up with genuine love for his friends and burning jealousy for the man Trilby has married, no other than her mentor, the tall, swarthy, oleaginous Svengali.

Next day Little Billee pops down to the post office to write and send a letter to his dear mama. Who should be there but Svengali, with a clutch of letters. Svengali notices our hero:

looking small and weak and flurried, and apparently alone; and being an Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew, he had not been able to resist the temptation of spitting in his face, since he must not throttle him to death.

That ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ is on the face of it, heart-stoppingly offensive and anti-Semitic. You have to remember that a) plenty of other characters are given the same kind of excessive description based on national stereotypes, especially big strong Anglo-Saxon Taffy – and b) that du Maurier’s style delights in hyperbole and exaggeration and c) that it creates humour by concatenated repetition. So, for example:

As for Trilby, G—, to whom she sat for his Phryne, once told me that the sight of her thus was a thing to melt Sir Galahad, and sober Silenus, and chasten Jove himself – a thing to Quixotize a modern French masher!

Galahad, Silenus, Jove and Don Quixote are all dragged into a short sentence (which also makes a throwaway generalisation about the French) in a classic example of du Maurier’s technique of comic hyperbole, of overdoing it for comic effect.

Or sentimental hyperbole, as when Svengali’s sidekick Gecko describes his devotion to sweet Trilby:

‘Well, that was Trilby, your Trilby! That was my Trilby too – and I loved her as one loves an only love, an only sister, an only child – a gentle martyr on earth, a blessed saint in heaven!’

That’s five descriptive phrases in a row, a glut of descriptors, which are piled up like this in order to satirise the speaker.

Indeed, all the characters, in their dialogue, and the narrator in his prose, are given to overemphasis and repetition. It’s part of what makes the whole thing feel like a Victorian play, crammed with moments of comedy, sentiment, horror and shock by turns.

So I think the purpose of that ‘Hebrew’ sentence is comic rather than insulting. On some level, now lost to us, the unnecessary repetition of ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ was meant to be humorous. As that last clause – ‘since he couldn’t throttle him to death’ – is also typical of the mocking exaggeration du Maurier applies to all his characters.

Anyway, Little Billee fights back and isn’t getting anywhere, when Taffy, who has witnessed the whole episode, steps up to Svengali who, recognising him, cowers in terror. Tall, strong, manly, Anglo-Saxon Taffy takes ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ Svengali by the nose and wags his head from side to side before delivering a stinging open-handed slap. While the manager of the hotel calls for the police, Svengali runs off, and doesn’t bring any charges.

Taffy gives Svengali what for

Taffy gives Svengali what for

This all happens in Paris. Then our trio return to England and to their separate pursuits. Little Billee goes down to Devon again, this time accompanied by Taffy, who turns out to be have connections with the vicar and with the local gentry, and gets taken up by them, the two artists generally making a very favourable impression on the local society and peasants.

Once they have all celebrated a quiet Christmas, Billee and Taffy return to London in order to see Trilby’s London debut. They don’t know that that very afternoon Svengali had been in a brawl with his loyal and devoted lieutenant, Gecko.

Back in those bohemian Sunday afternoon sessions, Gecko had often played violin for Svengali and, as Trilby’s singing career took off, Gecko had continued to be lead violin in the orchestra, whose arrangements Svengali wrote himself.

But all through those years Gecko had grown more and more devoted to Trilby. The encounter with Billee and Taffy had put Svengali on edge and tetchy. Several times during the afternoon’s rehearsals he had criticised Trilby’s singing and, finally, rapped her over the knuckles with his baton.

At which Gecko snapped and leaped at him, stabbing Svengali with a shallow cut on the neck. Gecko is manhandled away, doctors are called who patch up Svengali’s throat but tell him on no account must he conduct this evening in case the wound bursts again.

So that evening, at the grand theatre in London, where are assembled the cream of high society and stretching up away into the gods, everyone who is anyone, Trilby goes to sing with Svengali, for the first time, not conducting, but in a box, though still placed so he can see her.

But when the band strikes up, and the conductor turns to Trilby, the statuesque woman in the expensive ballgown appears dazed and confused. ‘What am I doing here?’ she asks. ‘What do you mean, sing?’ The conductor begs and implores her to perform and so she eventually reluctantly gives in and – gives vent to the tuneless, cracked voice the bohemians remember from all those years earlier.

The shocked audience starts booing. Trilby bursts into tears and is hustled off the stage. It is discovered that Svengali is dead. He died of heart failure in his box and had been sitting there with a rictus grin on his face and black demonic eyes empty of life.

Our heroes – the Laird, Taffy and Billee – swarm backstage and, when Trilby obviously recognises them, the show’s impresario allows them to take her home with them.

They put her up in Billee’s Fitzroy Square rooms. And here the truth comes out. She remembers nothing about the previous five years. Her memory is that she first fled Paris to escape Billee – lived miserably in the countryside for a while then,after her kid brother died, came back to Paris, suicidally depressed and unable to sleep, and came across Svengali somewhere. And he helped her to sleep. And he adored and worshipped her. And they seemed to travel around a lot and she was often tired. That’s all she can remember.

When they explain to her that she is one of the most famous women in Europe, that she is the most famous singer in the world, she laughs and puts them off and says, ‘Get away, nonsense, who are you trying to kid?’ She has no memory at all of her world-conquering career. For the entire time she has been the puppet of Svengali, the master musician and hypnotist.

And now Trilby is drained and broken. Only 23 she looks 30, her skin white and translucent. For the last thirty pages of the book she wastes away and dies. She is surrounded by the three chaps and her maid, and regularly called on by the best doctors money can buy, but they can do nothing.

Du Maurier wrings every last drop of emotion from the situation, making Dickens’s description of the death of Little Nell look like a newsflash. First he gets Mrs Bagot to come all the way from Devon and, upon seeing how nobly Trilby is dying, to realise what a foolish woman she has been and to beg Trilby to forgive her and Trilby begs Mrs B to forgive her and both women collapse in tears – as does the gentle reader.

Mrs B and Trilby have a long conversation about God, death and forgiveness, in which Trilby reveals that the worst thing she ever did in her life was go off for a carriage ride with some admirers and leave her five-year-old brother crying at home. Mrs Bagot cries. Trilby cries. The reader cries.

Then, right at the end, from out of nowhere a packing case is delivered and Trilby unwraps it to discover a fine photographic portrait of Svengali in his Hungarian musicians outfit, staring straight out of the photo. Trilby is lying on a couch, places it on her feet, holding it at full length and then… a strange change comes over her. Svengali’s intense black eyes hypnotise her one last time, from beyond the grave, and she sings the Chopin Impromptu in A flat which was her signature piece, sounds of supernatural beauty which bestil the room and move the listeners to tears.

Then she is gone. Doctors called. Death confirmed. Not a dry eye in the house.

The death of Trilby

The death of Trilby

Postscript

Cut to twenty years later at the Grand Hotel on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris where Svengali had spat at Billee and Taffy pulled his nose and slapped him.

Taffy is now married to Little Billee’s sister, but alas Little Billee is dead. Trilby’s dying words were ‘Svengali, Svengali, Svengali’ and this prompts the sensitive Billee to have a recurrence of the brain fever which had afflicted him all those years earlier. He sickens, wastes and dies, an ‘early death, his manly, calm, and most beautiful surrender.’

Well, anyway, Taffy and wife have come back to Paris sometime in the 1880s. Once again du Maurier shows off his knowledge of the city as he has the happy couple tour round all his old haunts. But the purpose of this final section is that he takes Mrs Taffy to the theatre and notices, down in the orchestra pit, a grey-haired violinist who looks like Gecko, Svengali’s old assistant.

It is Gecko and Taffy invites him out for a meal. And now, for the first time, we hear the full story and Gecko clarifies, if we had any doubt, that there were two Trilbies: the sweet innocent natural girl – and then the robotic hypnotised singing machine which Svengali and he spent three long years hypnotising and training to sing note by note.

Not only notes but inflections, volume, stress, every element of singing was drilled into her by the painstaking Svengali. Once again Gecko emphasises that Svengali was a musical genius, and had a crystal clear idea of what perfect singing should be, but which most humans fell short of.

But because he exercised complete control over Trilby, he was able to programme her like a robot; and, eventually, after the long years training, control her with the slightest movement of his eyes or his baton.

So these final pages make explicit the theme of the double, the doppelgänger, and suddenly I’m thinking of Jeckyll and Hyde, and the Picture of Dorian Gray and all those Sherlock Holmes stories which are based on people living double lives, the whole late-Victorian fascination with two-sidedness. Trilby the sweet innocent / Trilby the robot.

Gecko says it was horrible to see Trilby turned into an automaton; only on a few occasions in all that time was she truly herself. He leans his head on his arms and weeps. Truly this is not a happy book. Taffy orders Gecko a cab and pours him into it. Then Mr and Mrs Taffy stroll home through the deserted streets of Paris, looking forward to going back to England, back to their quiet little country home and their happy family.

For all its jaunty humour and carefully calibrated irreverence, Trilby ends with a hymn to the pieties of home and family every bit as whole hearted as Tennyson’s great mid-Victorian poem, In Memoriam. It’s final words are characteristically in French, but the sentiment is piously British and Victorian.

Où peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de ta famille?’

Anti-Semitism

Quite obviously the novel brings together two blatant, popular and enduring stereotypes or topoi: the pure, upstanding, virginal white English woman in jeopardy from a dark, swarthy, threatening foreigner from the East. These are so obvious, and have been written about and criticised so often, that I can’t think of much to add except for a few thoughts about Svengali.

The most striking thing about the Jewish characterisation of Svengali is how breath-takingly in-your-face it is.

Trilby went to see him in his garret, and he played to her, and leered and ogled, and flashed his bold, black, beady Jew’s eyes into hers, and she straightway mentally prostrated herself in reverence and adoration before this dazzling specimen of her race. So that her sordid, mercenary little gutter-draggled soul was filled with the sight and the sound of him, as of a lordly, godlike, shawm-playing, cymbal-banging hero and prophet of the Lord God of Israel – David and Saul in one!

Not only Svengali is described in anti-Semitic terms. His first attempt to hypnotise someone is:

Mimi la Salope… a dirty, drabby little dolly-mop of a Jewess, a model for the figure.

Du Maurier notes that one of the contemporary music scene’s greatest singers is of Spanish or Sephardi Jewish ancestry:

For Glorioli – the biggest, handsomest, and most distinguished-looking Jew that ever was – one of the Sephardim (one of the Seraphim!) – hailed from Spain, where he was junior partner in the great firm of Moralés, Peralés, Gonzalés & Glorioli, wine-merchants, Malaga. He travelled for his own firm; his wine was good, and he sold much of it in England. But his voice would bring him far more gold in the month he spent here; for his wines have been equalled – even surpassed – but there was no voice like his anywhere in the world, and no more finished singer.

And, surprisingly, the protagonist of the story, Little Billee, is described as having a tincture of Jewish blood in him:

In his [Little Billee’s] winning and handsome face there was just a faint suggestion of some possible very remote Jewish ancestor – just a tinge of that strong, sturdy, irrepressible, indomitable, indelible blood which is of such priceless value in diluted homœopathic doses, like the dry white Spanish wine called montijo, which is not meant to be taken pure; but without a judicious admixture of which no sherry can go round the world and keep its flavour intact; or like the famous bull-dog strain, which is not beautiful in itself; and yet just for lacking a little of the same no greyhound can ever hope to be a champion.

As usual, when you read these kinds of comment in context you realise that they are more complex and multiform than the term ‘anti-Semitic’ (or ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’) allow. They are just selected examples from a spectrum of comments based on ideas of racial characteristics which we have, by and large, abandoned.

In fact these four examples demonstrate how du Maurier applied racial stereotypes toall his characters, and invoked a wide range of ‘types’. Svengali has all the threatening stereotypes du Maurier can muster heaped on him but Mimi is, by contrast, a hapless victim. Glorioli is characterised as not an Eastern  but a Spanish Jew, and therefore is described in different terms from the other two.

And this last paragraph, where he says a drop of Jewish ‘blood’ enhances character doesn’t appear to be an insult but a roundabout form of praise of Jews – albeit based on ideas of ‘race’ or ‘blood’ which we now find abhorrent.

Also, anyone angered or horrified by the cruder descriptions of Svengali must also bear in mind that du Maurier also makes him tall and powerful. He is a big threatening man. And credit is repeatedly given to his unquestioned musical genius. Svengali plays the piano to concert level and is credited with arranging the music for Trilby to sing with great taste and precision.

And, after all, we should remember that Svengali is invited to the heroes’ Sunday afternoon parties. Invited, not banned. Du Maurier is interested in creating a rounded, if objectionable, character. He is a novelist, not a Nazi.

Anyway, this spectrum of opinion about Jews is itself only part of the broader spectrum which includes comments about all manner of races – the French ‘race’ and character is pored over at length, the Americans come in for some ripe satire, at least half the negative characterisation of Svengali derives not from his Jewishness, but from the (arguably more damning) fact that he is German.

He could be very funny, Svengali, though he was German, poor dear!

Let alone the countless mocking descriptions of all aspects of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ character, some fond, some satirical, some surprisingly patriotic, some openly scathing (about the narrow philistinism of the English bourgeoisie).

The point is that the entire book comes from an completely different way of looking at human nature – in terms of the intrinsic values of identifiable categories called ‘races’ – which tried, throughout the 19th century, to make sense of the diversity of human beings by grouping them into categories.

All ages do this. Our own age – as I’m reminded every time I open a newspaper or turn on the radio – enthusiastically groups humans into categories according to present-day concerns, namely ‘women’ (who all and everywhere need our help), ‘people of colour’ (who need to be more represented in culture and organisations) and Muslims (who are the victims of Islamophobia). Against them are lined up racists, sexists and Islamophobes.

These are just the same kind of sweeping generalisations but, because they belong to our time, we take them for granted – just as much as du Mauritier’s readers accepted stereotypes about the English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, Germans and Jews.

Reading du Maurier’s racial generalisations doesn’t offend me. It feels as remote from real life as reading the medieval Catholic literature which damned Jews and Muslims to an eternity in Hell. (There is hair-raisingly anti-Semitic content in Dante, who also condemned the Prophet Mohammed to a special place in Hell.)

None of that offends me. It is of anthropological and historical interest. I am interested in the cultural system these old categories embodied and elaborated, and the light it sheds on how previous societies created and structured their values. It’s no different from reading contemporary journalism which blames ‘gammons’ for Brexit and ‘angry white men’ for Trump. A lot less harmful because it is so obviously from a vanished era, and it is done with sympathy and humour.

I’m not trying to let du Maurier off the hook. There is a virulence and vehemence about the characterisation of Svengali which I can easily imagine being very offensive to any Jew and indeed any progressive liberal reading it these days.

But on the other hand, he is the baddy. Baddies, in boy adventure stories like this, always are laden with all the negative qualities the writer can muster.They generally are cruel, sadistic bullies, often from the East (reflect on the villains in the James Bond books; plenty of eastern stereotypes, not least about Russia).

Every age tries to make sense of the world by creating stereotyped categories of human beings to populate it with, those on ‘our’ side and those who are ‘against’ us, and then proceeds to vilify and insult those opponents. To imagine that our own society doesn’t do just the same is naive.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction from the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

A Brief History of Superheroes by Brian J. Robb (2014)

Robb has previously written biographies of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. This volume is one of a series titled ‘A brief guide to [or A history of] …’ which includes guides to Stephen King, ghost-hunting, the Roman Empire, Star Wars and any other topics they thought would sell. Written for a popular audience, then.

No illustrations

At 340 pages, including notes and index, it’s quite a long book, but its most obvious feature is that there are no illustrations, none, nada, zip – which is a big drawback seeing as comic books are a largely visual medium. When it gives descriptions of the early artwork for Superman, or how Batman’s look was refined over time, or the visual makeover of many comic book heroes in the 1960s, the reader is crying out for illustrations to show what he’s talking about. But you have to turn to the internet to do your own research…

So the book is solely prose, made up of thumbnail profiles of the writers, artists and publishers who created comic book superheroes, along with a dense account of how they developed and evolved over time.

Superman 1938

Comic Superhero history starts in May 1938 when Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1. In other words, Superman is 80 years old this year, in fact this month!

He was the creation of two schoolfriends from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Everything before this date is the pre-history of superhero comics; everything afterwards is the complex unfolding of superhero comic history.

Cultural forebears of superheroes

The prehistory is entertaining because Robb (like many others writing on the subject) feels compelled to give a brisk popular history of the wide-ranging role of ‘the hero’ in myth, legend, history and folklore (the word ‘hero’ is itself of Greek derivation).

Thus a man gifted with magic powers to protect his people can be made to include Moses and Aaron and the Biblical hero Samson. It can include the pantheon of Greek gods and mortal heroes like Heracles, Perseus and Theseus. Robb quotes Joseph Campbell on the importance of ‘the Journey’ in numerous ancient stories about heroes, and references the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and the Mahabharata as cultural forebears of Batman and Robin. This is both fun and a little pompous.

Folklore forebears of superheroes

More persuasive is the notion of a lineage from more folklore elements of ‘the hero’ through to the popular fictions of the late 19th century. Robin Hood and Dick Turpin are two prime examples. Robin Hood is not only an epitome of schoolboy morality (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) but he wears an early version of the superhero costume: tights and a distinctive cap, all in bright primary colours (Lincoln green with some red thrown in). Dick Turpin concealed his face behind a neckerchief and a pulled-down hat, and wore a cloak or cape.

Pop culture forebears of superheroes

But in fact, historians have no idea what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin wore. The images I’ve described above derive from movies, and it is Hollywood which is probably the prime factor in the origin of the superhero look.

Superheroes didn’t derive from scholarly study of ancient mythology and folklore: they came out of the extraordinary rich, bubbling swamp of popular and pulp culture of the 1920s. If Jerry and Joe knew about Sherlock Holmes or the Scarlet Pimpernel it wasn’t from reading the books about them (Sherlock had debuted in 1887, the Pimpernel in 1905). It was from paying a few cents to sit in the cheap seats of the local movie house, chomping on popcorn and watching the adventure films of a movie star like Douglas Fairbanks, who starred in a movie about Zorro (created 1919, turned into a movie in 1920), Robin Hood (1922) or the Black Pirate (1926).

In a sense superheroes began in the movies before, in our time, returning to the movies.

Like other historians of the subject, Robb pays special attention to characters with dual identities, a standard feature of most comic book superheroes – the classic example being Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

(Although if you stop and think about it for a moment, a dual identity is a basic element of almost all detective, spy and crime fiction of the kind that was growing more and more popular at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Many thousands of detective stories take their time working up to the grand ‘reveal’ of the ‘true identity’ of the criminal, of the dope dealer or jewel thief or murderer etc caught by Sherlock Holmes or any one of the hundreds of copycat detectives invented in the 1890s and 1900s. (See my review of The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes a collection of stories about fictional detectives inspired by Holmes.) Spy stories, are by their very nature, about people concealing their true task and intentions.

Anyway, Robb’s book becomes really interesting when it gets to the extraordinarily dense jungle of popular culture which flowered in the 1890s and then just got denser and denser in the decades that followed, proliferating in penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, pulp magazines, newspaper supplements and then in the new format of moving pictures and related magazines and merchandising.

Robb dwells on two Edwardian doers of good deeds who hid their true identity:

  • the Scarlet Pimpernel (real name Sir Percy Blakeney) who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine, leaving a calling card with a picture of the pimpernel flower
  • Zorro, who wears a black face mask and cape, protects the poor of California, and leaves a distinctive ‘Z’ carved into various objects with his stylish swordplay

Just as important for a superhero is the fiendish villain, and these were prefigured by – among many – Holmes’s opponent, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, Professor Moriarty, or the diabolical criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (1913).

British hero fiction included John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay who debuted in 1915, followed by the more thuggish Bulldog Drummond, who appeared in 1920. Lesley Charteris’s crime-fighting hero, the Saint, first appeared in 1928. Biggles the heroic fighter pilot first appeared in 1932. All these heroes were morally unambiguous fighters against Crime and Fiendish Plots.

In America the spread of radio gave rise to a florid variety of heroic fighters against crime: the Shadow, a masked crime-fighting vigilante (1930), the Spider (1933) and Doc Savage (1933), a kind of ‘peak human’, reared to have perfect abilities, who had a base in mid-town Manhattan and a rich armoury of state-of-the-art gadgets, funded by money from a secret Mayan goldmine, to help him fight crime.

In 1936 the Green Hornet, another crime-fighting, masked vigilante was created specially for radio. Also in 1936 appeared The Phantom, who wore a skin-tight bodysuit and a ‘domino’ eye-mask to fight crime.

Off in another part of the rich jungle of popular and pulp culture which exploded around the time of the Great War, was the more unrestrained world of science fiction and fantasy. Important forebears were John Carter of Mars (1912) and Tarzan (1912), both created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Francis Nowlan’s hero Buck Rogers (1928) and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (1932), soon joined by Alex Raymond’s newspaper strip hero Flash Gordon (1934).

What these numerous figures have in common is that they are modern, pulp versions of ‘the hero’, who always outwit their fiendish opponents after a string of exciting adventures, and that they appear in series or serials: once invented they can appear in almost limitless numbers of adventures (as Conan Doyle, who came to hate his invention, Sherlock Holmes, knew all too well).

By now you might share the feeling I had that the first appearance of Superman in 1938 was maybe not quite the dazzling innovation I thought it was; in fact reading about this proliferation of heroes might make you wonder why it took quite so long to come up with what seems to be the logical conclusion of all these trends.

Robb tells the story of how two teenagers from Cleveland conceived the idea, developed it over many years, were repeatedly rejected by newspapers and comic publishers, and were forced to work on other characters and projects, until finally given their big break in 1938.

I found the two most interesting things about Superman were:

1. His descent not so much from all these detectives and crime fighters, but from the Victorian circus strongman. These popular performers generally wore tights and pants, a figure-hugging suit to highlight their musculature which was strapped in with an impressive belt, and often stylised boots.

Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the 'superhero look'

A Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the ‘superhero look’

2. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the exclusive rights to their then-new character, Superman to DC (short for Detective Comics) Publishing for just $130 (split between the two of them). Superman was an instant hit and not only went on to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the publisher and the film company that eventually bought it, but to inspire an entire genre of superhero fiction across all media.

As they watched this happen Siegel and Shuster continued to work as a comic book writer and illustrator, respectively, but made repeated attempts to sue for a share of the vast revenue generated by their invention. In fact their heirs are still locked in litigation with DC’s parent company, Time Warner, to this day.

The development of the comic strip

Robb gives a brief and fascinating recap of how the comic strip itself evolved. As far back as the record stretches, human beings have always told stories. Bas-relief carvings on Greek and Indian temples capture moments from religious or legendary narratives. (Robb doesn’t mention it but I’d have thought the 12 Stations of the Cross which appear in tens of thousands of Catholic churches are an early example of a story told through snapshots of key moments.) He does mention the use of ‘scroll speech’ in medieval and Renaissance art work, where a scroll unfolds from a figure’s mouth, containing their speech (something I’m familiar with from my readings of the British Civil Wars).

17th century cartoon with speech scroll

17th century Civil War cartoon with speech scroll

Robb says the next step forward was marked by the popular engravings of the 18th century artist William Hogarth, famous for the series of pictures which depict The Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress. These popular engravings showed the decline of the eponymous rake and harlot with plenty of humorous detail. They gave rise to similar pictorial sequences by Rodolphe Töpfler later in the century, and by the Victorian artist Gustave Doré, among others. Throughout the 19th century Punch in Britain and similar magazines across the Continent used cartoons, often with speech captions, to convey narratives with punch lines.

Capitalist competition creates comics

But all these sometimes dubious historical antecedents are there simply to pave the way for the real start of popular comic books which, as with most things American, came out of ferocious competition to make money.

Starting in 1887 a newspaper war was waged between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empires. One among many fronts in this war was the innovation of cartoon strips with catchy titles and populist characters. In 1892 The Little Bears was created by Jimmy Swinnerton for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, probably the first cartoon strip anywhere which featured regularly recurring characters.

In 1895 Pulitzer debuted a strip titled The Yellow Kid for his paper The New York World, drawn by Richard Felton Outcault, which pioneered the use of speech text to indicate dialogue. In 1897 the paper added a supplement featuring just Outcault’s strips and expanding it to describe an array of characters from the yellow kid’s neighbourhood – titled McFadden’s Row of Flats – and a new term, ‘comic book’, was invented to describe it.

As a direct response to all this, Hearst’s New York Journal commissioned their own strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks. Dirks developed Outcault’s device of speech balloons and invented the ‘thought balloon’, indicated by a series of bubbles leading up to the text balloon itself. The same year saw the first use of colour printing (as the name, The Yellow Kid, indicates).

These kind of narrative cartoons featuring recurring characters proved tremendously popular (nicer, after all, than reading the depressing news) and spread like wildfire to every other newspaper which could find a decent illustrator. By 1912 Hearst was devoting an entire page of the New York Daily Journal to comic strips, a feature which became known as the ‘funny pages’, the ‘funny papers’, or simply ‘the funnies’.

It was quickly realised that the strips which appeared during the week could be repackaged into a bumper weekend supplement. Rather than broadsheet size, it made financial and practical sense to publish them in magazine format, which was easier for readers to handle and read. The comic book was born.

Superhero history

So much for the multi-stranded prehistory of the comic superhero.

The publication of Superman in 1938 transformed the landscape, inventing a whole new genre of superhero. From this point onwards Robb’s book becomes a dense and fascinating account of how numerous newspapers and publishers sought to cash in on the fad by creating their own superheroes. He describes the complicated evolution of the two publishing houses which would eventually become known as Marvel and DC, and reading his book gives you a good sense of the difference between them.

Basically, DC owned Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) who spawned hundreds of imitators but managed to remain ahead of the pack. Through the war years the superheroes performed their patriotic duty with a strong sideline in film noir-style violence against all manner of crime or fantasy baddies.

In the 1950s there was a moral backlash against comics, with a nationwide panic in America that they were one of many influences turning teenagers into ‘juvenile delinquents’. This resulted in 1954 in the establishment of The Comics Code Authority (CCA) which forced comic books to abandon much violence and all references to drugs and sex, tending to replace hard 1940s stories with softer, romance elements.

Marvel began existence in 1939 as ‘Timely Publications’, and by the early 1950s was generally known as Atlas Comics. The Marvel branding began 1961 with a rack of superhero titles created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others. Robb describes the period 1961-62 as a kind of annus mirabilis, during which Lee oversaw the creation of The Fantastic Four and their nemesis Dr Doom (November 1961), Ant-Man (January 1962), the Incredible Hulk (May 1962), Spider-Man (August 1962), the Mighty Thor (August 1962), Iron Man (March 1963), the Avengers (September 1963) and the X-men (1963).

Even if you think comic books are rubbish, this is by any measure still an incredible outpouring of creativity, the creation of characters which would go on to have multi-billion dollar futures in popular culture.

Although other artists and writers were involved, Stan Lee is commonly associated with this outburst of imagination and the key element of it seems to have been his conviction that superheroes must be flawed – realistic characters who often struggle with their own superpowers. Thus Spider-Man is deeply confused about how to use his skills, the X-Men bicker amongst themselves, the Fantastic Four are riven by rivalries, and the Hulk considers committing suicide he is so upset by the scientific accident which has turned him into a monster.

It was this troubled psychology which set them completely apart from DC’s untroubled hero Superman and made them feel more contemporary than their older cousins (although, admittedly, DC’s Batman is a much darker creation).

In a second nod to contemporary concerns, Lee’s Marvel creations were nearly all connected to contemporary paranoia about the atom bomb and atomic energy. It is radioactivity which messes up the DNA of almost all these superheroes, a paranoia about the potentially damaging impact of modern science which remains relevant right down to the present day.

It is this more ‘modern’ way of conceiving superhero psychology, as well as the more modern concerns about science, which possibly account for the relative success of the Marvel characters in the movies, and the rather staid, static quality of the DC movies.

The difference between the Superman era and the Fantastic Four era is recognised by comic book historians who have divided the past eighty years into a series of ‘ages’.

The golden age of comic books was from 1938 to about 1950, when waning interest in superheroes was capped by the baleful influence of the Comics Code Authority.

The silver age of comic books is dated from DC Comics’ new character Flash, introduced in Showcase #4 in October 1956. This led up to the Marvel outburst in the early 1960s which spawned a great sprawling cast not only of heroes but of baddies and enemies. This era also another important Marvel innovation, which was introducing one set of heroes into the adventures or ‘universe’ of another set. As the 1960s progressed, the interactions of heroes from different narratives became not only more complex in itself, but led to the notion of parallel worlds in which the various characters might have different superpowers, fight each other and even die.

The bronze age of comic books runs from about 1970 to 1985. The bright, Pop optimism of the 1960s turned into a nitty-gritty concern with social ‘issues’, such as the environment, feminism, racism and drugs, along with more realistic depictions of alcoholism, addiction, urban decay and so on.

Alongside the two giants of Marvel and DC there arose a new wave of independent comic book publishers who took a whole new approach to the superhero genre. This was crystallised in the epoch-making Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, which set out to deconstruct the entire mythos of superheroes.

Superheroes in movies

Although Robb doesn’t quite make this point, his book ends where it began, with the movies. Not with the distant antecedents of Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, but with the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster loved the movies and were influenced by what they saw, by the sight of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way across the screen and that now, we in our time, queue up to watch the Amazing Spiderman, Thor and Iron Man swing across our multiplex 3D screens.

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Radio Robb’s last few chapters give a bewilderingly dense account of the way superheroes were adapted to other media beyond comic books. Radio was the first, and it’s interesting to learn that radio developed catchphrases, plot lines and even new characters, which hadn’t existed in the original comics but which the comics then co-opted.

Television From the 1950s various television series portrayed superheroes, probably the most memorable being the camp classic Batman of the 1960s.

Animations Movies were slower to adapt superheroes because of the technical challenges of portraying superhero action. It was easier to do this in animations, so there have been scores of animated TV shows and movies about superheroes.

The Modern Age of Superhero Movies starts with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman in the film of the same name, directed by Richard Donner in 1978. Although the special effects look creaky to the modern eye, they were a quantum step up from all previous attempts and made superhero film-making a real possibility. Three sequels were released, in 1980, 1983 and 1987.

The next benchmark was the pair of Batman movies directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton. Robb is great on the showbusiness gossip and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring which accompanied these films, for example the way that Keaton, previously known mainly for light comic roles, was widely opposed by comicbook fans, who mounted a campaign to prevent him taking the role. In the event, Burton’s two Batman movies (Batman, 1989 and Batman Returns 1992) were widely seen as a triumph, and made stacks of money ($411 million and $266 million, respectively).

Robb details the ongoing attempts to stage other superhero movies during the 1980s and 90s, which met with mixed success, and a fair share of dazzling flops. Along with most fans he considers the last two Reeve Superman movies (Superman III, 1983 and Superman IV, 1987) and the Val Kilmer and George Clooney Batmen (Batman Forever, 1995, and Batman and Robin, 1997) to be disasters.

The modern age of superhero movies

The Current Age of Superhero Movies was launched with the X-Men directed by Bryan Singer and released in 2000. With an intelligent script, the steadying presence of two top-class British actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) and state-of-the-art, computer-generated graphics, X-Men inaugurated the modern age.

It cost a lot to make, but it:

a) made a fortune ($296 million)
b) spawned a host of sequels (there are now no fewer than 10 films in the X-Men series)
c) and led to a number of successful television spin-off series

The X-Men movies played an important role in creating the superhero cultural, film and TV universe that we now inhabit.

This is a list of the main superhero movies of the last 18 years, excluding various flops and failures, with an indication of their costs and revenues.

2000 X-Men ($296 million gross on $75 million budget)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million on $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million on $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million on $125 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million on $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million on $200 million)
2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)
2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Ant-Man and the Wasp
2018 Avengers: Infinity War
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Deadpool 2

Quite a few, aren’t there?

The first superhero movie to gross over a billion dollars was Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight, and six other superhero movies have grossed over a billion since then.

The X-Men movies between them have generated $5 billion.

In 2010 Marvel produced the first in a carefully planned sequence of movies designed to maximise revenue from their stable of characters, and which has become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. This is divided into ‘phases’ of six movies each, the first five of each phase devoted to individual Marvel heroes, the sixth bringing the previous five altogether into a grand finale which ties together plotlines from the previous movies.

As I write we are approaching the end of Phase Three, which has just seen the phenomenal success of Black Panther (phase 3, movie 5) which grossed over $1.3 billion, and paved the way for the sixth in this phase, Avengers: Infinity War which has just opened in the States to the usual mass marketing and hype.

Summary

Despite having no illustrations at all, Robb’s book is an eminently readable and very enjoyable overview of the entire history of the superhero comic book phenomenon, which puts it in the context of expanding popular culture, twentieth century history, and the evolving media of radio, TV and film – all told in a light, accessible prose style with a sure sense of the interesting anecdote and fascinating fact.

Great fun, and a very useful introduction to a cultural phenomenon which is bigger than ever, and set to dominate our movie and TV screens for the foreseeable future.


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Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (2014)

The  Conservative party

The British Conservative Party has traditionally lacked any real intellectual or ideological underpinning, thinking of itself as the party of British values and traditions, which applies reform only on an ad hoc basis, as required.

In Disraeli’s day the Tories were the party of the landed aristocracy and their subservient squires, extraordinarily snobbish toffs at the core of a network of landed gentry mainly interested in fox hunting and farms. Traditionally philistine and reactionary, the Tory party emphasised the values of Monarchy, Hierarchy and the Established Church – as opposed to the Whig party with its more urban traditions of religious toleration and individual freedom. The Tories opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and opposed attempts at further reform in the 1850s and 60s. Their leader Lord Derby saw his role, in his son’s words, to block change, to keep things exactly as they were i.e. everything run by the landed aristocracy.

The authors

The joint authors of this book come from from the very heart of the Conservative establishment and this book strongly reflects that bias or position, in a number of ways.

Douglas Hurd – or Baron Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC to give him his full title – is the son and grandson of Conservative MPs who himself became a Conservative MP. Hurd attended Eton College, before serving in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1995. He is most remembered as the Foreign Secretary who refused to authorise British aid to the Bosnian Muslims being massacred by Serbs during the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s, and also refused to allow Bosnian refugees from the war entry into Britain.

Edward Young is young. After getting a First at Cambridge he worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron – the man history and our children will hold responsible for calling the Brexit referendum and so turfing us out of Europe. Young also worked as Chief of Staff to the Conservative Party Chairman. He stood as the Conservative candidate for York Central in the 2017 General Election but he lost to the Labour candidate. Young is currently the Corporate Communications Director at Tesco PLC.

These two men, therefore, come from the core of the modern Conservative Party, understand its day to day working as well as its traditions. Once you get into it you realise that their book is not intended to be a straightforward biography of Disraeli – it is a systematic debunking of his reputation. But it also concludes with a surprising assessment of Disraeli’s relevance to our time and the modern politicians who have inherited his mantle.

For many modern Conservatives – and even politicians from other parties – Disraeli is the founder of modern Conservatism, the inventor of compassionate ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, a pioneer of reforming legislation and a dazzlingly successful Parliamentarian. This book is meant to debunk all these ‘myths’. It assumes that the reader is already fairly familiar with Disraeli’s life, career and reputation, and with the way his name and these ‘ideas’ have been invoked by Tory leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s (Harrow and Cambridge) or R.A. Butler in the 1950s (Marlborough and Cambridge), down to David Cameron (Eton and Oxford).

In many ways this book is really an extended pamphlet, a ‘think piece’ aimed at Conservative Party insiders and knowledgeable Parliamentarians.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

I bought this book when I visited Disraeli’s house, Hughenden, just north of High Wycombe and now a National Trust property. The ‘two lives’ of the title is just another way of restating the hoary old cliché about ‘the man and the myth’, a phrase that used to be tacked onto the title of almost every biography I read when I was a lad.

Briefly, the authors claim that Disraeli has come to be associated in the modern Conservative Party with a string of ideas and quotes which many Tories think are the basis of the modern party. But a closer examination shows that he never said half the things attributed to him, or was an active opponent of half the policies nowadays attached to his name.

All the way through there is a very characteristically Conservative absence of ideas or ideology, theory or intellectual activity. They leave no stone unturned to undermine Disraeli’s reputation, to show him up as a completely unprincipled social climber greedy for power, with a devastating turn of phrase, sarcasm and invective which has left us with scores of memorable quotes – but all too often the authors can themselves be accused of simply moving round empty rhetorical tokens without much meaning. You are continually reminded that Young was a speechwriter, a master of the ringing but utterly vacuous soundbite. Take the conclusion of their introduction:

We have called our book Disraeli, or The Two Lives because the life he lived was markedly different from the myths he left behind. These contradictions do not mean that he was phoney. At the heart of Disraeli’s beliefs lay the thought that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual and a nation. That conviction, rather than any particular Bill, book, speech, treaty or quotation, is the true legacy of Benjamin Disraeli. (p.xxvi)

So: what a politician – what a nation – needs, are imagination and courage! You can see why words like ‘trite’ and ‘platitudinous’ continually spring to the reader’s mind. These sentences could have been written a hundred years ago by any number of British imperialists. They are the opposite of thoughtful, intelligence or insightful. They lack any facts, data, statistics, any evidence or proof, any analysis or sustained line of reasoning, to back them up. They are all too reminiscent of much recent empty Conservative phrase-making.

Remember David Cameron and his call for ‘the Big Society’ – ‘the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto’? Or Theresa May’s catchphrase ‘strong and stable leadership’? As the book progresses Disraeli not only loses the credit for the fine-sounding policies often invoked in his name, but comes to look more and more like a pioneering example of the Conservative tradition for flashy phrase-making concealing a bankruptcy of ideas or policies (see below, the story of his first Cabinet).

Disraeli myths and refutations

Since the aim of the book is to undermine the myths about Disraeli, it might be useful to state what those myths are, along with their refutations.

One Nation Conservatism

Myth Disraeli pioneered the idea that the Conservatives are a compassionate party which represents the whole nation (not just the rich – which is the common accusation made against them).

Fact Disraeli in no way wanted a classless society. In his novels (Disraeli began his working life as a novelist and wrote novels throughout his life) he champions an absurdly antiquated vision of a medieval England where people know their place. In the early 1840s he was elected leader of ‘Young England’, a group of handsome young chaps from Eton (that is how the authors describe them) who thought the cure for a Britain undergoing the seismic upheavals of the industrial revolution was a return to medieval feudalism (p.95). Disraeli shared their belief that the cure for Britain’s ills was to restore its fine old aristocracy to its ancient duties of building almshouses and holding jousting tournaments.

Quite literally, a more stupid, ignorant and fatuous analysis of the technological, industrial and economic situation of Britain during the industrial revolution cannot be conceived.

It was Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations which popularised the idea that England was divided into two nations – the Rich and the Poor (not, perhaps, the most profound of analyses) and this phrase – ‘the two nations’ – was picked up by newspapers and commentators for some time afterwards. But at no point does this long text, or anywhere else in Disraeli’s speeches or articles, does he use the phrase for which he is nowadays mostly remembered, the phrase ‘One Nation‘, which has been recycled in our time into the idea of the ‘One Nation’ Conservativism.

The words ‘one nation’ had never appeared in Disraeli’s lexicon and certainly had never been developed as a meaningful political creed. (p.11)

He never said it. And he would never have agreed with it.

Parliamentary success

Myth Disraeli was one of the most successful Victorian politicians.

Fact Disraeli lost six of the general elections he fought as leader of the Conservative Party and won only one, in 1874. He was ridiculed for his long-winded maiden speech in Parliament and made a complete shambles of his first Budget as Chancellor, which was ripped apart by Gladstone.

Social reformer

Myth In his one and only administration, Disraeli presided over a range of important social reforms e.g. the 1875 Public Health Act, which later Conservatives have used to claim a reputation as the reforming and improving party. One of his many quotable quotes is ‘Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.’

Fact Disraeli wasn’t in the slightest interested in these reforms and fell asleep when they were discussed in Cabinet. More, this book is devastating in its indictment of Disraeli’s amorality. All he wanted was power. All he wanted was to climb to the top of ‘the greasy pole’. Once he had finally made it he had no plans, no policies and no ideas. The authors quote Richard Cross, an MP Disraeli barely knew who he appointed Home Secretary, who was amazed when he attended his first Cabinet meeting to discover that despite the power and conviction of Disraeli’s phrase-making and speechifying in the House and on the election stump around the country, his leader in fact had no policies or ideas at all. At the first Cabinet meeting he chaired, Disraeli sat asking his Cabinet members – many of them in power for the first time – if they had any ideas or suggestions about what to do next (p.240). From this and scores of other examples the reader is forced to agree with the radical MP John Bright, who Disraeli spent some time trying to butter up in the 1860s, that Disraeli was

‘an engaging charlatan who believed in nothing.’ (quoted page 199)

The non-Conservative reader might have no difficulty applying this damning description to numerous contemporary Conservatives – not least Theresa May, who just last week reached out to the opposition parties by asking if they had any ideas on what to do next.

Disraeli’s complete lack of ideas or policies was no secret, it was well-known at the time. A Punch cartoon captures it perfectly.

'Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.' Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: 'Eh? Oh - Ah - Yes - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.'

‘Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.’
Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Eh? Oh – Ah – Yes – Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.’

1867 Reform Act

Myth Disraeli demonstrated that the Conservatives are on the side of the working man and ‘the people’ by passing the Second Reform Act (1867), which for the first time enfranchised some of the (male) working class, doubling the electorate from one to two million adult men (out of a total seven million adult males in England and Wales).

Fact Disraeli supported the Reform Act solely to steal the thunder of the ruling Liberal government and to help the Conservative Party’s electoral chances. A reform act of some kind had been in the air from some years, a draft version had been prepared by Gladstone’s Liberals, when Disraeli set out to steal their thunder. The best part of this 350-page-long book is where the authors give a fascinating, day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting account of how Disraeli a) cobbled together a patchwork of legislation which could be sold to his own (reluctant) party and b) laboured to assemble an alliance of radicals, dissident Whigs and cowering Tories to eventually pass the act and ‘dish the Whigs’.

This section (pp.191-214) gives a vivid insight into the nuts and bolts of Victorian politicking – I’d forgotten how utterly chaotic it was. Lacking the modern idea of well-drilled political parties, the House of Commons consisted of groups and factions which had to be laboriously assembled into voting majorities. Governments could easily be overthrown if a majority was cobbled together to vote against them, prompting the Prime Minister to resign. But quite commonly the leader of the opposition grouping would then himself struggle to create a working majority, sometimes managing to create an administration which rumbled on for a year or two, but sometimes failing altogether and forcing the Queen to offer the premiership back to the Prime Minster who had just resigned.

It makes for a very confusing picture and helps to explain why, even as Britain was becoming the most powerful country in the world, it’s quite hard to name any of the Prime Ministers of the Victorian era. At a pinch most educated people could probably name Gladstone and Disraeli solely because of their longevity and because they became famous for being famous – rather like Boris Johnson in our own day is a politician everyone’s heard of without, until recently, holding any significant position in government.

Anyway, after the immense labour and scheming which Disraeli put into ensuring it was the Tories who passed a reform act in 1867, it was – in strategic terms – a failure, because the Tories went on to lose the subsequent 1868 general election.

Imperialist

Myth Disraeli was a staunch supporter of the British Empire and this endeared him to the generation following his death (in 1881) as the British Empire reached its height accompanied by a crescendo of imperialist rhetoric and pageant.

Fact The authors show how on both occasions when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was positively anti-Empire, horrified at the cost of the Royal Navy which he tried to cut. He went so far as to suggest Britain abandon all its entrepots and territory on the African coast and dismantle the African Squadron of the Navy. This image of ‘imperial Disraeli’ is a product of his final years and of his one and only administration, during which he was able to make some typically flashy gestures thus concealing his basic lack of policy or strategy (see above).

Probably the most famous of these gestures was when Disraeli, soon after becoming Prime Minister, pushed through Parliament the Royal Titles Act 1876 which awarded Queen Victoria the title ‘Empress of India’. She loved it and the ‘people’ loved the elevation of their queen to an empire. Flashy and popular – but hollow. It was, after all Disraeli who said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’ and lay it on he did, inches thick. And it worked.

In August of the same year Queen Victoria awarded Disraeli the title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The absurdity of these leaders awarding each other titles was not lost on contemporaries. The contemporary humorous magazine, Punch, satirised it as ‘one good turn deserves another’.

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria - who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India - awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria – who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India – awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield, in August 1876

Foreign affairs supremo

Myth At the Congress of Berlin, Dizzy plucked diplomatic success from a convoluted situation like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat, and surprised the world by gaining Cyprus for the British Empire and winning ‘peace with honour’.

Fact In 1877 the Russians invaded the neighbouring territory of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire – and advanced towards the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In the second of the two really detailed analyses in the book, the authors give a fascinating account of how the crisis unravelled week by week.

Initially British sentiment was against the Turks because they had massacred Orthodox Christian Bulgarians who had risen seeking independence from the Ottomans. But Russia’s relentless advance into the Balkans (after the Russian declaration of war in April 1877) eventually swung public sentiment round behind the Turks (exactly as it had 33 years earlier, at the start of the Crimean War).

Hurd and Young’s account brings out just how irresponsible Disraeli’s attitude was: bored to death of the nitty-gritty of domestic policy, he thought foreign affairs was the last great arena for a man of imagination and style and so, like so many rulers addicted to words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ and ‘prestige’, Disraeli repeatedly threatened to send the fleet through the Dardanelles to attack the Russians and start another Crimean War (he is quoted as claiming that, although it might last three years, it would be ‘a glorious and successful war for England’, p.283).

The British diplomats on the ground and Dizzy’s own Foreign Secretary were horrified at the lightness and rashness of his intentions:

I dissented but said little; being in truth disgusted by his reckless way of talking. (Lord Derby, quoted on page 283)

Once again hundreds of thousands of men might have died in misery because of the idiocy of their leaders, specifically this preening peacock of a run-of-the-mill romantic novelist. Luckily Disraeli’s own cabinet repeatedly blocked his war-mongering intentions until, before he could attack anyone, the Russians made peace with the Turks by themselves. It was only when the Russians consolidated their gains in the Caucasus theatre of the war that the British, feeling threatened in India, sent army forces into Turkey. At this point the Russians agreed to a Great Power peace conference at Berlin (in deference to the new arbiter of the Balance of Europe, the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck).

The authors show how the ageing Disraeli adored the Congress of Berlin, mainly because it involved hob-nobbing with the royalty of Europe, with Russian princes, and European emperors and ambassadors, pashas and doges and counts and innumerable lords and ladies.

As to the actual work, Disraeli had no diplomatic experience, had only a shaky grasp of the map of Europe, spoke no foreign language, and had only once been abroad. When it came to the detail of the negotiations about Ottoman territory he was completely at sea. He was a romantic novelist who thought in terms of the worst literary clichés. This is not my view – it is the authors’.

Disraeli, the novelist turned politician, believed in a world of empires, sustained and manipulated by the skill of bankers, priests, beautiful women and secret societies. (p.252)

Disraeli proved almost comically inept at diplomacy. He never grasped the details of the discussions, showing ‘a perfect disregard for the facts’. He had never even seen a map of Asia Minor so had no idea what was being negotiated. His own Foreign Secretary noted that Disraeli

has only the dimmest idea of what is going on – understands everything crossways – and imagines a perpetual conspiracy. (p.287).

Luckily, Lord Salisbury negotiated an effective if complicated set of treaties. All that mattered to Dizzy was that Britain come out of it with some showy gestures. Thus he supported the separate convention by which Britain took permanent control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. And once peace was secured, Disraeli could claim – however duplicitously – to have been the moving force behind it. In his speeches he spoke about ‘peace with honour’ which the newspapers gleefully picked up and repeated.

Thus Disraeli found himself a hero and was greeted by adoring crowds back in London when he arrived as Charing Cross station to find it decked out with flowers in his honour. The crowds cheered him back to Downing Street, where he read out a telegram of congratulations from Her Majesty. Dizzy was given the freedom of the City of London and Victoria offered him a dukedom.

Once again bravado, a sense of the dramatic and a gift for phrase-making gave the appearance then, and in the decades after his death, that Disraeli had brought off some kind of diplomatic coup. But, as the authors emphasise, the peace had already been made; if she lost some territory in the Balkans, Russia was left with all her acquisitions in the Caucasus; and Cyprus was a useful way station for the Royal Navy but hardly ‘the key to the Middle East’ as Disraeli flamboyantly claimed. The Eastern Question was far from solved and would rumble on for forty more years before providing the spark for the First World War.

What really emerges from Hurd & Young’s account is how close Britain came to going to war with Russia and how, once again (just as in the Crimean War) tens of thousands of men would have died to justify Disraeli’s reckless addiction to glamour and prestige and power. His opponents in Cabinet who blocked his wish for war were the true wise ones. But history, alas, forgets quiet wisdom and remembers flashy showmanship.

The Disraeli reality

The book makes clear that Disraeli was consumed with ambition and would do almost anything, betray any mentor (as he shafted his mentor Robert Peel in the 1840s), change any position, say almost anything, in order to succeed. This is why the pompous High Anglican Liberal leader, William Gladstone, didn’t just dislike him, but detested him, seeing in Disraeli the embodiment of all the money-seeking, amoral, flashy, superficial, irreligious chicanery which was bad about Victorian society.

Disraeli emerges from these pages as a splendiferous writer – of superficial and overwrought ‘silver fork’ novels, of passionate love letters to his numerous mistresses, sucking-up letters to Queen Victoria, and chatty epistles to the many ageing spinsters he cultivated in the hope of being named in their wills – of vast speeches in the House, and of any number of dinner table bons mots. But he also emerges as easily the most untrustworthy, slippery and amoral leader this country has ever had.

Having demolished almost all of the Disraeli myth, do the authors leave anything, does he have claim to any ‘ideas’? Yes, but they were preposterous. Disraeli thought that Britain needed a stronger aristocracy, recalled to fulfil its ancient duties by the rebirth of a vague and undefined national ‘faith’. And that what mattered to Britain internationally was to maintain its ‘prestige’, its ‘reputation’, its ‘honour’ – without any  concrete plan for administering, reforming or expanding the empire, without any knowledge of its myriad farflung territories, which he never visited or made any effort to understand.

An unintended insight from this book is it makes you sympathise with what the imperialist soldiers, administrators and merchants on the ground in Africa, India or China when you see the sheer empty-headed, unprincipled, ignorant and knee-jerk political culture back in London which they had to put up with. It makes the scorn and contempt for politicians of a writer like Kipling a lot easier to understand and sympathise with.

Contemporary relevance

In the introduction the authors say their book will be an investigation of how Disraeli became ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’. Well, it’s true that immediately following his death a thing called the Primrose League was founded to preserve his memory, and that it grew astonishingly until by 1910 it had some 2 million members (p.xxii). The Primrose League venerated this man of flash and rhetoric, the image Disraeli created through his style and extravagant gestures. Disraeli has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other British politicians. He was always ready with the quotable quip and the memorable phrase.

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  • Never complain; never explain.

But today, in 2017, would you say he is ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’? The only group of people who have reliably heard of him are members of the Conservative Party and maybe other Parliamentarians who have taken the trouble to study their history. Neither of my children (19 and 16) had heard of Disraeli.

The fact is the authors need to erect an image of a dominating and significant Disraeli in order to knock him down – their claims for his important and contemporary relevance are simply the straw man they need to erect in order to knock it down, the scaffold they require to justify their long biography – it doesn’t really reflect any reality around me. It is pre-eminently a book for political insiders. A lot of names are lined up on the cover giving the book fulsome praise, but who are these enthusiastic reviewers?

  • Dominic Sandbook (Malvern and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Matthew Paris (Clare College, Cambridge and Conservative MP)
  • Sam Leith (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Lady Antonia Fraser (the Dragon School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Conservative MP and now Environment Secretary)
  • Jesse Norman (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution)
  • Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary)

Once I started looking them up I was shocked by the narrowness of their backgrounds. If the quotes on the cover are any indication, its true target audience is Conservative MPs and public schoolmen.

(And – incidentally – confirmation, if any was needed, that London’s book world – like its politics – is run by a tiny interconnected metropolitan elite.)

Boris Johnson

In the last few pages, the authors declare that Disraeli’s final, ultimate, enduringly great achievement was to make politics interesting; he emitted memorable phrases, scathing put-downs, he was entertaining, he made politics lively, colourful and so made it accessible to a very wide popular audience. Hence the cheering crowds at Charing Cross.

Alas, laments Baron Hurd, politicians nowadays are a grey lot reduced to spouting pre-agreed party lines in tedious television interviews. That, the authors suggest, is why politicians are held in such low public regard.

In the final pages they ask whether there is there any political figure of our time who compares with Disraeli for dash and brio? Astonishingly, the authors say Yes – Boris Johnson. Similarly rash, colourful and undisciplined but immensely entertaining, a man who has survived countless scandals which would have sunk a lesser man, and is probably one of the few politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

(This is the same Boris Johnson who is quoted on the book’s cover describing it as ‘superb and sometimes hilarious’, who went to Baron Hurd of Westwell’s old school, and now follows in the Baron’s footsteps as this country’s Foreign Secretary. It’s a small incestuous place, the Conservative world.)

But I venture to suggest that the authors are wrong. The reason most of us plebs despise politicians is not because they are grey and boring; it is because they are lying incompetents. Tony Blair came to power promising a moral foreign policy then sent British troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gordon Brown claimed to have abolished boom-and-bust economics on the eve of the greatest financial crash in world history. The LibDems promised to abolish tuition fees and then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000 a year (the single broken promise which sums up all ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ for my teenage children: for them ‘politician’ simply means faithless liar).

And the Brexiteers, led by that very same Boris Johnson and his creature, Michael Gove (both of them quoted praising this book on the cover) campaigned to leave the EU and then turned out to have no plan, no plan at all, for how to manage the process. They still don’t.

And then Theresa May came along promising ‘strong and stable’ leadership and called the most unnecessary general election in modern history.

Looking back at the past twenty years of Britain’s political life do the authors really believe that the issue has been that British politicians are grey and boring? No. It is that they are inept, incompetent, lying wankers. What the British people are crying out for is basic competence. The notion that what British politics needs is more politicians with Imagination and Courage, and that the solution to this problem is Boris Johnson, tells you everything you need to know about the modern Conservative Party, dominated by men from elite public schools who have never had proper jobs outside politics, and – as this book amply demonstrates – whose best ideas and quotes derive from a 19th century charlatan.


Credit

Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

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