The first Svengali

Whenever Dominic Cummings makes the headlines, commentators reach for the same word to describe his relationship with the prime minister: he is Boris Johnson’s Svengali, they write. But who was the original Svengali?

Svengali is one of those rare literary creations so seemingly archetypal his name becomes short-hand for a kind of behaviour: in this case, mesmeric control over another human being.

He originated in George du Maurier’s novel Trilby. The book was a transatlantic publishing phenomenon. First serialised in America’s Harpers Monthly beginning January 1894, it added 100,000 to the magazine’s circulation before its second instalment. Issued as a book in the US on 8 September 1894, it sold 100,000 copies in a month; within five months 200,000. Similar success followed in the UK.

It is the story of Trilby O’Farrell, a young, promiscuous free-spirit in 1850s bohemian Paris and the men who want to control her. The most successful of these is Svengali, whose supernatural powers enable him to dominate and ultimately destroy her. Svengali is, among other things, a grotesquely anti-semitic caricature.

Trilby wasn’t just a literary phenomenon; it was a phenomenon of mass culture. The last vestiges of Trilbyana, the craze it inspired, remain in the style of hat, but for a few years Trilby was ubiquitous. There was a Trilby ham and a Trilby sausage (“something new [that] fills a long-felt want”, the copy said). There were Trilby soaps, sweets and toothpaste, Trilby dolls and fans. A game. A puzzle. A whole town in Florida was named after it, with streets named for its other characters.

One of the novel’s curiosities is that its sexual undertones are sublimated into an obsession with Trilby’s feet. The fetish didn’t go unmarked commercially: the name ‘Trilby’ was given to a style of high-heeled shoe. A newspaper printed a life-size outline of the ‘perfect Trilby foot’. You could buy a silver scarf-pin modeled after it. Strangest of all, you could buy a foot-shaped Trilby ice-cream too.

Du Maurier, who had tried to persuade Henry James to write the story, found its success traumatic. He died in 1896. On his death bed, he said: “[Trilby’s] popularity has killed me at last”.

This piece first appeared in the September 2020 Months Past column in History Today.

Image: The great John Barrymore playing the title role in Svengali (1931)

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