The Notting Hill Mystery as source for Trilby

Several literary and biographical sources are credited as inspiration for George Du Maurier’s phenomenally successful novel Trilby.[1]  According to Du Maurier biographer Leonée Ormond, the most notable biographical influences on the novel were Du Maurier’s experiences in the Latin Quarter and his friendship with the amateur mesmerist Felix Moschele; while two French works, Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame Aux Camélias and Henri Murger’s Scenes de La Vie de Bohème provided literary inspiration.[2] Yet critics have neglected to give full credit to another likely source for Trilby: Charles Felix’s novel The Notting Hill Mystery.[3]  In the early 1860s, Du Maurier was working as an illustrator for several periodicals, including Once a Week.  In 1862, the editor of this magazine commissioned him to provide the illustrations for the eight-part publication of The Notting Hill Mystery.  Several scholars have noted that these illustrations ‘are some of his best drawings,’ and it certainly seems that The Notting Hill Mystery impacted not only Du Maurier’s artistic career, but his literary one as well.[4]

The most striking similarity between the two works is their reliance on mesmerism for the sensational aspects of their plots.  When Trilby admits to the Laird that Svengali has been mysteriously curing her neuralgia, he exclaims: ‘He mesmerized you; that’s what it is—mesmerism!  I’ve often heard of it, but never seen it before.  They get you in their power, and just make you do any blessed thing they please—lie, murder, steal—anything! and kill yourself into the bargain when they’ve done with you!’ (48). While the Laird’s statement foreshadows Trilby’s fate, this quote also encompasses the general plot of The Notting Hill Mystery.  Described ‘as the first English detective novel,’ The Notting Hill Mystery features a hypnotic villain, the Baron R**, who forces his assistant/wife Rosalie to poison her sister and then commit suicide.[5]  Along with distinction of having written the first British detective novel, Charles Felix may also be the first author to employ the ‘hypnotic criminal’ in an English novel.[6]  The Notting Hill Mystery introduces a villainous type that would be highly influential on a spate of novels featuring hypnotic criminals (including Trilby) published in the late 1880s and 1890s. Indeed, there are many similarities between the Baron and Svengali, including their Germanic background, their use of aliases, their piercing eyes, and their mesmeric manipulation of young women in order to forward their professional aspirations.  Both Svengali and the Baron are ambitious and greedy, and both are foreign threats to innocent Englishwomen.

Although the Baron R** seems to be a direct predecessor to Svengali, it is really with the two female victims, The Notting Hill Mystery’s Rosalie and the titular Trilby, that the connections between the two novels become the most apparent.  The most obvious similarity between Rosalie and Trilby is their victimization:  Trilby, of course, is hypnotically directed by Svengali to sing while the Baron R** uses the entranced Rosalie to commit crime.  An additional similarity between the two characters is their tenuous English roots and bohemian upbringings. Rosalie is the lost daughter of an aristocratic English family who has been stolen and raised by gypsies, while Trilby is the orphan of a barmaid and a gently-born English clergyman who must fend for herself in Paris’s Latin Quarter.  The two novels also share an emphasis on performance, and like the singing sensation Trilby, Rosalie performs (albeit not under the influence of hypnotic forces) as an actress for a music-hall and in a circus as a tight-rope walker.  Rosalie also has ‘a beautiful figure’ like the artist’s model Trilby (493).  But the strangest parallel between the two women is the repeated emphasis on their extraordinary feet.  While Trilby has the most ‘astonishingly beautiful feet, such as one only sees in pictures and statues—a true inspiration of shape and colour’, which she often models for artists, Rosalie’s feet are distinguished by their ugliness: ‘The only fault a connoisseur would probably find with her person would be the extreme breadth of her feet, though this might perhaps be accounted for by her former occupation . . .’ (13; 489).  Although one heroine has gorgeous, and the other deformed, feet, both are still repeatedly identified by their unusual appendages.  Taken together, these similarities suggest that Du Maurier drew some inspiration from the novel he had illustrated over thirty years before writing Trilby.

[1] George Du Maurier, Trilby, (New York, Penguin, 1994).

[2] Leonée Ormond, George Du Maurier,  (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), 445.

[3] Charles Felix [Charles Warren Adams], The Notting Hill Mystery, ed. Maurice Richardson, Novels of Mystery, (London, Pilot Press, 1945).  Mario

[4] Eric Samuel De Maré, Victorian Woodblock Illustrators, ( London, G. Fraser, 1980), 142.

[5] Julian Symons, Bloody Murder, from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History, (New York, Viking Penguin P, 1972), 52.

[6] I borrow the term ‘hypnotic criminal’ from Mary Elizabeth Leighton.  See Mary Elizabeth Leighton, ‘Under the Influence: Crime and Hypnotic Fictions of the Fin de Siècle,’ Victorian Literary Mesmerism, ed. Martin Willis and Catherine Wynne, (New York, Rodopi, 2006), 203-222.

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