Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Mythic Svengali: Anti-Aestheticism in 'Trilby.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Mythic Svengali: Anti-Aestheticism in 'Trilby.'

Article excerpt

Writing about George Du Maurier in 1897, Henry James finds a "mystery" posed by the enormous public success of Du Maurier's Trilby (1894): "The case remains, . . . it is one of the most curious of our time." "Why did the public pounce on its prey with a spring so much more than elephantine?" James asks, pondering both the novel and the author it turned into an unwilling celebrity.(1) Certainly shifting marketing practices of both books and authors at the end of the century enabled Trilby's popularity, as Edward Purcell suggests.(2) However, the answer to James's question lies in how Trilby uniquely fits into a cultural history of the 1890s. For though Trilby, a fictionalized account of Du Maurier's bohemian life in Paris in 1856-57, is set in the past, this essay will argue that Trilby is very much concerned with the artistic, sexual, and identity issues that were embraced by the label "Aesthetic" and that came to be represented by Oscar Wilde in the 1890s. In 1894, Trilby imaginatively reformulated Britain's contemporary credos of anti-aestheticism as a cultural myth.(3)

Before the 1890s, Du Maurier had been obviously linked to anti-aestheticism. From 1873 to 1882, he famously ridiculed the new aesthetic movement in Punch. As his caricatures of the aesthetes illustrate, the anti-aesthetic issues that surrounded the Wilde trials, such as the emerging codes governing homosexuality and the conflict over the arts, were hardly new in 1895. In fact, Du Maurier had already been caricaturing the aesthetes for seven years when Wildean characters first appeared in his cartoons, beginning with the introduction of the character Jellaby Postlethwaite in February 1880. This fact ironically provokes Du Maurier's authoritative biographer Leonee Ormond to proclaim that "a study of Du Maurier's cartoons establishes . . . the lack of any true originality in Wilde's outrageous behavior."(4)

However, as Ormond goes on to quote, James Whistler found subtler words for the relationship between Du Maurier and Wilde:

Mr Du Maurier and Mr Wilde happening to meet in the rooms where Mr

Whistler was holding his first exhibition of Venice etchings, the latter

brought the two face to face, and taking each by the arm inquired: "I say,

which one of you two invented the other, eh?"(5)

Here, Whistler, who had accused Wilde of plagiarizing from him and who knew of his own long-standing presence in Du Maurier's cartoons, perhaps wryly insinuates that he is the aesthete who has "invented" both of them. Whistler's question--who invented who?--is also finally a feint cleverly designed to leave Du Maurier at a loss. For to Du Maurier, aestheticism is a pose, a pose understood as overlaying and perhaps corrupting an essential identity. Thus, when Du Maurier responds to Whistler's comment soon after with a cartoon, he mocks the idea of inventing a person (see figure 1, p. 541). In the cartoon, a collapse of identity is equated with identity's collapse into artifice, but, then again, there the aesthetic characters are, presumably proof that identity is essential, that their identity is a reality beyond the pale of invention. In these exchanges, from Whistler's comment to Du Maurier's cartoon, the artists reveal conflicting understandings of identity, but also --and more importantly--they reveal the interdependent texture of their conflict in general. In fact, Du Maurier's cartoon appropriately appeared the same year that Wilde, on tour for Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, was himself busy promoting the caricaturing of the aesthetes. A collapse of this kind of dialectical tension would hardly come from either side operating in this vein. On the contrary, the exchanges underscore the ongoing process of self-consciously, mutually sustaining the conflict. Indeed, there is a necessary assumption of topicality and a rejection of closure in the genre of the cartoon itself that grants the aesthetes the right to an existence, if embattled. …

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