Trilby’s unassuming beginnings in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, January 1894
Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum
In January 1894 author and artist George du Maurier took the world by storm with the first installment of his serialized novel, Trilby. The saga of the doomed artist’s model, which featured illustrations by du Maurier, appeared in eight installments in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, each issue selling out rapidly. In September 1894 Trilby was released in book form and by February 1895 had sold over 200,000 copies in the United States alone, making it one of the best-selling novels of the Victorian era.
Set in the 1850s in bohemian Paris, the story follows the lives of the title character, an artist’s model said to have “the handsomest foot in Paris,” her love interest, artist Little Billee, and a musician named Svengali. Smitten by Trilby’s beauty and wanting to possess her, Svengali puts her under his spell with his powers of hypnotism, making the previously tone-deaf model an accomplished singer who performs all over the world in an amnesiac trance. Svengali keeps Trilby in this trance for five years, cutting her off from Little Billee, her true love, and ruining her health. Of course, this sensational tale has an equally melodramatic ending, with Svengali dying of a heart attack, Trilby dying of a nervous affliction, and Little Billee dying of a broken heart.