James McNeil Whistler

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The character of Joe Sibley (left) from the March 1894 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. This illustration and the textual references to the character were expunged from the book at Whistler’s insistence.
Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum

Not everyone was a fan, however. Artist James McNeill Whistler was enraged when he learned that a secondary character in the novel, Joe Sibley, was purported to be based on him. Whistler accused du Maurier of “pent-up envy, malice and furtive intent,” and brought a lawsuit against both publisher and author, insisting that Harper’s delete all written and visual references to Sibley when Trilby was published in book form. Du Maurier responded by saying that “he did not suppose that a man so fond of having fun with other people as Mr. Whistler is would be so violently indisposed to let a fellow-man have fun with him.” Harper & Brothers, however, capitulated to Whistler’s request, removing the offending references from both the book manuscript and all the reprints of the March issue of the magazine, and printing a public apology. The adage that “all publicity is good publicity” is certainly true in this case—the media hype surrounding Whistler’s lawsuit boosted initial sales of the book.

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"This is the Funny Story that Made Whistler Wince,"
Chicago Tribune, December 2, 1894

This article in the Chicago Tribune gives a side-by-side comparison of the text of Trilby before and after the references to the character of Joe Sibley were removed. The author of the article notes the similarities between Whistler and Sibley:

The Whistler of the present day is not unlike him of five and twenty years ago, except as his hair is silvered. He is no less slim, erect, finicky, dandiacle. He still carries the thin bamboo stick held between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. His head is covered with a flat-brimmed silk hat of the boulevards. He still worships at the same shrine and still he utters those cutting things about his dear friends that "stay" and rankle and breed hatred. Now, as ever, he is "Joe Sibley" to the dot.

Read the entire article here.