According to Neil Gaiman, literature is a conversation, not just between an author and a reader, but between other authors as well. It’s a conversation that crosses time and space. The more up-to-speed you are on a conversation, the more meaning you get from it. Such is certainly the case with this book.
I first encountered Trilby O’Ferrall as part of the literary spider web mega-crossover known as The Wold Newton Universe. I had no clue who she was, only heard her mentioned. Somehow she’d become intertwined with The Phantom of the Opera. I looked her up, learned she could sing, and that was the end of it because it’s pretty easy to understand why someone would write about the Phantom and a singer.
Turns out, I’d encountered the world of Trilby far earlier than that. The more I learned, the more intrigued I became, and the more I realized I knew even without knowing the story itself. Eventually this book ended up on my TBR list. There, Trilby waited patiently for years to be truly discovered. Having just finished the audiobook, I am kicking myself for not having read this book some 20 years ago. At the same time, I don’t think I was fully ready for the conversation at that point, so the wait and the preparation in the interim was well and truly rewarded.
Let me just say from the outset that this book is a bit of a mess in terms of things you don’t do in literature. The author is having a conversation with the reader, relating a story — and several side stories — through the conceit of a stream of consciousness style memory. There is more telling than showing, there are whole sections of info dumps as the author relates several side characters at once, and there is a general disregard to anything resembling literary form. Add to that, being the stupid American that I am, I don’t speak French, and it’s safe to say that 25% or more of this book is written in French without benefit of translation. I should have been lost. I should have been bored. Maybe I should even have been a little tempted to just put it aside.
And yet… I fell in love. I don’t mind saying it. Against all odds, Trilby won me over with secret weapons aimed directly at my interests and oddities of personality.
I think had I read this in paper form, I would have given up just due to all the French. I got lucky here. The narrator on this is Wanda McCaddon, who also uses the names Nadia May and Donata Peters. She is one of the venerable few of Audible regulars who can make even a terrible book tolerable. She has a gift. More than that, she employs skill, not only in storytelling, but also in linguistic acrobatics and accents. That’s most certainly needed here between the Irish, French, English, Scottish, and German characters. Because of her, I got much of the context of the French, so much as with music itself, I could feel the heart of what was said, even if I didn’t know. I will be picking up a hardcover of this to fill in those gaps. This one deserves to be on my shelf. Where? Next to The Phantom of the Opera. Of course.
As it turns out, Trilby is the direct inspiration of Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. If you’ve followed me for a while, you already know this is one of my favorite stories of all time, so to see how it evolved adds one level of awesome for me.
But Trilby‘s connections to my known world run even deeper than that. As a former art student and music aficionado, I harbor twin flames in my heart for these worlds. As I’ve already stated, Trilby is a singer. Or rather, she is caught up in the web of her maestro, Svengali. You’ve probably heard that name before, referring to a kind of evil that ensnares a hapless woman into his thrall. This is where it originates. So there’s the musical angle that plays right into Leroux and into my interests. But the art and music worlds also give me knowledge and appreciation for the Belle Époque and all that it had to offer. Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Sarah Bernhardt, the Moulin Rouge… all of that is lurking in the background of this novel, not called out, but simply as the background from whence the author comes. This book was written in serialized form (it’s a pulp novel!) in 1894, at the height of that era. It tells a story that supposedly took place in the 1850s, when the divisions between the Bohemians and the bourgeois were being defined in stereotypical ways that would later define that era. In fact, if I’m being honest, those stereotypes are partly defined by this novel, such was the impact it had at the time. I know very precious little about France (I’m working to correct that all the time), but I can tell you about all about Joan of Arc and the Belle Époque. As a product of the Belle Époque, this book is written with a curious and exquisite mix of innocence and debauchery that defines the Bohemian state of being. It had me at hello, and I had no clue until it was too late.
And then there’s Trilby herself. Trilby is fearless and innocently so in all that she is and all she attempts. Her beauty is extraordinary by description. The author claims that she could be the “next formula” for Rossetti, but that beauty only takes her so far. She’s an exceptional model early on, but her dancing isn’t so graceful, nor is she “vulgar” about it either. As to her singing, she’s tone deaf and doesn’t even know it. All she knows is those around her laugh mercilessly at her, and she’s happy to make them laugh. Her shameless innocence seems tailor made for an audience, especially a male audience, to fall in love with her in such a way as to want to protect her and shield her from the cruel world exemplified by Svengali. She seems at first blush to be horribly unrealistic. The thing is, there’s a real world example I can point to on this front: Bettie Page. Regardless of what kind of photography she was involved in, she saw only the art and the fun of having her picture taken. So Trilby is in the modeling world, sitting for various kind of portraits, clueless of who leers at her or why. Her strength is that she cares for those around her, and it is therefore by definition also her weakness. That’s what makes her such an easy target for Svengali as the story progresses.
Svengali isn’t a monster in the traditional sense, but he’s certainly the worst kind of mortal monster we’re all too familiar with in real life: the narcissist. He even speaks of himself in the third person. His hold is partly because he’s every bit as good as he knows he is, and he’s a hypnotist on top of everything else.
In the midst of it, and perhaps a little heavy-handedly (like anything else in this book), is the author’s confrontations with the Judeo-Christian mindset. As this is the 1850s when the story is set, Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species is of popular discussion. Through the characters, the author discusses the absurdities of the religious dogma, but then backs away by reminding us that these other characters have their own minds. When we get near the end, Trilby gets to voice her own opinions on the subject in her own sweet way. The sincerity of it really makes me wonder if the author knew somebody like her in real life. It really does. She’ll come close to giving the reader diabetes at times, that’s how sweet she is, but she still seems real somehow. Or maybe that’s just the hold she has on me. Much like the character of Little Billee, I find that I would be an easy mark for the sirens, and anyone of such inner and outer beauty with a voice to match their soul would leave me as a dog to its master, eager to please and happy to simply be in their presence. Sad, but probably true. I am a sucker for one who could manifest the voice of an archangel as Trilby is said to do later on.
As this is a product of its time, modern readers may be a bit offended by overt and matter-of-fact usages of terms that are now, shall we say, out of date. It’s fairly obvious in context that the author is worldly enough to use them as matter-of-fact points of identification only, and that some of his characters are not nearly as PC as we are. Even so, I found the offense level minimal, especially considering the era in question. You be the judge on that front.
Trilby may not be as well-known as a novel today as it was then, but in its own time, it was a juggernaut, and it had some staying power before it somehow got buried in the piles of esoteric classics. There was a stage play the year after its release. The silent film era saw three versions of the novel make it to the screen, and a fourth by the name of Svengali. There were numerous films after that. There are ballets based on this book. The U.S. Navy named a patrol boat for Trilby. There’s a Mighty Mouse cartoon based on these characters. The style of hat made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin? You guessed it… the trilby, named for Ms. O’Ferrall. Between the art, the history, the music, and the pop culture, I was literally marinating in this book all my life. To come at this with an almost complete understanding of its language (French notwithstanding) has been the closest thing to a religious experience I can get from fiction without consulting Tolkien.
Would others get from Trilby what I did? Probably not, but that’s a tough call since people surprise me all the time. But I think at the very least there’s enough in here that those interested in the era would find something to enjoy.
One thing I need to call out… the cover art for this audio version utilizes Renoir’s La petite Irène. Being painted in 1880, this is a near-contemporary work that would seem to fit the book on some level. Certainly it’s one of the most famous and lovely pieces of portraiture ever rendered. But I’m just going to call this out. The girl in the painting was 8 years old. Who thought that was appropriate to anything in this book? Sorry, it’s the art enthusiast in me. This is why it’s so important to create original cover art rather than relying on classic pieces. I get the expediency in play, but somebody needs to practice their WikiScholar. Just saying.
After all that back there, I think it’s safe to say Trilby has captured my attention. I was digging around for annotations and translations, when I came across a site that has reproductions of the original wood engraved images that accompanied the first serialized printing in 1894. Thought I’d share. While I’m at it, I’ll point out they could have used these story-specific images for the cover art. And why not? They work is gorgeous!
I have a fascination with wood carved imagery. I’ve tried my hand at it back in art school, and it’s not at all an easy process. But then, if it were easy, anyone could do it.
If you want to see all of them, you can find them here. You can also find original illustrations from a number of other works on that site.
Sometimes audio just isn’t enough when you really want to dig in and get the most out of a classic. A reader’s gotta do what a reader’s gotta do.
I managed to track down and liberate a paper copy of Trilby! It’s not a hardcover, but it will serve my needs perfectly for the time being. Not only does it have the original wood carved illustrations that I mentioned above, but it also has explanatory notes in the back, including translations for all the otherwise untranslated French. Yay!