Trilby Before du Maurier.

I’m reading an 1846 story by Elena Kube called “Oksana”; it’s your standard-issue tale of a young aristocrat who falls for and abandons a peasant girl, but it has a lovingly detailed description of hunting in the steppe that is a surprise coming from the pen of a woman (like most women authors of the day, she published under a name that did not reveal her gender, in this case “E. Kube”; in 1850 she married Alexander Veltman, and though her writing enjoyed some success in its day, notably her 1867 novel Priklyucheniya korolevicha Gustava Irikovicha, zhenikha tsarevny Ksenii Godunovoi [The adventures of the king’s son Gustav Eriksson, bridegroom of the tsarevna Xenia Godunova], she became even more thoroughly forgotten than her husband). At any rate, when I hit the phrase “влюбленному Трильби” (‘Trilby in love’) I did a classic double-take. For an instant I thought “Ah yes, Trilby,” with that faint burst of pleasure we get from recognizing an allusion; then I thought “Wait a minute, this is half a century too early for du Maurier’s Trilby — what’s going on?” Furthermore, влюбленному is a masculine adjective, and du Maurier’s Trilby is famously a young woman (with whom all the men are in love).

So I did some research and discovered that there was a much earlier Trilby; I will quote the jovial descripton by the Listener, a columnist for the Boston Evening Transcript (Dec. 1, 1894, quoted in Trilbyana, the Rise and Progress of a Popular Novel, p. 38):

The Listener was asked the other day where du Maurier got the name of Trilby — a sweet and pleasant word, neither English nor French, which seemed to suit so perfectly the adorable young person of his creation. He was able to answer, more by accident certainly than as the result of erudition, that the name was not invented by du Maurier but belongs to the French classics — possibly to Scottish folklore. In the year 1822 there was first published in Paris a nouvelle by Charles Nodier, afterward a member of the French Academy, entitled, “Trilby, or the Fay of Argyle”; it was a sort of fairy story, in which a fay is in love with a mortal woman, and the woman is very far from being indifferent to his sentiment. This ‘Trilby’ attained a considerable degree of popularity; it became, indeed, a French classic; Sainte-Beuve has particularly praised the charm of its style. * * * In his preface to the story, Nodier says: ‘The subject of this story is derived from a preface or a note to one of the romances of Sir Walter Scott, I do not know which one.’ This is a very indefinite acknowledgment. While Nodier may have got his subject from Scott, the Listener doubts if he got the name ‘Trilby’ from him. It is just the sort of name that a French writer would give to a Scotch fay. Nevertheless, Trilby may be a real Scotch elfin. The Listener would hardly claim personal acquaintance with them all.

I should add that Nodier’s novella (Trilby, ou le lutin d’Argail, to give it its original title) provided the inspiration for the ballet La Sylphide (in which Nodier’s male lutin becomes a female sylphide), and of course I would be remiss as a hat man if I did not add the following information about du Maurier’s Trilby from Wikipedia:

The novel has been adapted to the stage several times; one of these featured the lead actress wearing a distinctive short-brimmed hat with a sharp snap to the back of the brim. The hat became known as the trilby and went on to become a popular men’s clothing item in the United Kingdom throughout various parts of the 20th century.

(We discussed the American equivalent, the fedora, here.)


  1. My only association this word evoked was a fancy hat. But it largely lost the soft sign in contemporary Russian spelling. Just трилби.

  2. Makes sense. Du Maurier was born in and studied art in Paris before making a name for himself in England. No reason why he would not have run across Nodier.

  3. marie-lucie says

    When I saw the name “Trilby” I knew I ha seen it before, in a 19C French context, but I did not remember which writer had authored the piece. When I read “Charles Nodier” the connection fell into place. I have never read anything by Nodier (except perhaps some excerpts in anthologies for schoolchildren), but although he is placed among the minor authors he is not totally forgotten.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Now this is the purpose of the Internet. I might never have known where du Maurier got the name “Trilby.”

    The Boston Evening Transcript is absolutely correct, however:

    “It is just the sort of name that a French writer would give to a Scotch fay. ”
    Sorry, marie-lucie. It just is.

    I am also thrilled to discover that the “Boston Evening Transcript” actually existed outside the pages of TS Eliot.
    That is possibly the best name for a newspaper ever.

  5. You can actually read issues of the Boston Evening Transcript at Google News.

  6. Sir JCass says

    I knew about Nodier and Trilby, although I’ve never read it (I’m sure I’ve read another story by Nodier, Smarra, but I can’t remember much about it). I was more intrigued to learn that Nodier had written an experimental novel, L’histoire du roi de Bohême et de ses sept châteaux, influenced by Rabelais and Sterne. I couldn’t get hold of a copy at the time, unfortunately. I know that the title of the book was taken from Tristram Shandy but (IIRC) was also a swipe at the recently overthrown King Charles X, who spent much of his exile in Bohemia.

  7. Sir JCass says

    There’s an interesting essay (In French) at the BNF here discussing the innovative fusion of words and images in L’histoire du roi de Bohême. Nodier worked very closely with his illustrator Tony Johannot. I imagine the fact the lithographs are so tightly bound up with the text is one reason why reprints of the book have been so scarce.

    The essay also touches on Nodier’s word play, especially onomatopoeia:

    “Toute visuelle qu’elle soit, cette déconstruction de la page aux lignes sans cesse coupées, interrompues par des blancs aléatoires ou des points de suspension inattendus, s’appuie en même temps sur une décomposition sonore du langage et un recours facétieux aux onomatopées dont Nodier use et abuse. Manière radicale, certes, de consommer la dérision liée à l’acte d’écrire, mais surtout moyen de rendre théâtralement visible une parole qui semble devenue “contagieuse” : il suffit d’évoquer ici le remplacement de l’onomatopée “brr” évoquant le froid par un “b” suivi d’une vingtaine de “r”. Ce sont les jeux avec les sonorités du langage qui organisent l’architecture même de l’ouvrage, dont les soixante chapitres ont des titres choisis à l’évidence non pour leur cohérence logique, (ils ne cessent de se contredire), mais pour leur terminaison en ” ion” (“introduction”, “rétractation”, “convention”, etc.). Ils déploient une histoire sans queue ni tête hantée peut-être par la nostalgie toute poétique d’une écriture rendue à une pure matérialité sonore.”

  8. Sir JCass says

    Turns out Nodier loved onomatopoiea so much he compiled a whole Dictionnaire Raisonné des Onomatopées Françaises (available on Google Books and for free on Kindle, according to Amazon). He begins with the obsolete word aarbrer, meaning “to rear up” (of a horse), saying this is more energetic and more “imitative” (because of the initial double vowel) than its modern French equivalent, se cabrer.

  9. Nodier sounds like an interesting guy; if I were immersing myself in French rather than Russian lit, I’d dive right in.

  10. John Emerson says

    Nodier served in the imperial army in the area of the old Yugoslavia and picked up some vivid Gothic vampire fantasy stories from there. He was an early influence on young Victor Hugo and others. He deftly negotiated the political changes required between 1790 and 1830. Deserves more attention.

  11. I started reading Trilby. Nodier (or maybe it’s his publisher’s decision) still uses the spelling -ois, connoissent, etc. Surely that’s archaic, in 1822 most people had already changed their spelling (in accordance with very-long-since sound change), hadn’t they?

  12. Although Voltaire had called for the change in 1736, it wasn’t official until the 6th edition of the Dictionnaire in 1835.

  13. marie-lucie says

    David Ed: “It is just the sort of name that a French writer would give to a Scotch fay. ”
    Sorry, marie-lucie. It just is.

    So what?

  14. He was jokily apologizing to you as a representative of the French nation in case you (or it) might be offended by the Listener’s joky remark.

  15. marie-lucie says

    I see, but I don’t see myself as a representative of the French nation! I thought I must have written something unintentionally relevant.

  16. In no way can the fedora be considered the equivalent of the trilby. The fedora is a classic; its brim-to-crown ratio borders on perfection; the snap of its brim can be regulated to suit the taste and, more important, the facial shape of its wearer. The trilby is a silly affectation.

  17. Was the name Svengali a du Maurier neologism ? The handful of ngram citations before 1894 appear to be misdated works. The word seems to have an Anglo-Indian ring to it though this of course could have been dM’s intent.

  18. An interesting question that had never occurred to me.

  19. From Daniel Pick, Svengali’s Web: The Alien Enchanter in Modern Culture (Yale University Press, 2000), p. 220: “Quite how Du Maurier arrived at his astonishingly successful hypnotic formula – or even the name Svengali – remains unclear.”

  20. (Yes, it only took me two minutes to find and post that quote. I am a Google Master.)

  21. From Who Said That First?: The Curious Origins of Common Words and Phrases (p. 318, quoting Professor Stephen Connor, Academic Director at Birbeck College, London):

    The name Svengali is one of Du Maurier’s happiest inspirations; suggesting some Nordic-Oriental cross-breeding, it also has wisps of the words ‘English’, ‘angel’, ‘sanguinary’ and ‘vengeance’ in it. Crossword addicts will spot straight away that it can almost be unzipped into the word ‘enslaving’, as well as, disconcertingly, forming a perfect anagram of the modern phrase ‘sang live’.

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