The odd couple: mesmerising after all these years

<i>Svengali's Web: the alien enchanter in modern culture</i> by Daniel Pick (Yale University Press, &pound;19.95)
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The Independent Culture

Daniel Pick's previous books have all focused on an underlying irrationalism in the modern world - whether fear of degeneration or the twisted logic that has justified global conflict. Svengali's Web also deals with the power of unreason by taking as its subject George Du Maurier's romantic novel Trilby (1894), which became the first best-seller of the modern age. Set in bohemian Paris, Du Maurier's slightly risqué pot-boiler brings together artistic licence and sexual licentiousness along with the devastating capacity of the unconscious mind. The story of a villainous Jew (Svengali) hypnotising a wholesome Irish woman (Trilby) - to enable her to sing like an angel - was to have an astonishing reception.

Daniel Pick's previous books have all focused on an underlying irrationalism in the modern world - whether fear of degeneration or the twisted logic that has justified global conflict. Svengali's Web also deals with the power of unreason by taking as its subject George Du Maurier's romantic novel Trilby (1894), which became the first best-seller of the modern age. Set in bohemian Paris, Du Maurier's slightly risqué pot-boiler brings together artistic licence and sexual licentiousness along with the devastating capacity of the unconscious mind. The story of a villainous Jew (Svengali) hypnotising a wholesome Irish woman (Trilby) - to enable her to sing like an angel - was to have an astonishing reception.

Trilby was first conceived by Henry James, who generously passed the plot-line on to his friend. What the naive Du Maurier could not have anticipated is that his work about mesmerism would have such an enchanting effect. Within a year, Trilby had sold close to 250,000 copies in Britain and the US. Du Maurier was under siege and, like present-day celebrities, received hundreds of letters exploring the minutiae of his book. He became a virtual recluse. James, feeling a mixture of guilt and envy, would later write about an author (not unlike himself) who did not succumb to the "age of trash triumphant".

One should not underestimate the consumer-led hysteria provoked by this strangely compelling novel. Du Maurier had, unwittingly, created an industry. There were Trilby songs, shoes, sweets and sausages. Trilby-mania gripped the US with, in one estimate, 24 dramatic productions of the novel at the same time. Du Maurier's readers needed Trilby almost as much as Trilby needed Svengali.

Why this "none-too-demanding tear-jerker" should have caused such mass hysteria remains a puzzle. Although Trilby and Svengali were the oddest of couples, they quickly became ubiquitous enough to enter the language. The novel contains manipulations of all kinds - sexual, racial, musical, theatrical - which perhaps points to its astonishing ability to manipulate readers. Pick traces, with his usual zeal, the widespread anxieties that helped to create both " Trilby-madness" and the contradictory contexts for Freudian psychoanalysis. He also shows, tellingly, that fears of anonymous control are still present today (witness the "Svengali-like" figure of Peter Mandelson).

Svengali's Web has an impeccable understanding of the many ambiguities in the novel, and the ways they feed into Victorian fantasies that transport "hearts and minds to unseemly and dangerous places". Du Maurier's formulaic hotch-potch managed to subsume the horror and attraction of mesmerism; of artistic control; of sexual vulnerability and the enchantment of strangers; along with political mastery of the masses.

These themes, Pick argues, were crystallised in the scientific theories and cultural preoccupations of the day. Victorian hypnotism was both a sober science and an erotically charged spectacle, on the border between "treatment and amusement". The fact that Svengali was the most grotesque of Jews - in the venerable English tradition of Shylock and Fagin - coincided with the mass migration of tens of thousands of poor refugees from Eastern Europe. Sir Herbert Beerbohn Tree could thrill his London audience by playing Svengali as a modern Mephistopheles, part incubus, part spider, wholly Semite. As Pick shows, with remarkable intelligence, Svengali remained deeply ambivalent, with his astonishing musical ability and cosmopolitan excess, which was both desired and loathed.

Svengali's Web doesn't quite manage to answer why Trilby became such a marketing phenomenon. One element missing from this excellent cultural history is the way Du Maurier managed to bring together low and high culture for the middle-class consumer. The "age of Svengali" in these terms has less to do with revolutionary fears, as Pick suspects, than what has been called a "middlebrow mania" that continues to the present day.

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