Brann the Iconoclast— Volume 1

Author: William Cowper Brann

Trilby and the Trilbyites.


The Trilby craze has overrun the land like the "grip" bacillus or the seven-year locust. Here in America it has become almost as disgusting as the plague of lice sent upon Egypt to eat the chilled steel veneering off the heart of Pharaoh the fickle. Everything is Trilby. We have Trilby bonnets and bonbons, poses and plays, dresses and drinks. Trilby sermons have been preached from prominent pulpits, and the periodicals, from penny-post to pretentious magazine, have Trilbyismus and have it bad. One would think that the world had just found Salvation, so loud and unctuous is its hosannah—that Trilby was some new Caabastone or greater Palladium floated down from Heaven on the wings of Du Maurier’s transcendent genius; that after waiting and watching for six thousand—or million—years, a perfect exemplar had been bequeathed to the world.

I have read Du Maurier’s foolish little book—as a disagreeable duty. The lot of the critic is an unenviable one. He must read everything, even such insufferable rot as "Coin’s Financial School," and those literary nightmares turned loose in rejoinder—veritable Rozinantes, each bearing a chop-logic Don Quixote with pasteboard helmet and windmill spear. I knew by the press comments—I had already surmised from its popularity with upper-tendom— that "Trilby" was simply a highly spiced story of female frailty; hence I approached it with "long teeth"’—like a politician eating crow, or a country boy absorbing his first glass of lager beer. I had received a surfeit of the Camillean style of literature in my youth before I learned with Ecclesiastes the Preacher—or even with Parkhurst—that "all is vanity."

So far as my experience goes the only story of a fallen woman that was worth the writing—and the reading—is that of Mary Magdalen; and it is not French. Her affaires d’amour appear to have ended with her repentance. She did not try to marry a duke, elevate the stage or break into swell society. After closing her maison de joie she ceased to be "bonne camarade et bonne fille" in the tough de tough quarter of the Judean metropolis. There were no more strolls on the Battery by moonlight alone love after exchanging her silken robe de chambre for an oldfashioned nightgown with never a ruffle. When she applied the soft pedal the Bacchic revel became a silent prayer. So far as we can gather, the cultured gentlemen of Judea did not fall over each other in a frantic effort to ensnare her with Hymen’s noose. If the Apostles recommended her life to the ladies of their congregations as worthy emulation the stenographer must have been nodding worse than Homer. If the elite of Jerusalem named their daughters for her and made her the subject of public discussion, that fact has been forgotten. And yet it is reasonably certain that she was beautiful—even more beautiful than Trilby, the bones of whose face were so attractive, the pink of whose tootsie-wootsies so irresistible. The Magdalen of St. Luke appears to have been in many respects the superior of the Magdalen of Du Maurier. She does not appear to have been an ignorant and coarse-grained she-gamin who frequented the students’ quarter of the sacred city, posing to strolling artists for "the altogether," being, in the crowded atelier like Mother Eve in Eden "naked and not ashamed." We may suppose that the sensuous blood of the Orient ran riot in her veins—that she was swept into the fierce maelstrom by love and passion and would have perished there but for the infinite pity of our Lord, who cast out the seven devils that lurked within her heart like harpies in a Grecian temple, and stilled the storm that beat like sulphurous waves of fire within her snowy breast.

"And behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet and anointed them with ointment."

How stale, flat and unprofitable the modern stories of semirepentant prostitutes beside that pathetic passage, which shears down into the very soul—penetrates to the profoundest depths of the sacred Lake of Tears! And yet this ultra-orthodox age—which would suppress the ICONOCLAST if it could for poking fun at Poll Parrot preachers—has not become crazed over Mary Magdalen— has not so much as named a canal-boat or a cocktail for her.

Du Maurier says of his heroine: "With her it was lightly come and lightly go and never come back again. . . . Sheer gayety of heart and genial good fellowship, the difficulty of saying nay to earnest pleading . . . so little did she know of love’s heartaches and raptures and torments and clingings and jealousies," etc. A woman who had never been in love, yet confessed to criminal intimacy with three men—and was not yet at the end of her string! Not even the pride of dress, the scourge of need, the fire-whips of passion to urge her on, she sinned, as the Yankees would say, simply "to be a-doin’ "—broke the Seventh Commandment "more in a frolicsome spirit of camaraderie than anything else." That’s the way we used to kill people in Texas. Still I opine that when a young woman gets so awfully jolly that she distributes her favors around promiscuously just to put people in a good humor, she’s a shaky piece of furniture to make a fad of—a doubtful example to be commended from the pulpit to America’s young daughters. The French enthusiasts once crowned a courtesan in Notre Dame as Goddess of Reason and worshiped her; but I was hardly prepared to see the American people enthrone another as Goddess of Respectability and become hysterical in their devotion. I am no he-prude. I have probably said as many kindly things of fallen womanhood as Du Maurier himself, but I dislike to see a rotten drab deified. I dislike to see a great publishing house like that of Harper & Bros. so indifferent to decency, so careless of moral consequences, that, for the sake of gain, it will turn loose upon this land the foul liaisons of the French capital. I dislike to see the mothers of the next generation of Americans trying to "make up" to resemble the counterfeit presentment of a brazen bawd. It indicates that our entire social system is sadly in need of fumigation—such as Sodom and Gomorrah received.

Trilby, the child of a bummy preacher and a bastard barmaid, was born and bred in the slum of the wickedest city in the world. Little was to be expected of such birth and breeding. We are not surprised that she regards fornication as but a venial fault—like cigarette smoking—and sins "capriciously, desultorily, more in a frolicsome spirit of camaraderie than anything else." Girls so reared are apt to be a trifle frolicsome. We are not shocked to see her stripped stark naked in Carrel’s atelier in the presence of half a hundred hoodlums of the Latin quarter—seeming as unconcerned as a society belle at opera or ball with half her back exposed, her bust ready to spill itself out of her corsage if she chance to stoop. We even feel that it is in perfect accord with the eternal fitness of things when these wild sprouts of Bohemia, "with kindly solicitude, help her on with her clothes." We can even pause to admire the experienced skill with which they put each garment in its proper place—and deftly button it. That she should have the ribald slang of the free-and-easy neighborhood at her tongue’s end and be destitute of delicacy as a young cow might be expected; but we are hardly prepared to see one grown up among such surroundings so unutterably stupid as not to know when her companions are "guying" her. Trilby croaking "Ben Bolt" for the edification of les trois Angliches were a sight worthy of a lunatic asylum. It was even more ridiculous than the social performance of that other half-wit, Little Billee, in Carrel’s atelier. Stupidity covers even more sins than charity, hence we should not judge Du Maurier’s heroine too harshly. As weak intellects yield readily to hypnotic power, Svengali had an easy victim. I have no word of criticism for the poor creature. I do not blame Du Maurier for drawing her as he found—or imagined—her, nor can I blame popular preachers, "able editors" and half-wit women for worshiping the freckled and faulty grisette as a goddess; for does not Carlyle truly tell us that "what we see, and can not see over, is good as Infinity?" Still I cannot entertain an exalted opinion of either the intelligence or morals of a people who will place such a character on a pedestal and prostrate themselves before it.

I confess my surprise at the phenomenal popularity of the book among people familiar with Dickens, Scott and Thackeray, triune transcendent of fiction. I had hoped when "Ben Hur" made its great hit that the golden age of flash fiction was past—that it could henceforth count among its patrons only stable boys and scullions; but the same nation that received "Ben Hur" with tears of thankfulness— thankfulness for a priceless jewel of spotless purity ablaze with the immortal fire of genius—has gone mad with joy over a dirty tale of bawdry that might have been better told by a cheap reporter bordering on the jimjams. Has the American nation suddenly declined into intellectual dotage— reached the bald-head and dizzy soubrette finale in the mighty drama of life?

I can account for the success of Du Maurier’s book only on the hypothesis that "like takes to like"—that the world is full of frail Trilbys and half-baked duffers like Little Billee, who, Narcissuslike, worship their own image. They don’t mind the contradictions and absurdities with which the book abounds; in fact, those who read up-to-date French novels are seldom gifted with sufficient continuity of thought to detect contradictions if they appear two pages apart. The book is ultra-bizarre, a thin intellectual soup served in grotesque, even impossible dishes and highly flavored with vulgar animalism—just the mental pabulum craved by those whose culture is artificial, mentality weak and morals mere matter of form. The plot was evidently loaded to scatter. It is about as probable as Jack and the Beanstalk, and is worked out with the skill of a country editor trying to "cover" a national convention. The story affords about as much food for thought as one of Talmage’s platematter sermons—is fully as "fillin’ " as drinking the froth out of a pop-bottle, and equally as exhilarating. Like other sots, the more the literary bacchanal drinks the more he thirsts— appetite increased by what it feeds upon. We can forgive Byron and Boccaccio the lax morals of their productions because of their literary excellence, just as we wink at the little social lapses of Sarah Bernhardt because of her unapproachable genius; but Du Maurier’s book is wholly bad. It could only have been made worse by being made bigger. It is a moral crime, a literary abortion. The style is faulty and the narrative marred—if a bad egg can be spoiled—by slang lugged in from the slums of two continents with evident labor. Employed naturally, slang may serve—in a pinch—for Attic salt; but slang for its own sake is smut on the nose instead of a "beauty-spot" on the cheek of Venus—sure evidence of a paucity of ideas. A trite proverb, a non-translatable phrase from a foreign tongue may be permissible; but the writer who jumbles two languages together indiscriminately is but a pedantic prig. It were bad enough if Du Maurier mixed good English with better French; but he employs in his bilingual book the very worst of both—obsolete American provincialisms and the patois of the quartier latin side by side. To the cultured American who knows only the English of Lindley Murray and scholastic French, the book is about as intelligible as Greek to Casca or the "dog-latin" of the American schoolboy to Julius Caesar.

His characters resemble the distorted freaks of nature in a dime museum. They may all be possible, but not one of them probable. Taffy and Gecko are the best of the lot. The first is a big, good-natured Englishman who wants to see his sweetheart married to his friend, weds another and supports her quite handsomely by painting pictures he cannot sell; the latter a Pole with an Italian’s temperament, yet who sees the woman he loves in the power of a demon—by whom she is presumably debauched—and makes no effort to rescue her, is not even jealous. Svengali is the greatest musician in the world, yet cannot make a living in Paris, the modern home of art. He is altogether and irretrievably bad—despite the harmony in which his soul is steeped! Think of a hawk outwarbling a nightingale—of a demon flooding the world with melody most divine! We may now expect Mephistopheles to warble "Nearer My God to Thee" between the acts! Trilby can sing no more than a burro. Like the useful animal, she has plenty of voice, and, like him, she can knock the horns off the moon with it or send it on a hot chase after the receding ghost of Hamlet’s sire; but she is "tone-deaf"— can’t tell Ophelia’s plaint from the performance of Thomas’ orchestra. Svengali hypnotizes her, and, beneath his magic spell she becomes the greatest cantatrice in Europe. Hypnotism is a power but little understood; so we must permit Du Maurier to make such Jules Verne’s excursions into that unknown realm as may please him. Had Svengali made a contortionist of the stiff old Devonshire vicar we could not cry "impossible." The Laird of Cockpen is a good-natured fellow to whom Trilby tells her troubles instead of pouring them into the capacious ear of a policeman. He is a kind of bewhiskered Sir Galahad who goes in quest of Trilby instead of the Holy Grail, and having found her, sits down on her bed and cheers her up while she kisses and caresses him. As she is in love with his friend, the performance is eminently proper, quite platonic. The Laird advises Trilby to give up sitting for "the altogether"; yet Du Maurier assures us that "nothing is so chaste as nudity"—that "Venus herself, as she drops her garments and steps on to the model-throne, leaves behind her on the floor every weapon by which she can pierce to the grosser passions of men."

Then he informs us that a naked woman is such a fright "that Don Juan himself were fain to hide his eyes in sorrow and disenchantment and fly to other climes." How thankful Cupid must be that he was born blind! Still the most of us are willing to risk one eye on the average "altogether" model. Du Maurier—who is a somewhat better artist than author—illustrates his own book. He gives us several portraits of Trilby, all open-mouthed, with a vacant stare. Strange that he did not draw his heroine nude as she sat on the bed hugging and kissing the Laird—that he did not hang up "on the floor every weapon" by which Venus herself "can pierce to the grosser passions of men." But perchance he was afraid the Laird would "hide his eyes in sorrow and disenchantment and fly to other climes." He could not be spared just yet. Despite his plea for the nude, I think he exercised excellent judgment in leaving Trilby "clothed and in her right mind"—such as it was—while the Laird roosted on her couch in that attic bedroom and was— to us a Tennysonianism—mouthed and mumbled. Even New York’s "four hundred" might have felt a little squeamish at seeing this pair of platonic turtle doves hid away in an obscure corner of naughty Paris in puris naturalibus even if "there is nothing so chaste as nudity."

Du Maurier says that Trilby never sat to him for "the altogether," and adds: "I would as soon have asked the Queen of Spain to let me paint her legs." If nudity be so chaste, and Trilby didn’t mind the exposure even a little bit, why should he hesitate? And why should he not paint the legs of the Queen of Spain—or even the underpinning of the Queen of Hawaii—as well as her arms? But if we pause to point out all the absurd contradictions in this flake of ultra-French froth we shall wear out more than one pencil.

Little Billee is a very nice young man who has been kept too close to his mother’s apron-strings for his own good—a girlish, hysterical kind of boy, who should be given spoonvictuals and put to bed early. Of course he wants to marry Trilby, for he is of that age when the swish of a petticoat makes us seasick. She is perfectly willing to become his mistress—although she had "repented" of her sins and been "forgiven" but a few days before. She has sense enough—despite Du Maurier’s portraits of her—to know that she is unworthy to become a gentleman’s wife, to be mated with a he-virgin like Little Billee. But she is overpersuaded— as usual—and consents. Then the young calf’s mother comes on the scene and asks her to spare her little pansy blossom—not to blight his life with the frost of her follies. And of course she consents again. She’s the great consenter—always in the hands of friends, like an American politician. "The difficulty of saying nay to earnest pleading" prevents a mesalliance. Trilby skips the trala and Little Billee—who has no chance to secure a reconsideration cries himself sick, but recovers,—comes up smiling like a cottonpatch after a spring shower. He is taken to England, but fails to find that "absence makes the heart grow fonder." He gets wedded to his art quite prettily, and even thinks of turning Mormon and taking the vicar’s daughter for a second bride, but slips up on an atheistical orange peel, something has gone wrong with his head. Where his bump of amativeness should stick out like a walnut there is a discouraging depression which alarms him greatly, and worries the reader not a little. But finally he sees Trilby again, and, the wheel in his head, which has stuck fast for five years, begins to whizz around like the internal economy of an alarm clock—or a sky terrier with a clothespin on his tail.

Of course there is now nothing for Trilby to do but to die. They could be paired off in a kind of morganatic marriage; but it is customary in novels where the heroine has been too frolicsome, for her to get comfortably buried instead of happily married,—and perhaps it is just as well. Even a French novelist must make some little mock concession to the orthodox belief that the wage of sin is death. So Trilby sinks into the grave with a song like the dying swan, and Little Billee follows suit—upsets the entire Christian religion by dying very peaceably as an Atheist, without so much as a shudder on the brink of that outer darkness where there’s supposed to be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Svengali has also fallen by the wayside, a number of characters have been very happily forgotten, so the story drags along to the close on three not very attractive legs, Taffy, the Laird and Gecko. It is a bad drama worse staged, with an ignorant bawd for heroine, a weak little thing for leading man, an impossible Caliban for heavy villain and Atheism for moral. Such is the wonderful work that has given this alleged land of intelligence a case of literary mania a potu, set it to singing the praises of a grimy grisette more melodiously than she warbled, "mironton, mirontaine" at the bidding of the villainous Svengali. Such is this new lion of literature who has set American maids and matrons to paddling about home barefoot and posing in public with open mouths—flattering themselves that they resemble a female whom they would scald if she ventured into their back yard.


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Chicago: William Cowper Brann, "Trilby and the Trilbyites.," Brann the Iconoclast— Volume 1 in Brann the Iconoclast—Volume 1 (New York: The Century Co., 1899), Original Sources, accessed August 9, 2022,

MLA: Brann, William Cowper. "Trilby and the Trilbyites." Brann the Iconoclast— Volume 1, in Brann the Iconoclast—Volume 1, New York, The Century Co., 1899, Original Sources. 9 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Brann, WC, 'Trilby and the Trilbyites.' in Brann the Iconoclast— Volume 1. cited in 1899, Brann the Iconoclast—Volume 1, The Century Co., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 9 August 2022, from