Page:Dictionary of National Biography. Sup. Vol II (1901).djvu/177

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
Du Maurier
Du Maurier
165

In the interval, however, between the appearance of the two stories, a new anxiety had arisen for their author. In the winter of 1891-2 the sight of the remaining eye temporarily failed, and for some six weeks du Maurier was absent from 'Punch,' save for one clever drawing satirising French sentiment which had been some time 'in stock.' During this interval his thoughts turned to lecturing as a possible resource in the event of his sight proving irrecoverable, and he composed a lecture on social satiric art, which he delivered with success many times in London and the provinces, and which was published after his death, with illustrations, in 1898. The lecture treated chiefly of John Leech and Charles Keene ; for both these humorists, and especially for Keene as a master of technique, he had the profoundest admiration. Du Maurier soon tired, however, of lecturing as an occupation, and on the happy recovery of sufficient eye-sight he seldom had recourse to it again.

The new serial, 'Trilby,' was from the beginning a success, and indeed the first half of the story, which is by far the better, marked a great advance upon its predecessor. The picture drawn, with loving hand, of the young Englishmen working in the French painter's studio in Paris, and reproducing, though with obvious embellishments, the author himself and various old friends and associates, including Frederick Walker (recognisable in many traits of temperament and physique in the character of Little Billee), was indeed, in its chief features, an actual transcript of du Maurier's Quartier Latin experiences during his year in Gleyre's studio. Hardly a humorous incident or detail related was new to the present writer, who had heard them from du Maurier's lips many years before 'Trilby' was written or imagined. They form a picture of la vie de Bohème from an Englishman's standpoint and slightly idealised ; and though lacking the inventive genius of Henri Miirger, yet drawn with less cynicism in the humour, and set in an atmosphere of genuine tenderness and pathos. For the real charm of the story lies in the character of Trilby herself an absolutely original creation, the gradual development of whose better nature under the influence of her three devoted English friends is an achievement not unworthy of the greatest modern masters of fiction. It is to be noted that the supernatural element in du Maurier's romances, to which he apparently looked in the first instance for their attractiveness, in no case justified his expectation. His truest success was attained when he trusted most simply and frankly to his human sympathies, and to the 'familiar matter of to-day.'

The melodrama of M. Svengali and the hypnotic impossibilities attributed to him did not, even when the story was dramatised, it may be safely said, form the real attraction of the performance. As to the chief personages in ' Trilby,' the Laird was drawn in all essential particulars from the late Mr. T. R. Lament, du Maurier's fellow-student in Paris, and afterwards associate of the Royal Water-Colour Society, who remained his intimate friend in after life, and survived him only a few months. The large drawing in 'Trilby' of the head of the Laird is an excellent likeness of Mr. Lamont. The character of Taffy was drawn from more than one original. The chief of these was a very splendidly built and handsome athlete, the friend of Mr. Thomas Armstrong and (Sir) Edward Poynter, who shared a studio with them in Paris after du Maurier's removal to Antwerp. Frederick Walker (the original of Little Billee) was some six years the junior of du Maurier, and was never one of the Paris company.

The success of the story, starting in America, and passing speedily to England, proved overwhelming. When reissued in book form, it passed rapidly from edition to edition; and .the author's share of the profits soon sufficed to free him from any anxieties as to the future fortunes of his family. And these gains were to receive considerable additions from the successful dramatisation of the story, in the first instance in America, under the skilful hands of Mr. Paul M. Potter. The play was first produced in London by Mr. Beerbohm Tree at the Haymarket Theatre, of which he was then lessee, in the autumn of 1895, and was acted for six months to overflowing houses Mr. Tree playing Svengali, Miss Dorothea Baird Trilby, and Mr. Lionel Brough and Mr. Charles Allan, as well as the author's son, Mr. Gerald du Maurier, adding materially to the strength of the cast.

It was inevitable, after the immense popularity of 'Trilby,' that liberal offers should be again made to du Maurier for a successor to it. Tempted by these offers he at once addressed himself to the task, though with less appetite and more misgivings than before. The inordinate success of 'Trilby' was no great source of gratification to him. His artistic conscience was not quite at ease, and his own practised critical insight could not but remind him that such sudden triumphs had not fallen to the lot of those masters of fiction on whom he had chiefly