Narthex story – Trilby continued.
Two of the lines in the letter to “My dear Aged Ant” (sic) read, “I think some wag, someone with more humor than piety is most likely looking down on us today and again enjoying a chuckle over the book St. Paul is reading. He should laugh with us for we have enjoyed it and would not think of taking the paint off.” So now, just over 63 years later, we are again left to chuckle and wonder. Was this humorous wag with yellow paint just a graffiti artist with a new hat he wanted to show off? Or, was he a theater critic? Or, was she well read in world literature? Or, knew that du Maurier’s novel was “a bit risqué” and was seeking forgiveness from St. Paul? Or, in fact, was he a she? Or, you may guess the reason, because our archive records do not solve the tale. Perhaps, when our window washers later truly met St. Paul (they have all since died) they remembered to ask.
Trilby is a novel by George du Maurier and was one of the most popular novels of its time. Published serially in Harper’s Monthly in 1894, it was put into book form in 1895 and it sold 200,000 copies in the United States alone. Trilby is set in the 1850s in Bohemian Paris, and features the stories of three artists, two English and one Scottish. However, the most memorable character – the character who has given us several side-bars related to our story, is Svengali, a Jewish rogue, a masterful musician and hypnotist.
Trilby O’Ferrall, the novel’s heroine, is working in Paris as an artists’ model and laundress, the assumption is that she wants to be singer – but is tone deaf. She falls under Svengali’s spell and he transforms her into a talented diva. But Trilby can only perform in Svengali’s hypnotic trance, even today known as, “the Svengali effect.” Trilby’s story ends in disaster in London, an evening of her big performance. Svengali has a heart attack and cannot induce the trance, she is unable to sing, hooted off the stage, and her performance career is over.
Several visual reminders beyond the Svengali effect are still popular from these events. In an early performance of this novel, one of the featured lead actresses wore a distinctive short-brimmed hat with a sharp snap to the back of the brim, often pulled rakishly down over one eye. The hat became known as the “trilby.” In the 1940s, Mighty Mouse cartoons featured Pearl Pureheart and Oil Can Harry – another trilby story spinoff. And, best of all, du Maurier’s novel inspired Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera which lead to Lon Chaney’s silent movie in 1925 of the same name. The story was not really successful until 1986. At that time, Andrew Lloyd Webber taught the Phantom to sing along with Christine Daae, whom he held under his “Svengali” control. Remember, in this version of the Phantom, he is hidden behind a mask – a symbolic trilby and more than 10,000 performances have witnessed “Svengali” unsuccessful again with Christine.
Today, in spite of repair work and several professional cleanings, St. Paul continues to read the Bohemian Paris title and perhaps, only he holds all the answers. And the rest of the story will have to remain untold.