Rethinking Hysteria through Artistic Genius in George Du Maurier’s Trilby and F. W. H. Myers’s Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death

by Rosanna Nunan

October 6, 2013


Drawing on the familiar conception of the artist in English Romanticism as one who possesses an innate source of transcendent creativity and inspiration, F. W. H. Myers appropriates this understanding of the artist from literary history to articulate an innovative theory of the function of the subconscious mind. In their contemporaneous late Victorian works, George Du Maurier and F. W. H. Myers reveal the prominence assumed by the figure of the artistic genius in their attempts to construct a scientifically based belief in the positive and constructive power of the subconscious mind in defiance of increasingly indiscriminate pathological approaches to hysteria at the fin de siècle. Through his illustration of the puzzling continuity between Trilby’s pre-hypnotized development of hysteria and her transformation under hypnotism into an artistic genius, Du Maurier, like Myers, insists that symptoms of hysteria do not necessarily denote mental weakness and explores the implications of a non-pathological approach to emergences of the subconscious.


Rethinking Hysteria through Artistic Genius in George Du Maurier’s Trilby and F. W. H. Myers’s Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death

In his second and most popular novel, Trilby (1894), George Du Maurier provides an account of the transformation of a woman with a medically recognizable case of hysteria from a common Parisian grisette to a virtuoso vocal performer. Through the complex representation of the possible explanations for Trilby’s newfound vocal ability that accompanies this transformation, Du Maurier engages with contemporary theories of art and artistic genius that can be examined in the context of theoretical redefinitions of hysteria at the end of the nineteenth century. In this essay, I examine Du Maurier’s investigation of his heroine’s identity alongside the writings of one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research in England, F. W. H. Myers, whose works constitute a representative example of a developing, non-pathological approach to hysteria in the last decade of the nineteenth century.   In his posthumously published Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1904), Myers provides an argument against the universal pathologization of hysteria in the Victorian era by creating a link between artistic genius and hysterical trance, positing that the work of art produced by a man of genius and the hysteric’s extraordinary performances in a trance state are two manifestations of the same mechanism: traffic between the subconscious and conscious strata of the mind.[1] In this work, Myers illustrates the attempt within psychical research to theorize scientifically the artist or genius as a being uniquely capable of harnessing the power of the subconscious (or in Myers’s terms, “subliminal”) mind for their artistic ends,[2] an ability that, to a certain extent, they share with entranced hysterics.  Like Myers, Du Maurier takes as his subject artistic production and hypnosis, exploring what the work of art may signify when it is generated through an entranced hysteric’s body.

Though Jill Galvan, Phyllis Weliver, and Hilary Grimes have noted the theoretical continuities between Du Maurier and Myers, the intersection between Myers’s treatment of hysteria and the artist and Du Maurier’s second novel is an area that has not been addressed to any significant extent.[3] In Trilby, Du Maurier engages with the problematic status of the hysteric at the end of the nineteenth century in his representation of the heroine’s transformation from a mentally ill woman to an apparent artistic genius under hypnotic trance. Though most critics see Trilby as operating as the empty repository for the hypnotist Svengali’s own talent, which he funnels through her as though playing her as a mere instrument,[4] I propose that Du Maurier, like Myers, entertains the possibility that the hysteric’s extraordinary productions, like the genius’s work of art, attest to the constructive quality of the subconscious mind in defiance of widespread pathological conceptions of hysteria or, in its more spiritual formulation, mystical experience. 

In Myers’s scheme, the work of art, whether literary, musical, visual, or even mathematical, is essentially constructive and serves as evidence of a rare convergence between conscious and subconscious mental strata, a convergence that he specifically claims is observable in its most developed form in “certain traditional saints or sages” (Myers 83).  However, rejecting the Victorian fad of “spiritism,” or popular attempts through séance, table-turning, spirit channeling, and the like, to communicate with the inhabitants of a spiritual realm, Myers and other theorists at the end of the Victorian era distanced themselves from an explicit focus on problematically spiritual concepts like sainthood and mysticism and instead held that study of “uprushes” of the “subliminal self” in special individuals, including both artistic “geniuses” and entranced hysterics, would furnish more empirically verifiable evidence that human consciousness is composed of a complex of layers, some of which, being ungoverned by the limitations of material embodiment, indirectly act as proof of the existence of a spiritual plane of being (Myers passim).

Although Du Maurier was skeptical of religion himself and, according to Leoneé Ormond, “had never been a Christian” and “was an early disciple of Darwin, whose ideas tended to confirm his own,” he nevertheless shared with Myers a scientifically inflected interest in the possibility that the undiscovered regions of the psyche would provide evidential proof of a spiritual realm continuous with the observable realities of the material plane (Ormond 327). His first novel, Peter Ibbetson, for instance, dwells obsessively on the likelihood that dreams will eventually be isolable and available for study, furnishing new insights into the construction of the mind and its ability to access a transcendent realm.[5] Additionally, in an early letter to his friend, Felix Moscheles, Du Maurier explicitly links mesmerism with the concept of spiritual disembodiment when he complains to Moscheles of the latter’s occultism, asking “why should you make nervous fellows’ flesh creep by talk about mesmerism, and dead fellows coming to see live fellows before dying, and the Lord knows what else?”[6] (Mosheles 59-60). Du Maurier’s exposure to the practice of mesmerism by Moscheles in his youth established a connection in his mind between subconscious phenomena and the possibility of spiritual disembodiment, a connection that aligns him closely with the theories of Myers. As I will demonstrate, both Du Maurier and Myers concentrate on hysterical individuals to illustrate their beliefs surrounding the function of the subconscious mind due to hysterics’ known susceptibility to the practice of hypnosis or mesmerism and thus the easy accessibility of their subconscious selves for outsiders. Both writers also emphasize the unexpected revelation that hysterical subconscious emergence can testify to the mysterious and extraordinary powers latent within these supposedly pathological and demented individuals, a paradox that became an important focal point for anti-positivist theorists at the fin de siècle.

Trilby, set in the 1850s and 60s, is a novel about a lower class woman, Trilby O’Ferrall, who befriends three English artists in bohemian Paris. Drawing from the example of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème and other works of the self-styled bohemian genre for certain character types and plot points, the novel nostalgically represents the lives of three English bourgeois artists in the years when they happily suffered for their art in Paris. Regular visitors to their Paris studio include the pianist who goes only by the name of Svengali and his violinist Gecko. Svengali attempts to win Trilby’s affections with his piano performances and his talent for hypnosis, which helps alleviate her neuralgia, but Trilby falls in love with one of the English artists, Little Billee. Midway through the novel, Trilby is forced to abandon her relationship with Little Billee due to her checkered and unrespectable past, involving previous lovers and nude modeling. Though Trilby then disappears from the artists’ lives, she later resurfaces as a world-renowned virtuoso singer under the hypnotic mastery of Svengali.

The terms of the debate regarding Trilby’s status as a hypnotized automaton and the source of her vocal ability in the second half Du Maurier’s novel closely resembles a specific debate regarding hysteria in the last decade of the nineteenth century. While critics discuss Trilby’s transformation under hypnosis in terms of mental fracture, loss of acuity, absolute powerlessness and vulnerability to invasion by outside forces, theorists of hysteria at the end of the nineteenth century overwhelmingly used the same terms to discuss those (primarily women) who exhibited symptoms of hysteria in all its possible stages. Trilby’s exhibition of classic hysterical symptoms from early in the novel up to and including her musical performances in her trance states thus closely allies her with the principal historical conception of hysteria as mental pathology, as others have argued.[7] In his representation of Trilby’s symptoms, including neuralgia and bodily pains of psychological origin, mysterious physical weakening, suicidal tendencies, and susceptibility to hypnotism, Du Maurier appears to validate the conventional assessment of hysteria as illness forwarded by many high profile nineteenth century physicians and psychologists, an assessment that both early and current critical proponents of Trilby’s automatism rightly identify as being central to Du Maurier’s exploration of subconscious phenomena. However, the novel is also indicative of an alternative conception of hysteria at work, one that was developed in order to counter hysteria’s unquestioned association with pathology by the medical and psychological establishments at the end of the century.

In Saint Hysteria, Cristina Mazzoni explains that the late nineteenth century trend, exemplified best by physician Jean-Martin Charcot in his 1886 work Les Démoniaques dans l’Art, to reduce mystical experiences to mental pathology by way of the blanket explanation of hysteria instigated a new approach to hysterical phenomena by theorists who wished to recuperate not only the mystical experiences of the historical saints who were the objects of Charcot’s retrospective hysterical diagnoses, but also the everyday victims of a symptomatology that would reduce complex psychological response to mere madness and degeneracy. Thus, Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer in their medical reformulation of hysteria would include “an exaltation of the mental endowment of hysterics against the frequent accusations of degeneracy and intellectual deficiency which plagued these patients at that time” (Mazzoni 43). Other writers more interested in the spiritual side of the question participated in “the turn-of-the-century revisitation of a characteristically medieval genre, hagiography. Most frequently, the principal purpose for revisiting this genre was to redeem saintliness from positivist accusations of hysteria” (119). Whether to uphold the legitimacy of mystical experience or to undo the damaging effects of reductive pathological assessments of female patients, theorists concerned with establishing an alternative understanding of hysteria did so by concentrating on the extraordinary phenomena to emerge during the hysteric’s trance states, implicitly raising the question of how to reconcile the interpretation of hysteria as pathology and degeneracy with the reality of the hysteric’s performance of seemingly impossible and constructive, rather than destructive, feats despite her apparent mental illness. Mazzoni gestures to this impulse among hysteria’s revisionists, writing, for instance, that “the practical accomplishments of the great mystics prevent their classification as incapable madwomen” for anti-positivist writers in the nineteenth century (159).  She cites decadent novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans as a representative of this perspective, who writes of a famous historical mystic in his novel En Route (1895) that “to assimilate the blessed lucidity and incomparable genius of Saint Teresa with the extravagances of nymphomaniacs and madwomen, that was so obtuse, so inane, that one could really only laugh about it!” (Mazzoni 38, Huysmans 273). Significantly, the essence of Huysmans’s statement is that the “blessed lucidity and incomparable genius,” which allude to clairvoyance and are thus concomitant with St. Teresa of Avila’s allegedly hysterical ecstasies, are precisely what delegitimize Charcot’s claims against the mystic. We can observe a similar approach to hysterical trance in other anti-positivist contexts of the period, indicating that the hysteric’s extraordinary feats under trance in and of themselves play a more central role in fin de siècle recuperative theories of hysteria than has hitherto been recognized.

Freud and Breuer in their path breaking psychological work Studies on Hysteria (1895) provide perhaps the most notable example of hysteria’s reconceptualization at the turn of the twentieth century, and we can further look to the psychologist William James and the lectures comprising his volume, The Varieties of Religious Experience, for a more strident denunciation of hysteria’s widespread pathologization and, perhaps more importantly, the widespread trivialization of artistic or religious expressions to spring from the minds of supposedly hysterical or otherwise unbalanced individuals. As Carroll Smith-Rosenberg explains, at the end of the nineteenth century, “emotional indulgence, moral weakness, and lack of willpower characterized the hysteric in both lay and medical thought,” and, additionally, popular conviction of her moral deficiency “denied the hysteric the sympathy granted to sufferers from unquestionably organic ailments” (Rosenberg 205). In this unfriendly environment for sufferers of hysteria, Freud and Breuer articulated a surprisingly sympathetic approach toward the first patient in their study, Anna O., and also attempted to remove hysteria from the realm of hereditary determinism and degeneracy, focusing instead on trauma as the source of hysterical illness.[8] In his account of Anna O., Breuer writes that this hysterical patient’s increasing susceptibility to hypnosis and her development of hysteria (some of her symptoms included paralyses, hallucinations, and mutism) had as one of its “predisposing causes” a “monotonous family life and the absence of adequate intellectual occupation” that “left her with an unemployed surplus of mental liveliness and energy.” “This,” Breuer adds, “found an outlet in the constant activity of her imagination,” leading to day-dreaming and, eventually, the hysterical “dissociation of her mental personality” (Breuer 41). As Elaine Showalter writes, such an emphasis on Anna O.’s “mental liveliness” and active imagination as the source of her subconscious emergences under hypnosis means that

In strong contrast to the hostile portraits of hysterical women produced by most English and French physicians of the period, Freud and Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria presented a sympathetic and even admiring view. They maintained that hysterics were neither weak nor mentally deficient, as Charcot and Pierre Janet had said, but included “people of the clearest intellect, strongest will, greatest character and highest critical power.” Based on his experiences with Anna O., Breuer argued that the hysterical predisposition lay in an excess, rather than in a lack, of energy, drive, and talent. (Showalter 158)


Showalter demonstrates that Studies on Hysteria emphasizes the “intellectual” acumen and “artistic gifts” of the women described in the case studies (158). I further suggest that the work’s repeated allusions to the energy, talent, and “mental liveliness” of these women reflect a wider preoccupation at the fin de siècle with countering hysteria’s pathologization specifically through an examination of artistic production as proof of mental strength in hysterical individuals. Freud’s and Breuer’s approach to hysteria in their early formulations of the illness merely gestures toward a theoretical revision that was to become a central consideration of other psychological writers in this era, including F. W. H. Myers and William James.[9]

            Before proceeding to the representation of hysteria in the works of Myers and Du Maurier, a brief account of psychologist William James’s refutation of the prevailing pathological assessments of atypical mental states touted by mainstream medicine and high profile theorists of degeneration like Max Nordau will demonstrate the urgency with which this topical issue was addressed in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The first lecture in James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Religion and Neurology,” delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901, encapsulates many of the concerns discussed by Cristina Mazzoni in relation to the late nineteenth century reaction against Charcot’s Les Demoniaques dans l’Art among decadent writers, including Joris-Karl Huysmans in En Route. James, like Huysmans, takes particular issue with the pathologizing of Saint Teresa of Avila, a popular target of “medical materialism,” as James terms the “too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering” (James 20). Indeed, James’s main concern is for the reputation of such mystical personages whose visions, voices, intuitions, and “automatic utterances generally” are under the attack of the medical materialists, who interpret these phenomena “in a destructive rather than an accreditive way” in order to delegitimize their origins and reduce mystics’ “inner illumination[s]” to sheer psychosis (24, 22).

Significantly, in the lecture James analogizes the “automatic utterances” of “hysterical” mystics with the “productions of genius” in his discussion of the pathologization of artistic geniuses by the representative “medical materialists” Cesare Lombroso, John Nisbet, and Max Nordau (24, 23). He claims that, just as the medical materialists attempt to malign the automatic utterances of mystics, so do they insist that “the works of genius are fruits of disease” (22). The only difference between these two prime victims of pathological and degenerative theories of hysteria, genius, and mysticism is that, in most cases, works of art themselves are able to escape the victimization of their creators, while automatic utterances and the individuals who produce them are both reduced to pathology in the case of religious mysticism. He asks, regarding the medical materialists and their interpretation of works of art,

Now, do these authors, after having succeeded in establishing to their own satisfaction that the works of genius are fruits of disease, consistently proceed thereupon to impugn the value of the fruits? … Do they frankly forbid us to admire the productions of genius from now onwards? and say outright that no neuropath can ever be a revealer of truth? (22-3, James’s emphasis)


He answers this question by saying that, with the exception of Max Nordau, who “has striven to impugn the value of works of genius in a wholesale way…by using medical arguments,” other proponents of medical materialism and degeneration do not go so far as to attack the value of works of art themselves, and thus “for the most part the masterpieces are left unchallenged,” though their creators continue to suffer charges of mental illness (23).

            James determines that naysayers of the “automatic utterances” of hysterical individuals and mystics should use the work of art as an example of how the product of mysterious mental processes can have an inherent value that transcends any signs of pathology or hysteria in the individual from whom it originates. He calls this reliance on the observable qualities of both artistic and mystical productions the “empiricist criterion” upon which artists, mystics, and hysterics should be judged, rather than judging them based on their possession of a “psychopathic temperament,” which, he affirms, when combined with a “superior quality of intellect” actually creates the “best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries” (25, 27). He summarizes this “empiricist criterion” in the phrase, “by their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots,” an allusion to Matthew 7:15-18: “You will know them by their fruits…A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit” (James 25, MacArthur 1373). In James’s essay, his emphasis on artistic geniuses and works of art ultimately serves his larger purpose of reaffirming the legitimacy of religion and mysticism in the wake of the devastation wrought against spiritual authenticity by the medical materialists. However, his primary argument, that neuropaths can be revealers of truth, and that this truth can be observed through either the work of art or hysterical automatic utterance, situates him within an important and overlooked revisionary account of hysteria that blossomed in a variety of contexts in the last decade of the nineteenth century. 

I believe that in George Du Maurier’s Trilby the heroine’s automatism under hypnosis can be read with this late nineteenth century reconsideration of hysteria and hysterical phenomena in mind. Even current critics are apt to raise the question of why such an incongruity exists between Du Maurier’s representation of the morbidity of hypnotic susceptibility and the results of this susceptibility, “Trilby’s glorious singing” (Weliver 261). But the contrast Du Maurier creates between the pathological associations of subconscious phenomena and artistic transcendence under trance is more explicable when examined through the lens of alternative approaches to hysteria. Central to both the Freud/Breuer camp and the mystically oriented camp of hysteria’s redefinition is the insistence that the emergence of hysterical symptoms or trance phenomena in either patients or mystics is not necessarily an indication of mental weakness. Myers fully develops this argument in Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death in preparation for his larger hypothesis regarding the continuity between the constructive work of art and the constructive nature of subconscious phenomena produced by the hysteric, whose mental weakness and degeneracy in mainstream medical contexts is already presupposed. An examination of Myers’s treatment of the problem of mental weakness and hysteria serves to reveal that Du Maurier also works to deny the reader’s assumption of mental weakness in Trilby in order to question the wisdom of pathological approaches to hysteria.          

Myers’s account of hysteria in Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death hinges on a refutation of its strictly pathological connotation that was widely disseminated by the end of the nineteenth century by medical practitioners such as Pierre Janet and Jean-Martin Charcot, an attitude that is addressed by Du Maurier in his chronicle of the progress of Trilby’s mental illness.[10] Just as James, Huysmans, and the anti-positivists discussed by Mazzoni challenge late Victorian medicine by redefining mysticism as non-pathological, so does Myers spearhead an attack against the positivist rejection of a spiritual realm by beginning with an examination of hysterical phenomena and the mental processes underpinning them. Writing that “there are in hysteria frequent acquisitions as well as losses of faculty,” Myers denies Janet’s assertion that symptoms of hysteria necessarily indicate a “fragmented” or “disaggregated” psyche by claiming that, in some hysterical subjects, “we are looking for integrations in lieu of disintegrations; for intensification of control, widenings of faculty, instead of relaxation, scattering, or decay.”[11] “Our ‘degenerates’ may sometimes be in truth progenerate,” he also states (Myers 53, 41, his emphasis).  Myers further refutes the proponents of hysterical degeneration by suggesting that it is a mistake to attribute “initial weakness of mind” to subjects who succumb to psychological distress, and to do so is like attributing an “Artic explorer’s frost-bite” to “bad circulation.” He writes:

In the case of hysteria, as in the case of frost-bite, the inborn power of resistance may be unusually great, and yet the stimulus may be so excessive that that power may be overcome. Arctic explorers have generally, of course, been among the most robust of men. And with some hysterics there is an even closer connection between initial strength and destructive malady. (40)


If we consider the “widenings of faculties” observable in the paradoxically strong hysteric rather than concentrating on the decay of the weak hysteric, Myers posits, “we shall then reach the point where the vague name of hysteria must give place to the vague name of genius” (53, his emphasis). Overturning the Victorian categorization of artistry as madness or degeneracy, Myers creates an alternative continuum on which both artistry and hysteria are attributes of a constructive subconscious.

Before examining the way in which Trilby’s musical career engages with scientific theories of the fin de siècle man of genius, I would like to analyze her case of hysteria in the first half of the novel as a refutation, similar to that of Myers, of the notion that atypical mental states necessarily follow from “initial weakness of mind.” In order to turn Trilby into an artistic genius later in the novel, Du Maurier first illustrates that, like the Arctic explorer in Myers’s account, “excessive” psychological “stimulus” is responsible for the development of hysterical symptoms in a hitherto especially “robust” woman (Myers 40). 

In Trilby, Du Maurier’s investigation of mental processes and, specifically, mental weakness, begins with his establishment of Trilby as a woman with a recognizable case of hysteria, which she develops as a result of her failure to conform to the bourgeois conception of “virtuous” womanhood, that quality which belongs only to virgin women (if unmarried, as Trilby is) in Victorian culture. Other scholars have discussed Du Maurier’s representation of Trilby as specifically related to the medical theorization and treatment of hysteria at the end of the nineteenth century.[12] In Trilby, excessive psychological stimulus resulting in hysteria takes the specific form of social condemnations against “fallen” women, or unmarried women whose lack of virginity or participation in taboo sexual behaviors (like Trilby’s nude modeling) translates to a permanent loss of womanly “virtue” under the standards set by bourgeois Victorian culture. Du Maurier’s interest in Trilby’s fallen state is partly due to the opportunity it provides to examine the gradual mental weakening of a powerful individual through the internalization of “excessive stimulus” in the form of a bourgeois code of morality. Like many other novelists at the fin de siècle, Du Maurier makes it a priority to rewrite fallenness as virtue,[13] although in the case of Trilby rewriting fallenness also provides an opportunity to rewrite hysteria due to the similarity between the Victorian conceptualization of these two amoral mental “illnesses” (Anderson 23).[14] Trilby self-consciously critiques the social stigmatization of fallenness by intimating that it is by internalizing a social construction of herself as fallen that Trilby develops a mental illness, but that, like Myers’s Arctic explorer, this capitulation to psychological distress is no indicator of initial weakness of mind. Including Trilby’s added distress over the death of her brother, Jeannot, allows Du Maurier to showcase her reaction to breaches of various standards of morality, highlighting her exemplarity and further distancing her from stereotypes that equate hysteria with derangement, nymphomania, and general moral decay. 

Before examining Trilby’s case of hysteria, an overview of Myers’s treatment of the intersection between hysteria and morality will help elucidate Du Maurier’s approach to the same subject. In Victorian medical discourse, the hysteric is overwhelmingly understood to be an amoral or immoral being as a result of her derangement and what is characterized as her uncontrollable sexuality. Hysterical symptoms themselves are often interpreted in Victorian writings on the subject as elaborate deceptions engineered by their sufferers in order to gain sympathy as well as confound and thwart the efforts of attending physicians, who thus oftentimes equated hysterical women with falsehood, immorality, and inauthenticity even before examining them.[15]  Additionally, Mazzoni writes of nymphomania and hysteria that “the two are almost synonymous diagnoses in the nineteenth-century popular imagination and often, in spite of many proofs to the contrary, even in medical opinion” (39). The widespread equation of hysteria with not only mental pathology, but, specifically, sexual pathology and immorality, is a problem for Myers for the same reason that equating hysteria with mental illness is: if it is true that the hysteric can be reduced to pathological sexuality, then the constructive quality of the subconscious phenomena to emerge during her trance states can be automatically delegitimized due to their essentially amoral and pathological origins. Thus, Myers’s solution to this difficulty is to argue that not only is hysteria not necessarily an indication of mental weakness, but, also, that hysterical response is inherently moral. He writes:

It has often happened that the very feelings which we regard as characteristically civilised, characteristically honourable, have reached a pitch of vividness and delicacy which exposes their owners to shocks such as the selfish clown can never know. It would be a great mistake to suppose that all psychical upsets are due to vanity, to anger, to terror, to sexual passion. (40)


He later adds, “Who shall say how far we desire to be susceptible to stimulus? Most rash would it be to assign any fixed limit, or to class as inferior those whose main difference from ourselves may be that they feel sincerely and passionately what we feel torpidly” (41). Here the hysteric’s heightened sensitivity is a sign of sincerity, delicacy, honor, and civilization. It is not because the hysteric lacks a moral basis, but because she is in fact more sensitive to ethical questions that she becomes ill.

Like Myers, Du Maurier concentrates on the intersection between susceptibility to shocks or stimulus and morality, indicating that the origin of Trilby’s hysterical symptoms is her sensitivity to moral mandates despite the fact that she is a conventionally “fallen” woman. Concentrating on the complex origins of Trilby’s hysteria helps Du Maurier overturn the Victorian expectation that hysterical symptoms spring forth from a darkly deceptive and immoral core.  Just as Anna O.’s hysteria “signif[ied] through the body … the protest that social conditions made unspeakable in words” and registered “her rejection of the patriarchal orthodoxy” that constricted her daily life, so do Trilby’s hysterical symptoms mark her as a woman who unconsciously resists patriarchal mandates regarding respectable behavior (Showalter 157). Trilby’s ultra-sensitivity to moral transgression is developed in the novel through her unconscious internalization of strictly constructed rules for women and her hysterical revelation of the oppressive nature of these rules through neuralgic symptoms. Such a reading helps explain the narrator’s description of Little Billee’s early encounter with Trilby, when, with a “[quick flash] of intuitive insight,” he “divined far down beneath the shining surface of [Trilby’s] eyes…a well of sweetness; …and under that—alas! at the bottom of it all—a thin slimy layer of sorrow and shame” (36). “Far down beneath” her exemplary qualities of “compassion, generosity, and warm sisterly love,” in the deep, embedded recesses of her mind, is where Du Maurier tellingly chooses to locate Trilby’s “layer” of shame about moral transgression. The term layer here suggests graduated levels of consciousness, and shame has been repressed to the lowest level of consciousness available, i.e., the unconscious. Her unconscious attempt to resist capitulating to others’ categorization of her behavior as shameful proves to be impossible in this Victorian milieu and thus results in hysterical attacks.

Trilby’s first episode of neuralgic pain occurs early in the novel when she descends from the sculptor Durien’s apartment, “eyes…red with weeping.” “The pain was maddening, and generally lasted twenty-four hours” (55). As one of the three men specifically named for whom Trilby “sits promiscuously” (77), or models nude, Durien triggers neuralgic pain because, for Trilby, modeling for him is associated with sexual and moral transgression. Trilby’s guilty emergences of neuralgic pain springing from her repressed knowledge of the unrespectable categorization of modeling in bourgeois and patriarchal thought is not represented as proof of “erotomania,” but rather as sensitivity to ethical questions.[16] Mazzoni writes that, in psychoanalytic theories of hysteria and mysticism, “the ‘body’ holds a knowledge that is other or in excess of conscious knowledge,” that is, the physical symptoms of hysteria act as representations of an otherwise inarticulable state of mind (187). Rather than figuring the moral decay of nymphomania or erotomania, Du Maurier’s allusions to psychological repression suggest that Trilby’s neuralgic pain can be read as a bodily representation of repressed distress regarding conventional morality, highlighting the heroine’s sensitivity to ethical questions even as she transgresses laws of bourgeois respectability. Emphasizing the hysteric’s guilt and moral sensitivity is one strategy both Myers and Du Maurier use to undermine conventional expectations of hysteria. To prove that the hysteric’s subconscious emergences under hypnosis are constructive, non-pathological, and extraordinary, it is first necessary to legitimize the hysteric herself, and liberate her from charges of immorality, deception, nymphomania, and similar destructive attributes.

Trilby’s sensitivity not only to questions of sexual ethics for women but to morality in a more general sense is reinforced by her reaction to the death of her younger brother, Jeannot. When Trilby recounts the aftermath of his unexpected death, she describes her grief and guilt as having maddened her to the point of suicide, although before this comes to pass her altered mental state and the return of her neuralgic pain lead her back to Svengali, who had successfully relieved her neuralgia in the past through hypnosis (296, 57). The full story of this most intense of her hysterical emergences of madness and neuralgic pain is not divulged until Trilby explains the nature of her guilt over Jeannot’s death to Little Billee’s mother, Mrs. Bagot, at the end of the novel. Revealing the details of an event that occurred before her brother died, an event that she significantly describes as “the lowest and meanest thing I ever did,” Trilby tells the story of how she

promised to take Jeannot on Palm Sunday to St. Philippe du Roule, to hear l’abbe Bergamot. But Durien (that’s the sculptor, you know) asked me to go with him to St Germain, where there was a fair, or something…. And I went on Sunday morning to tell Jeannot that I couldn’t take him [to St. Philippe du Roule]. (324)


Her little brother’s disappointment and tears over her decision to renege on her promise to him haunts her for life and she says, “It was six or seven years ago, and I really believe I’ve thought of it every day, and sometimes in the middle of the night. Ah! and when Jeannot was dying! And when he was dead—the remembrance of that Palm-Sunday!” After she concludes, Mrs. Bagot writes off the incident by saying, “What nonsense! That’s nothing; good heavens!—putting off a small child! I’m thinking of far worse things…sitting to painters and sculptors” (326). Although a minor incident, Trilby’s story illustrates two points. One is that Trilby’s guilt and resulting hysterical attack following the death of her brother reinforces her sensitivity to morality, not only to potentially artificially constructed standards of bourgeois female sexuality, but, as Du Maurier represents her neglect of Jeannot here, to genuine moral “truths” that, even if she has transgressed them, she is able to divine and repent of when others are not.[17] The second point is that, as in Myers’s theory of the constructive and moral hysteric, Du Maurier’s contrast between Trilby’s tortured and Mrs. Bagot’s blasé reaction to this transgression exemplifies Myers’s contention of sensitive hysterics that “they feel sincerely and passionately what we feel torpidly” (Myers 41).

The preceding paragraphs have served to illustrate Myers’s and Du Maurier’s similar investment in the sensitive and moral nature of hysterical response through an examination of a woman who would stereotypically be consigned to the degenerative category of nympho- or erotomaniac due to her affairs and nude modeling, or, more comprehensively, her “fallenness.” However, in order to prove that hysteria is not necessarily an indicator of initial mental weakness, and that the woman of genius in Myers’s sense is not a pathological but rather a constructive being, it is not enough for Du Maurier to establish Trilby’s illness as originating from the excessive stimulus of the Victorian moral code; he must also demonstrate that Trilby possesses a unique strength of mind that can map neatly onto the “transcendent” conception of the man of genius within the contemporary camp of psychical research represented by the theories of Myers. Positing that a redirection of mental “attention” through hypnotism allows for the activation of latent potentialities in the subconscious self of certain individuals, Du Maurier uses Svengali’s hypnosis of Trilby to reorient our understanding of her from a fractured, fallen, or hysterical woman to its opposite, the artistic genius in Myers’s theorization of the subconscious mind.

Before Trilby undergoes her hypnotic transformation and becomes the famed singer known as “La Svengali” midway through the novel, Du Maurier is careful to highlight her unusual strength of mind, figured most frequently through her powerful will. Reminders of her formidable will are scattered throughout the first half of the narrative. Writing of Trilby’s sculptor friend, Durien, Du Maurier describes Trilby as “his Galatea—a Galatea whose marble heart would never beat for him!” (107, Du Maurier’s emphasis). Likened to a sculpture that, typically, would be an emblematic example of total malleability to the sculptor’s will and desire, Trilby differs from Galatea because she resists sculpturing; she outmaneuvers the sculptor because she possesses a unique strength of will. Additionally, Trilby’s feet, described as “uncompromising and inexorable,” stand in for Trilby’s own uncompromising and inexorable will, and initiate in Little Billee “a curious thrill that was only half-aesthetic” when he looks at them (35).  The narrator later tells us that Trilby “dearly loved her own way,” and that this was “the aggravating side of her irrepressible Trilbyness” (76).  And, later, her “confounded Trilbyness” is defined as “assuming an authority that did not rightly belong to her, and of course getting her own way in the end” (129). In these descriptions Du Maurier reiterates that Trilby’s erotic attractiveness and her very “Trilbyness,” or individual identity, are best understood through the dominant position her powerful will occupies in her psyche.

Just as Du Maurier aims to show that Trilby’s development of hysteria is due to the excessive stimulus of Victorian morality rather than initial weakness of mind, so does he create continuity between her unique strength of will in the first half of the novel and her unparalleled musical abilities of the second half, ultimately suggesting that the latter are a more “concentrated” realization of the former when under hypnosis. The concepts of concentration or attention are important in Myers’s account of hypnotic phenomena, and in his chapter on hypnosis he writes, “many of the most important hypnotic results will be best described as modifications of attention” (138, his emphasis). He further explains:

Any modification of attention is of course likely to be at once a check and a stimulus;--a check to certain thoughts and emotions, a stimulus to others. And in many cases it will be the dynamogenic aspect of the change—the new vigour supplied in needed directions—which will be for us of greatest interest.[18] (138)


Du Maurier is also intrigued by the possibility that hypnosis can redirect attention and supply “new vigour in needed directions,” activating latent potential in certain individuals with powerful subconscious selves. In the novel, Du Maurier forwards a theory of creativity in which certain “faculties” need to be “lost” in “over-rich and complex natures” in order for the “supreme faculty” of creativity to have “elbow-room to reach its fullest” (140). Several passages in the novel indicate that Du Maurier sees the development of creative genius as a contest between self-consciously developing one’s individual identity and unconsciously developing one’s creative skill, whether as a painter, musician, or other artist. Little Billee’s growing success as a painter is related to his loss of interest in his individuality when, following his growing fame in the art world, we are told, “his vanity about himself had become as nothing, and he missed it almost as much as his affection.” Du Maurier elaborates:

Yet [Little Billee] told himself over and over again that he was a great artist, and that he would spare no pains to make himself a greater. But that was no merit of his own.

2 + 2 = 4, also 2 x 2 = 4: that peculiarity was no reason why 4 should be conceited; for what was 4 but a result, either way?

Well, he was like 4—just an inevitable result of circumstances over which he had no control—a mere product or sum; and though he meant to make himself as big a 4 as he could (to cultivate his peculiar fourness), he could no longer feel the old conceit and self-complacency.” (169, Du Maurier’s emphasis)


We have seen that, in the first half of the novel, Trilby’s strength of will is almost synonymous with her “Trilbyness,” or individual identity. Fiona Coll writes that, in the first half of the novel, Trilby’s “unconventionality can, in fact, be understood as a concerted attempt to carve out something by way of an individual, independent subject-hood” (758). While Coll sees this individuality being gradually eroded as a result of the social pressures that would have Trilby become an automaton rather than an independent subject, Du Maurier’s account of Trilby’s “concerted effort to carve out…[a] subject-hood,” frequently referred to as her “Trilbyness,” by way of her strong will may have implications beyond the novel’s critique of society’s disciplinary control of unconventional behavior. For Little Billee, losing his “vanity about himself” or becoming indifferent to his “peculiar fourness” somehow correlates to a spontaneous increase in creative faculty. In Myers’s terms, a “check” to his self-conscious attention on individuality acts as a “stimulus” to the development of creative faculty. By extension, we might infer that Trilby’s conscious direction of attention, or will,[19] toward establishing her individuality or “Trilbyness” in the first half of the novel means that it is not available for other uses, such as the development of her rare creative capacity, until her attention is no longer concentrated in this direction.

            The theory of the inverse proportion between attention to “the individual” and the realization of one’s creative genius that Du Maurier alludes to in his representation of Little Billee’s illness and Trilby’s musical abilities can be usefully contextualized by Victorian psychologist E. S. Dallas’s thoughts upon the subject in his 1866 work, The Gay Science. The Gay Science also engages extensively with the creative subconscious and automatism in a manner that suggests that both Myers’s and Du Maurier’s works conceptually followed closely upon the ideas introduced by Dallas decades earlier. Dallas claims that creative imagination is “but a popular name given to the unconscious automatic action of the hidden soul” (Dallas 245). The “hidden soul” is Dallas’s name for the subconscious or hidden regions of the mind, or the subliminal self in Myers’s works. As for Myers, for Dallas creative inspiration and resulting artistic productions are the province of the hidden soul and require some level of suspension of consciousness to manifest themselves, thus appearing automatic in nature. The extraordinary artistic productions to emerge from poets, musicians, painters, as well as those of supposed hysterics or people in trance states, all originate from the hidden soul. Additionally, Dallas claims that while the conscious self is primarily focused on “the individual” or local, the hidden soul is rather concerned with “wholes” or the universal. He writes,

There is no reason why in conscious judgment we should not compare wholes with wholes; but this sort of comparison belongs to the automatic and unconscious action of the mind. Left to itself, in the freedom of unconsciousness, the mind acts more as a whole, and takes more to wholes. It is not much given to the splitting of hairs and the partition of qualities. To make the partitive assertions and comparisons of every-day judgment, there is needed a certain amount of abstraction; to abstract needs attention; and attention is but another name for the rays of consciousness gathered into a sheaf or focus. (270)


He describes the creative subconscious as being a part of the mind that “leaps to wholes—leaps from the particular to the universal, from the accidental to the necessary, from the temporary to the eternal, from the individual to the general” (292). Du Maurier describes Little Billee in a similar vein following his experience of brain fever: “So his powers of quick, wide, universal sympathy grew and grew, and made up to him a little for his lost power of being specially fond of special individuals,” including being fond of himself (183). The narrator adds, “And I think all this genial caressing love of his kind, this depth and breadth of human sympathy, are patent in all his work” (184). Little Billee’s illness after Trilby abandons him is represented as a similar sort of deadening of consciousness of himself and others that Trilby experiences through hypnosis, though he is never entranced. His loss of interest or attention to the individual following his altered mental state is replaced by a grander grasp of the universal, which Du Maurier directly correlates to an increase in creative faculty. Mirroring Little Billee’s increased expertise as a painter, Trilby’s wide appeal as a singer and the transcendent quality of her performances is a second example of an unprecedented improvement in creative ability that is associated with a diminishment of her focus on the individual or local that characterizes the conscious state, in which the necessity to particularize means that the “rays of consciousness are gathered into a sheaf” and directed at mundane matters that the subconscious self, with its universalizing impulse, ignores.

            The important role that a change of attention and the subdual of her conscious self plays in Trilby’s rise to stardom as a musician is observable in a comparison of the descriptions of her singing ability before and after she is hypnotized. Through Trilby’s “tone-deafness” at the beginning of the novel, Du Maurier suggests that her powerful will is directed toward establishing her own individuality or “Trilbyness,” or, as Coll puts it, “carv[ing] out…[a] subject-hood,” and that this conscious attention on individuality is preventing her from cultivating her unique talent, singing (Trilby 21). After she first sings “Ben Bolt” for her artist friends at the beginning of the novel, a performance “too grotesque and too funny for laughter,” she says to Little Billee, “Some people think I can’t sing a bit…. I vary it, you know—not the words but the tune” (21, my emphasis).  She further says that the “great composer” Litolff, recently hearing her sing the same song, told her that

Madame Alboni couldn’t go nearly so high or low as I did, and that her voice wasn’t half so big….  He said I breathed as natural and straight as a baby and all I want is to get my voice a little more under control. (20-21, my emphasis) 


Du Maurier suggests that even in Trilby’s pre-hypnotized state, when she apparently possesses no musical talent and shocks everyone with the grotesqueness of her voice, in actuality it is her attention on her individuality that causes her to “vary the tune” and make it her own (a concrete example of “dearly lov[ing] her own way”), thus stamping it with her “Trilbyness.” Her unusually wide range, ideal physiology, and powerful vocal ability indicate that Trilby could supersede the legendary singer Madame Alboni if, in Myers’s words, she underwent a “modification of attention” (Myers 138).  Once hypnotism allows for a redirection of her attention, Trilby is able to reach an unprecedented level of creative transcendence because the conscious attention that she once used to exercise agency in other arenas has now been rechanneled by her powerful subconscious toward a new objective, vocal performance.

            The concept of redirected attention of the subconscious mind under hypnosis may also help account for the thorny difficulty of Trilby’s reproduction of Svengali’s own songs during her hypnotized performances. The identical content of Svengali’s piano recitals, his later performances on his “flexible flageolet” and Trilby’s vocal performances under hypnosis is one of the primary details of the novel that is marshaled as evidence for Trilby’s status as empty repository through which Svengali funnels his own talent, a seemingly incontrovertible argument. However, that Trilby’s subconscious is able to regenerate Svengali’s music under hypnosis despite the fact that her conscious self explicitly pays him no heed during his many piano recitals indicates that she is in possession of a uniquely powerful subconscious self in the manner explicated by Dallas and Myers. Svengali finds Trilby’s lack of attention to him to be very bothersome during his musical performances, as he does when anyone fails to direct “attention to himself” (48). He says to Trilby,

When I play the ‘Rosemonde’ of Schubert, matemoiselle, you look another way and smoke a cigarette…You look at the big Taffy, at the Little Billee, at the pictures on the walls, or out of the window, at the sky, the chimney-pots of Notre Dame de Paris; you do not look at Svengali! (60)


Trilby’s lack of musical ear throughout the first half of the novel means that her conscious self has no interest in listening to Svengali’s music; “his grandest music…was as completely thrown away on Trilby as fireworks on a blind beggar, for all she held her tongue so piously” (38). Through Trilby’s dramatic and reiterated lack of attention toward Svengali in the first half of the novel, Du Maurier underscores the puzzling but formidable power of her subconscious mind, which is somehow able to reproduce Svengali’s songs under hypnosis, though they fail to register in her conscious mind at all. Du Maurier emphasizes a concept of obstructed sensory perception, highlighted by his description of Trilby’s auditory perception of music as analogous to “fireworks [thrown away upon] a blind beggar” (38). Trilby’s failure to register Svengali’s songs in her waking memory is a problem that is rectified by the suspension of her obstructing consciousness. The extraordinary results of this suspension, Trilby’s inimitable performances under trance, attest to the astonishing capacity of her subconscious self to organize and reproduce what are otherwise nonsensical imprints made in her waking state on her conscious mind.

            Curiously, E. S. Dallas, in his explanation of the precise phenomenon of singing in a subconscious state the music that does not register at all while conscious, closely approaches Du Maurier’s representation of Trilby and further corroborates Du Maurier’s illustration of the constructive power of a musical subconscious rather than its degeneracy. Beginning with the statement that “whether we know it or not, the senses register with a photographic accuracy whatever passes before them, and that the register, though it may be lost, is always imperishable,” Dallas recounts a case of somnambulism in which a

dull awkward country girl…who in particular showed not the faintest sense of music…had to sleep next a room in which a tramping fiddler of great skill sometimes lodged. Often he would play there at night, and the girl took notice of his finest strains only as a disagreeable noise. By and by, however, she fell ill, and had fits of sleep-waking in which she would imitate the sweetest tones of a small violin…[and] dash off into elaborate pieces of music, most delicately modulated. (215-216)


All of the elements of Trilby’s performances are anticipated here: the girl has no ear for music, is unable to register it as music in her conscious state, and then produces these instrumental compositions vocally and virtuosically when her consciousness is suspended in trance. Dallas continues to explain what such performances signify about the mind: “The memory grips and appropriates what it does not understand—appropriates it mechanically, like a magpie stealing a silver spoon, without knowing what it is, or what to do with it” (216). The “mechanical” quality of the mind as it is exhibited through entranced musical performance, however, does not constitute for Dallas a loss of agency in the way that critics typically consider Trilby. He writes,

Nor must we have mean ideas as to the nature of the existence in the mind of things preserved beyond our knowledge and without our understanding….On the contrary, the mind is an organic whole and lives in every part, even though we know it not….The stars are overhead, though in the blaze of day they are unseen; they are not only overhead, but also all their influences are unchanged. So there is knowledge active within us of which we see nothing, know nothing, think nothing.[20] (216- 217, my emphasis)


Comparing the activity of the subconscious to powerful stars that are present but invisible in the light of day (or in our conscious states), Dallas underscores the mistakenness of having “mean ideas” about subconscious phenomena and the proof they offer that the mind has machine-like qualities. For Dallas, automatism is no argument against the authenticity of artistic inspiration or artistic production because he defines the term “imagination” as “a name given to the automatic action of the mind or any of its faculties—to what may not unfitly be called the Hidden Soul,” Dallas’s term for the subconscious or subliminal self (194). Dallas believes that to denigrate subconscious phenomena as indicative of illness or insanity constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which all artistic inspiration functions, that is, as an operation of the “hidden energy of the brain…directing like any musical conductor” (245). While individuals in trance states, like Trilby, betray machine-like behavior, this is due to the fact that the conscious self is being directed by a more powerful subconscious self that is able to emerge under certain conditions.

Because of the results of Trilby’s suspension of her obstructing consciousness when her subconscious self rises to the surface, the chronicle of her career as a hypnotized singer under the tutelage of the pianist Svengali enacts the theories forwarded by Myers surrounding the transcendent “man of genius,” whose “subliminal uprushes,” or the realization of inspirations and abilities normally latent in the subconscious strata of the mind, attest to the existence of a spiritual plane of being that can be more easily accessed as control is increasingly gained over this mysterious mental region. Myers’s examples of “subliminal uprushes” extend from the instantaneous calculations of mathematical savants (or “calculating boys”) to “Wordsworth’s moments of inspiration” when composing his poems (64, 81). Because these are moments in which “the maximum of faculty is…manifested,” they are evidence of an “extension…of mental concentration which draws into immediate cognisance some workings or elements of the hidden self” (Myers 61). “Flash[es] of genius,” like the instantaneous performance of normally impossible mathematical calculations, provide a kind of low-level example of latent constructive and transcendent mental faculties that are indicative of “an integrative […] and not a dissolutive” process in the mind, “a gain and not a loss of power over the organism” (72). Because experiments on hysterical subjects under hypnosis had demonstrated them performing similar party-trick type feats, Myers refutes the argument that these are indications of mental degeneration by classing the hysteric with the man of genius and claiming that the similarities between their latent abilities prove that the subconscious phenomena in both cases constitute “widenings of faculty, instead of relaxation, scattering, or decay” (53). If the feats of the “calculating boy” and the poetic inspirations of Wordsworth are both examples of “widenings of faculty” that can be attributed to the workings of the same hidden mental region inhabited by the “subliminal self,” then the party-tricks of hysterics under hypnosis in addition to their more impressive reputed feats of clairvoyance, telepathy, or, in Trilby’s case, the display of musical virtuosity, are all instances of “subliminal uprush” that have as their shared source a portion of the mind that is not governed by the normal limitations of material reality.

Like the calculating boy or the Romantic poet, Trilby exhibits an “emergence of hidden faculty” under hypnosis that can be evaluated in artistic terms as evidence of a “subliminal uprush” from a mind that is especially powerful and constructive. According to Myers, the subliminal self’s “widenings of faculty” or integrative actions, frequently observable in the feats performed by men of genius or hysterics, “[are] performed with almost no conscious intervention of thought or judgment, but [involve] a new and complex adaptation of voluntary muscles such as would need habitually [a] man’s most careful thought to plan and execute” (62). Trilby’s aesthetically perfect and technically unparalleled musical performances under hypnosis are an instantiation of Myer’s theoretical “widenings of faculty.” Acts of genius require “a new and complex adaptation of voluntary muscles” that in typical individuals take considerable conscious effort (sometimes over the course of years) to effect. But the untold powers of the subliminal self, when unobstructed by the conscious self, can work these changes at an accelerated pace, with astonishing results.

Thus, Trilby’s performances under hypnosis are not necessarily an indication of mental fracture and pathological, hysterical susceptibility. Earlier I explained that Trilby’s will in her conscious state is concentrated on her individuality or “Trilbyness,” to the detriment of her singing ability. Hypnotic redirection of attention away from individuality, however, allows for her subliminal self to emerge, discernible by an unprecedented increase in control over the voluntary muscles of her vocal cords. Early in the novel, when Trilby’s attempts to sing are described as “too grotesque…for laughter,” a seasoned musician intuits that if she were too get her voice “a little more under control,” she would be a virtuoso. Svengali has the same intuition when he looks into her mouth and examines her like a physician examining an hysteric, calling her voice a “very good production” and realizing (as we later find out) that putting her into a trance state will facilitate her rise to stardom (Russo 149, Trilby 58). Although Svengali too is a musician and a virtuoso himself, his inability to “evolve from some inner recess a voice to sing with” is contrasted to the dramatic emergence of just such an artistic “inner recess” from Trilby’s subconscious (47). Additionally, Svengali’s repeated assertion that he found il bel canto “in a dream” after it had been lost to earth for “a hundred years” indicates that his own musical talent is functionally the same as Trilby’s; that is, he accessed it via dream through the suspension of his own consciousness, just as Trilby accesses her ultimately more impressive talent through the suspension of her consciousness (27, 245). Because Du Maurier already established his views on the possibilities provided by dreaming in his sustained treatment of the subject in his first novel, Peter Ibbetson, Svengali’s use of dreams to develop his musical skill is analogous to Trilby’s ability to perform under trance. Du Maurier indicates that both Svengali and Trilby are in possession of uniquely integrative and powerful subconscious selves, but because singing ability is portrayed as the gold standard of all possible artistic talents, Trilby’s control of her vocal cords ultimately supersedes Svengali’s talent as a pianist in the novel’s hierarchy of artistic production.

If Trilby is a novel about the untapped and constructive resources available in the complicated psyches of women exhibiting symptoms of hysteria, why, one might ask, does Du Maurier go to such lengths to describe Svengali’s apparently manipulative control of Trilby, his channeling as though through an inert object the wonders of his own artistic mastery? Because the terms of the debate regarding the pathology or non-pathology of hysteria so closely resemble the reader’s encounter with an interpretive conflict surrounding Trilby’s status as impressible, colonized object or as virtuosic and artistic genius, I propose that we can read the novel as staging the difficulty of resolving the stigmatization of hysteria as illness even as it provides a thorough account of how the emergence of the subconscious might function differently than has been typically claimed by nineteenth century science and medicine. The predominance of the pathological interpretation of hysterics that says they function as examples of fractured and degenerative psyches, and are thus easily overtaken by their bodies or the influence of others, is perfectly encapsulated by the violinist Gecko’s revelatory statement at the end of the novel: “With one look of his eye—with a word—Svengali could turn her into the other Trilby, his Trilby—and make her do whatever he liked…you might have run a red-hot needle into her and she would not have felt it” (352). A common experiment performed in front of rapt audiences upon hysterics by physicians like Charcot, poking Trilby with a needle to prove her unreasonable and thus pathological insensibility to pain under the hypnotist’s control firmly establishes Gecko’s position as a parrot for the voice of late Victorian medicine (Winter 3).

However, a suggestive passage earlier in the novel tells a different story about hysterical response, artistry, and agency. Coded as a charming digression that describes Little Billee’s friendships with women, in which stringed instruments metaphorically stand in for “responsive” (read, hysterical) females, this passage, given the novel’s more general obsession with treating responsive women as inert instruments, is significant in that it reveals two competing ways of perceiving responsive women and emphasizes the limitations of the way employed by readers of women like Gecko in the novel. Du Maurier writes:

One man loves his fiddle (or, alas! his neighbor’s sometimes) for all the melodies he can awake from it—it is but a selfish love!

Another, who is no fiddler, may love a fiddle too; for its symmetry, its neatness, its colour—its delicate grainings, the lovely lines and curves of its back and front—for its own sake, so to speak. He may have a whole galleryful of fiddles to love in this innocent way—a harem!—and yet not know a single note of music, or even care to hear one. He will dust them and stroke them, and take them down and try to put them in tune…and breathe his little troubles into them, and they will give back inaudible little murmurs in sympathetic response, like a damp Aeolian harp; but he will never draw a bow across the strings, nor wake a single chord—or discord!

And who shall say he is not wise in his generation? It is but an old-fashioned philistine notion that fiddles were only made to be played on—the fiddles themselves are beginning to resent it; and rightly, I wot! (177)


Although it appears to be a simple denunciation of a mode of “playing” women selfishly that can be easily mapped onto Svengali’s treatment of the hypnotized Trilby elsewhere in the novel, this passage operates on several different registers. On the face of it, there is little difference between these two ways of treating the responsive woman. Both involve explicit objectification, regarding her either as an instrument from which to elicit one’s own melodies, as Gecko, an actual “fiddler,” perceives the hypnotized Trilby to be an instrument for Svengali’s melodies, or as a repurposed instrument that is a work of art itself, to be hung on a wall and stared at from time to time. Despite the continuity between an objectifying impulse in these two descriptions, the important departure Du Maurier makes from his own overt representation of Trilby’s objectified automatic “responsiveness” elsewhere in the novel emerges from the ultimate contrast between woman as “producer of my own melodies” and woman as paradoxical “producer of her own sympathetic response.”

While both modes of perceiving women rest on a conception of their essential responsiveness, Du Maurier emphasizes the gulf between men that believe women are mere objects “made to be played on” and men that recognize these “instruments’” own potential for inherent aesthetic perfection of physical organization, an allusion to both Trilby’s physical body and the artistic productions that, given their connection to her physical “voice,” are indivisible from this body. The comparison to an Aeolian harp conjures an image of an instrument playing itself, contrasted to the image of a man “draw[ing] a bow across” it; though the sounds the harp produces are facilitated by the wind, it requires no master pulling the strings, so to speak. At a basic level, the sustained personification of the instruments throughout the passage attributes an unlikely level of agency to instruments that are, in reality, agentless objects made to be played upon. The absurdity of repurposing the instruments and refusing to play them highlights the corollary absurdity, largely unquestioned by Victorians, of reading responsive women in any other way than the way they are usually read, that is, as fractured and colonizable, conventionally “responsive” psyches. However, by the end of the passage, the allusion to women’s rights agitation means that a new way of reading, despite its apparent absurdity, is gaining more ground in the rising generation. Though Gecko’s revelation of Trilby’s mere reproduction of Svengali’s artistry may appear to offer the last word on the subject in the novel, I believe this reiteration of the dominant perspective of the “fiddler” toward hysteric trance serves to figure the difficulty of reading Trilby in any other fashion when the medical voices that Gecko represents continue to maintain interpretive control of hysteria. Gecko parrots the physicians in his explanations and he is, importantly, the only living witness of Trilby’s relationship with Svengali after both Svengali and Trilby are dead, emphasizing his questionable authority through his total domination of how the mechanics of her artistry is represented. In the woman-as-instrument passage, Du Maurier imagines that the interpretive difficulty generated by the dominance of science and medicine may be overcome when, like the man who is “no fiddler,” more people change their notions of hysterical response or “responsiveness.”   

Ultimately, the novel illustrates that scientific interest in hypnotic phenomena in the last decades of the nineteenth century was often motivated by the possibility of establishing the reality of the constructive nature of the subconscious mind in defiance of its widespread pathologization by mainstream science and medicine. In writers that sought to circumvent the problematic stigmatization of mysticism and divine contact as hysterical debility, the work of art theorized as subconscious emergence became a potent tool for revisiting the reduction of hysteria to illness and potentially drawing nearer to the ineffable realms suggested by mysticism but debunked by positivist skeptics. Choosing a fallen woman for his heroine allows Du Maurier to create a striking contrast between the perceived absence of agency, loss of mental control, and amorality attributed to both fallen women and hysterics in Victorian culture, and the exercise of a profoundly constructive psyche when the fallen woman is proven to be a woman of genius with latent artistic faculties.   Cutting short the traditional narrative of the fallen woman’s progress in the second half of the novel, Du Maurier does not continue with an account of Trilby’s descent into abject poverty, prostitution, moral profligacy, and despair, but, in an odd turn, makes the revelation of her musical virtuosity the centerpiece of the story. “It has been supposed,” Myers writes, “that the mere fact of being hypnotized tended to weaken the will; that the hypnotized person fell inevitably more and more under the control of the hypnotizer.” Rather than diminishing willpower, he asserts that hypnosis merely allows us to “get the subliminal self concentrated upon some task which may be as difficult as we please,” enabling us to “draw out to the uttermost the innate powers of man” (154). To “draw out to the uttermost the innate powers”: such is the special talent of the hypnotized woman of genius within Du Maurier’s scheme of mental and artistic advancement.




1 A familiar conception of artistic geniuses in the late Victorian period is one that already classes them with hysterics, although emphasizing their similar degeneracy in explicit contradiction to the theories of Myers. Max Nordau’s Degeneration and the works of famous physician and degenerationist Henry Maudsley are two examples of Victorian era theories that include denunciations of the artist as degenerate, not to be distinguished from hysterics, criminals, prostitutes, and lunatics. See Maudsley, The Physiology and Pathology of the Mind for an example of this perspective (297). While I do not deny that this was an influential conception of artistic genius in the late Victorian era, theorists like Myers and E. S. Dallas in The Gay Science rather regard works of art as creations that can be objectively denominated as constructive. Dallas writes, “Art comes of inspiration—comes by second nature. Nevertheless, it comes according to laws which it is possible to note and which imperatively demand our study” (Dallas 64).  Myers’s shares a similar view of artistic creation and begins with the premise that works of art represent the level of constructive capability in the minds from which they spring. The producers of these creations, artists, are thus essentially constructive also. The constructive work of art becomes a way for Myers to legitimize his claim for constructive mental process in geniuses and hysterics in repudiation of almost universal pathological interpretations of these groups within medical discourse.


2 I use the term subconscious rather than unconscious throughout this analysis because of its more accurate reflection of the pre-Freudian approach to mental processes employed by theorists like Myers. See Jill Galvan, The Sympathetic Medium, 123. Myers’s use of the term “subliminal” rather than unconscious situates him within this alternative conception of the hidden and powerful regions of the psyche. The term unconscious is retained when other writers use it or in sections concerned with the Freudian approach.


3 Weliver writes that “Trilby’s performance seems to prove Myers’s argument in ‘Multiplex Personality’ that disturbances of the normal state (somnambulism, personality alteration, or other states that exhibit the unconscious mind) might reconstitute individuals ‘after an improved pattern, [they show us] that we may be fused and recrystallized into greater clarity’” (Weliver 261). Weliver indicates that Myers’s essay “Muliplex Personality” and the works of Victorian theorist of mesmerism William B. Carpenter help explain the contradiction between the “supposed morbid effects” of mesmerism on Trilby and her “glorious singing” (Weliver 253, 261). Similarly, Hilary Grimes alludes to Myers when she writes “by the late nineteenth century, many researchers believed that actions and speech displayed during the trance state were products of the hypnotic subject’s subliminal self” (Grimes 77). While these claims inform my own argument, I would like to situate Trilby more specifically within Myers’s conception of the artist in his most comprehensive work on subconscious phenomena, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death. Galvan’s alignment of Du Maurier with Myers is more concentrated on dreams in Peter Ibbetson, to the exclusion of Trilby. No critic discusses Du Maurier in the context of Myers’s formulation of artistic genius.


4 For examples of this perspective and analyses of Trilby’s automatism, see Fiona Coll, “‘Just a singing machine’: The Making of an Automaton in George Du Maurier’s Trilby,” Jill Galvan, The Sympathetic Medium, Russo, The Female Grotesque for a discussion of Trilby as a “stunt singer” (154), Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity for Trilby as “passive nightingale through whom [Svengali] can express his artistic talents” (35). For a departure from these perspectives see Phyillis Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, who argues that while Trilby begins by being colonized by Svengali, eventually she comes to author her own performance: “This is not an imitative automaton, but an equal who likes to sing” (264). See also Hilary Grimes, The Late Victorian Gothic. Grimes argues that Trilby illustrates “the dynamic interchange of power between Trilby and Svengali during scenes of mesmerism and hypnotism” and that Trilby is a subject who “cannot be dismissed as a powerless, passive victim of mesmerism” (Grimes 65, 71).


5 In a representative passage, Peter says, “Now, these dreams of mine…are they not a proof that there exist in the human brain hidden capacities, dormant potentialities of bliss, unsuspected hitherto, to be developed some day, perhaps, and placed within the reach of all, wakers and sleepers alike” (Peter Ibbetson 80).  Peter’s highly evolved ability to enter a lucid dream state of “ineffable joy” confuses him at first, but leads him to conclude he has found a portal into the transcendent realm through his mind, saying that  “some instinct told me that this was not death, but transcendent earthly life” (206). Du Maurier uses the subconscious phenomenon of lucid dreaming to explore the accessibility of a transcendent realm of ineffable joy through the as yet undiscovered “hidden capacities” of the brain in Peter Ibbetson. He revisits the mysterious physiology of the mind in Trilby through the heroine’s gradual development and display of the “hidden capacities” of her subliminal self under hypnosis, using the subconscious phenomenon of her musical performances in a similar fashion to the way he uses lucid dreaming in Peter Ibbetson.


6 This letter is transcribed by Moscheles in his memoir about his time with Du Maurier in the 1850s, suggesting that it was written sometime in that decade.


7 While critics such as Athena Vrettos and Michele Mendelssohn have focused on the pathological dimension of Du Maurier’s treatment of trance states and (degenerative) mental process in Trilby, I would like to examine the constructive dimension, and the role that Trilby plays in furnishing evidence of the potential disembodiment of the mind through the opportunity for observation of her mental processes and trance states, and her artistic productions, provided by the novel.   See also Laura Vorachek for theories of degeneration in the novel. See Nathalie Saudo-Welby, “The ‘over-aesthetic eye’ and the ‘monstrous development of a phenomenal larynx’: Du Maurier’s art of excess in Trilby,” for a discussion of the tension between fear of and attraction to degeneration in Trilby and, specifically, the narrator’s “effort to correct the pathological and demoralizing aspects of his book” within the narrative (Saudo-Welby 49).


[8] See William Greenslade, Degeneration, Culture, and the Novel, page 128. Greenslade writes, “Freud had also come to view degeneration as a nuisance. Back in the mid-nineties he had expressed reservations about how the ‘French school of psychiatrists’ would diagnose the symptoms of his hysterical patients. …Degeneracy had ceased to have any use for Freud, although he still called on heredity to explain sexual abnormalities in the family” (128).


[9] Showalter explains that later Freud reneged on his initially egalitarian treatment of hysterical patients. She discusses Freud’s “Fragment of an analysis of a Case of Hysteria” and his treatment of the patient, “Dora,” whom he antagonized in a manner foreign to the treatment of the women in Studies on Hysteria (158-161).


10 See John Warne Monroe, Laboratories of Faith, for a discussion of the fin de siècle debate in the psychological community regarding the subconscious phenomena of hysteria. One camp held that such phenomena denoted the existence of an unhealthy psyche that “had a tendency to fly into fragments or ‘disaggregate’” (Monroe 214). The opposite camp, represented by Myers in England, argued that the subconscious phenomena of hysterics formed “the terrain where scientists would finally discover the soul, and the task of psychical research was to serve as the portal to this transcendent realm” (213). Like Myers, Du Maurier participates in this contemporary debate and explores in his chronicle of Trilby’s career as a hypnotized musician the constructive quality of the subconscious mind, which fin de siècle scientists were attempting to study with the “experimental techniques of empirical psychology” and the “controlled use” of trance states in mediums and mesmeric somnambulists (Monroe 214, 212).


11 See Monroe, 214, for Janet’s perspective.


12 See, for instance, Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque, page 149.


13 The thematic similarities between Trilby and Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles on the subject of fallenness are substantial, for example.


14 As Amanda Anderson argues in Tainted Souls and Painted Faces, in the Victorian era, fallenness, rather than referring exclusively to moral laxity or viciousness, was perceived to be a sort of permanently broken mental state of “attenuated autonomy or fractured identity” that followed upon one’s “fall,” a term that at its base means to “lose control” (Anderson 23, 2). An incurable mental illness of sorts, loss of will, loss of autonomy, or a “deadening of the mind,” were among the main effects that “inexorably descend[ed] upon the lapsed woman” (51-2).


[15] See Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct, 202-207, for a discussion of physicians’ interpretation of hysteria as manipulation and deception perpetrated by patients. She writes that “the hysteric might mimic tuberculosis, heart attacks, blindness, or hip disease, while lungs, heart, eyes, and hips remained in perfect health. The physician had only his patient’s statement that she could not move or was racked with pain” (203). She adds, “As might be expected, conscious anger and hostility marked the response of a good many doctors to their hysterical patients” (207).


16 Trilby’s neuralgia in these episodes appears to be generated by what is represented as her community’s largely arbitrary categorization of nude modeling as immoral, and the arbitrariness of this social prescription serves to deny the typical association of nude models and thus Trilby with prurient sexual desire or “erotomania.” Du Maurier emphasizes the arbitrariness of the stigmatization of nude modeling when, on several occasions, the novel rejects the bourgeois notion that nude modeling is an immoral sexual exploit. See, for instance, the passage in which Du Maurier represents the immorality of nude modeling to be a misconception perpetuated by the ultimate bourgeois moralist in the novel, Mrs. Bagot, who cites nude modeling as Trilby’s cardinal sin and is subsequently ridiculed by the text for this stuffy error (326). The possibility that nude modeling is also a euphemistic stand-in for more serious taboo sexual behaviors, such as when Trilby is said to “sit promiscuously” for the artists with whom she is known to have had affairs, suggests that Du Maurier aims to imply that moral rules against sexual transgression in general are similarly arbitrary, social constructions.


17 I believe that the story of Trilby’s abandonment of her little brother Jeannot on “Palm Sunday” and her lifelong guilt over the incident is included as an example of a transgression of a genuine rather than an arbitrary moral rule (such as rules against nude modeling). Trilby’s remorse and sickness over this transgression of a moral “truth” (it is wrong to hurt others) when Mrs. Bagot cannot even identify it as transgression illustrates the exemplary morality of hysterical response as well as the exemplary morality of fallen women.


18 Myers’s definition of “dynamogeny”, provided in the glossary appended to Human Personality: “the increase of nervous energy by appropriate stimuli, often opposed to inhibition” (Myers xiv).


19 Myers uses attention and will almost interchangeably as terms that denote the part of the personality that determines one’s degree of “direction and persistence” in an endeavor (Myers 151). Du Maurier’s representation of the function of the will as capable in varying degrees of directing one’s attention to a particular object follows suit.


20 Considering the strange parallels between Dallas’s turn of phrase here, “see nothing, know nothing, think nothing,” its proximity to his anecdote about the singing somnambulist, and Svengali’s mantra “you shall hear nothing, see nothing, think of nothing, but Svengali, Svengali, Svengali” (Trilby 245), it seems possible that Du Maurier read The Gay Science and engaged directly with its ideas.










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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Rosanna Nunan "Rethinking Hysteria through Artistic Genius in George Du Maurier’s Trilby and F. W. H. Myers’s Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: June 19, 2013, Published: October 6, 2013. Copyright © 2013 Rosanna Nunan