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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
George du Maurier (1834–1896)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
GEORGE LOUIS PALMELLA BUSSON DU MAURIER was born in Paris on March 6th, 1834, and his early life was passed there. His father was a Frenchman, who had married an Englishwoman in Paris. The du Mauriers came of an old family in Brittany, du Maurier’s grandfather having been a small rentier, who derived his living from glass-works. During du Maurier’s childhood his parents removed to Belgium and thence to London. At seventeen years of age he tried for a degree at the Sorbonne in Paris, but was not successful; and he was put, much against his will, to study chemistry under Dr. Williamson at University College, London. Du Maurier’s father, whose characteristics are described in ‘Peter Ibbetson,’ was an amateur of science. It has been hinted by the son that certain unlucky experiments, which were the result of the elder du Maurier’s fancy for the natural sciences, considerably impaired the family fortunes. The father had bent his heart on the son’s being a man of science, but the son’s tastes were all for art. He did therefore little good in his chemical studies.  1
  Du Maurier’s father died in 1856, and he then devoted himself definitely to art. He worked at the British Museum, and made considerable progress there. He next went to Paris, and lived the life which he has described in ‘Trilby.’ In 1857 he attended the Academy at Antwerp, and studied under De Kaiser and Van Lerius. His severe studies at Antwerp had the result that his sight was seriously impaired, and he lost the use of his left eye. After two years of enforced idleness he went to London to seek his fortune. An old acquaintance of his student life in Paris introduced him to Charles Reade, who in turn introduced him to Mark Lemon, the editor of Punch. Through these acquaintances he obtained employment in drawing for Once a Week, Punch, and the Cornhill Magazine. On the death of Leech in 1864 he was regularly attached to the staff of Punch, and till the time of his death continued to work for that periodical with ever-increasing success. It is not too much to say that for many years Punch was chiefly and mainly du Maurier. He early marked out for himself an entirely new path, which was not in the direction of caricature or broad comedy; grace, sentiment, and wit, rather than fun, were the characteristics of his work. He confined himself almost entirely to society, so that his field was a narrower one than that of some of his coadjutors. He had not, for instance, the masculine breadth of Leech, who represented with great strength and humor the chief characters of English life,—the parson, the soldier, the merchant, the farmer, etc.  2
  Du Maurier was almost entirely a carpet knight. He drew London society, and a certain phase of London society. The particular society which he represented is of very recent existence. Thirty years ago there was but one society in London. This was simply the ancient aristocratic society of England, which gathered in London in the season. It is true that there was an artistic society in London at that time, but it was quite apart and of little general recognition or influence. But since then there has come up in London a society made up chiefly of artists, professional people, and successful merchants (having moreover its points of contact with the old society), which is very strong and influential. It is this which du Maurier knew, and which he represented. Even here, however, the types he has selected for description were very special. But they were presented with so much grace and charm that the public never tired of them. To his type of woman he was especially faithful: the tall woman with long throat and well-defined chin, much resembling the figures of Burne-Jones and Rossetti, only somewhat more mundane. We have the same woman in the heroine of ‘Trilby.’  3
  Though du Maurier, before beginning ‘Peter Ibbetson,’ had never written a book, he had had considerable literary experience, for he is said to have spent as much time upon the construction of the dialogues which accompanied his pictures as upon the pictures themselves. The story of ‘Peter Ibbetson’ he had often related to his friends, who had urged him to write it down. This he finally did,—at the special instance, it is said, of Henry James. It appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1891. ‘Trilby’ was published in 1894 in Harper’s Magazine, and at once attained a great popular success. The publishers estimate that about 250,000 copies of the book have been sold. Du Maurier had sold the book outright for £2,000, but when it became apparent that the work was to be a success, the publishers admitted the author to a royalty, paying at one time $40,000. They also shared with him the large sums paid for the dramatization of the work. For ‘The Martian,’ his last novel, he received £10,000 outright. This also was published in Harper’s Magazine.  4
  It is perhaps too early to pass judgment upon the merits of these works. They have, no doubt, grave faults. The story of ‘Peter Ibbetson’ has been completed when it is but two-thirds told. The remaining portion of the book is a dream. This is of course a dangerous reversal of the usual method of the story-teller, which is to make dreams seem like facts. The hypnotic part of ‘Trilby’ is said by the professional authorities on the subject to be bad science. The hypnotism in ‘Trilby’ was perhaps a journalist’s idea, that subject being much talked of at the time the book was written. Du Maurier, it need hardly be said, was by training a journalist, although the training had been of the pencil rather than of the pen. The literary style of the novels is curious. It makes no pretensions to finish; the grammar even is sometimes at fault. But on the other hand, it has decided merits. It is particularly easy, flowing, and simple. These are not the qualities we should have expected from the nature of du Maurier’s literary training. The brief dialogues which he has for so many years appended to his sketches in ‘Punch’ would have educated, we should have thought, the qualities of brevity and point rather than those of ease and fullness. Certain peculiarities of the style cannot be defended, but the author produces his effects in spite of such solecisms. This is true of the matter of his stories as well as of the style. They are at many points inartistically constructed; but the stuff is good, and the works therefore hold their own in spite of these drawbacks. They certainly have one virtue, which is most necessary to the success of any work of the imagination: they have reality. We believe as we read, and continue to believe after we have ceased reading, that the Major and Mimsey and Taffy and Trilby are real persons. They are real to us because they have in the first case been real to their creator. It is possible, however, that the pictures which accompany the text may increase the strength of the illusion.  5
  No book, in recent years at any rate, has had so instantaneous and prodigious a popular success as ‘Trilby.’ Popularity is always hard to explain with any certainty. It seems to be a quality in the warp and woof of the mind of the man that has it. One condition appears to be that he shall be in sympathy with the minds of the mass of his fellow-beings. There was such a sympathy in du Maurier’s case; and to be more particular, his kindly and friendly enthusiasm was a quality to commend him to men. He had a power of enjoying beauty in his fellow-beings. Then he had had a long education in the qualities that make popularity. He had long studied the art of pleasing. It is not improbable that in these novels, which were intended for the American public, he may have played upon certain of our national susceptibilities. We in this country like to have our literature taken seriously by the European. It may be that du Maurier may have had an inkling of this, for it is curious to note how much of our poetry appears in these novels. Du Maurier had a very nice taste in poetry, a genuine enthusiasm for it which it is heartily to be wished were shared by all college professors of English literature. Thus, he could not have chosen better lines than those which Peter Ibbetson was in the habit of reciting to Mimsey, ‘The Water-fowl’ of Bryant,—perhaps the most perfect poem ever produced in this country,—a poem so “beautifully carried,” as Matthew Arnold once described it to the present writer. Poe’s beautiful and musical lines, written by him at fourteen,—‘Helen, thy beauty is to me,’—are also made use of. We have a good deal of Longfellow and other American writers. ‘Ben Bolt’ is of course an American song. These appeals to our national predilections may have influenced us. But the interest and curiosity of our practical and hard-working American public in the Bohemian art life of the Latin Quarter was also, no doubt, a chief cause of the popularity of ‘Trilby.’  6
  Du Maurier did not live long to enjoy his success. He had always been known to his friends as a sensitive man, this quality being ascribed to ill health. Ill health was no doubt a chief cause of the vexation with which he received certain comments upon his books, in some cases inspired by envy of his success. Many of his recent contributions to Punch have been at the expense of the unsuccessful author, and have supported the thesis that ill success was not an indubitable proof of genius. When Lord Wolseley asked him what would be the title of his next novel, he said ‘Soured by Success.’ He died in London on October 8th, 1896.  7
 
 
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