Gender and Urban Space

A Mass-Produced Muse: Gender and Late-Victorian Urban Developments in George Du Maurier’s Trilby

by Judit Minczinger, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

1In his novel Trilby, published in 1894, George du Maurier weaves a seemingly simple plot into a highly complex narrative: Trilby, a tone-deaf washerwoman and artist’s model in Paris, mesmerized by the evil musician Svengali, becomes the most celebrated diva of European metropolises, while she is at the complete mercy of the composer. This plot scenario, at first sight a tale of extreme female subjugation, managed to capture the fin-de-siècle imagination and quickly achieved best-seller status. What is more, it generated an unprecedented number of parodies, adaptations and spin-off products in its wake. [1] For an account of the novel’s astonishing reception history, see Jenkins, and Gilder and Gilder It is tempting to speculate as to which aspects of the novel triggered this sweeping success, and conversely, why it is no longer part of the Victorian canon. Certainly, though, one may argue that Trilby managed to respond to the possibilities as well as anxieties that emerged during the turbulent period of late-Victorian culture and its impact on the development of urban modernity. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on only one out of the numerous crossroads this novel occupies: the intersection of the fin-de-siècle urban setting and “the ideological working of gender”. [2] The term refers to Mary Poovey’s study of mid-Victorian society; this analysis is greatly indebted to her method of discussing representations of gender as a site on which contradictory ideological meanings are ascribed and contested

2In Trilby, the cosmopolitan city is variously configured as a carnivalesque space of plurality and collectivity, as well as the quintessential environment for a burgeoning mass consumerism and commodity culture. On the other hand, several ideological formations are pitted against this urban setting: the cult of domesticity, the paradigm of the pastoral tradition, and the Romantic conception of artistic genius. These oppositions not only separate the city from what lies outside or beyond it, but also structure the urban environment itself. In my discussion of the novel, I will attempt to show how the female protagonist consistently traverses the very fine line separating these divisions. Du Maurier’s novel may thus teach us contemporary readers about the ways in which the issue of gender and the position of women constitute one of the fault lines in the development of urban modernity.

3Scholarship on late-Victorian fiction has produced numerous fruitful discussions of women’s increasing visibility in urban spaces and their participation in public activities. This has entailed, among others, the critical resurrection of non-canonical women writers and their engagement with the urban environment, as well as the equally important task of identifying female personas and fictional characters as active agents exercising mobility and spectatorship in the urban arena, like female renditions of the modern flâneur. On the surface, Du Maurier’s novel does not fit easily with either goal of this feminist agenda – Trilby does not possess the same spatial and scopic freedom as the flâneuse, nor is she a progressive and confident New Woman; instead, what we witness is her transformation from a celestial artists’ muse into a “singing machine,” who in both cases remains at the mercy of men and does not have an apparent will of her own. Nevertheless, Trilby exposes some of the underlying mechanisms behind the cultural developments of late-Victorian urban modernity, de-stabilizing the accepted notions about women’s proper place and role within the urban milieu, and what is more, challenging master-narratives about artistic production. She does so perhaps more subtly, but at least as profoundly, as her more autonomous and independent fictional sisters. [3] Not every critic has viewed <i>Trilby</i> as a story of female victimization or dependence – most famously, Nina Auerbach has argued that Trilby could be seen as a triumphal heroine of infinite capacities. Auerbach nevertheless does not explicitly discuss Trilby’s presence in the urban environment; my analysis also departs from her overly optimistic reading and aims to discuss Trilby as a highly ambiguous figure. Hence, this article attempts to make a case that, compelling as it is to look for more obviously empowered female figures, different forms of representation and their symbolic importance also warrant attention if we want to address the complex reverberations emerging from the intersection of gender and urban space. This approach is part of a wider critical effort to account for a variety of different roles women play in the city and in public life.

4For the purpose of this article, I only focus on one such role: the female public performer (in this case, the singer). Musical activity and stage performance are obviously highly laden with gender connotations, and they also highlight the dangers women encountered when venturing outside the private realm. Outside of the shelter of the private drawing rooms, female singers in concert halls and opera houses exposed themselves to the public gaze, and thus violated prohibitions against self-display. Besides, the female performer was also believed to arouse feelings of passion and desire in the male spectator, at the expense of such sentiments as piety and modesty. As it will be shown though, Trilby’s domain as a performer is not confined to the concert hall. Thanks to her extraordinary fame, highly coveted reproductions of her image also proliferate in various other spaces of the city, calling attention to the sweeping changes regarding display and spectacle at the end of the nineteenth century.

5Historians and social critics have characterized the period spanning 1850 to World War I as turbulent on several fronts – anxieties concerning gender and national identity, the decline of imperial power, challenges to traditional values and family structures are only some of the most-cited concerns of this period. By setting his novel in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, Du Maurier choses a city that is, arguably, more suitable for the narrative than London or any other European metropolis of the time. Napoleon III’s Second Empire was a site that captured the dissolution of age-old certainties at its most extreme with permanent landmarks and buildings disappearing overnight. As the narrator of Trilby remarks, in Baron Haussman’s Paris “there was a mania for demolition and remolition” (187). The French metropolis is a perfect setting to capture the sense of turbulence characterizing this era, since the changes were perhaps more prominent in its visual landscape than in any other European metropolis. In Paris, change was not merely “in the air,” so to speak, but thanks to Hausmann’s radical re-structuring, it was also inscribed on the architectural body of the city itself. [4] Another possible reason behind the choice of setting might be that it allows the author to play upon the romanticized conceptions of Parisian bohemia (a topos that Du Maurier fully exploits).