Wednesday, October 16, 2019


A Svengali is "a person who manipulates or exerts excessive control over another." Curious about the history of this intriguing and rather unusual word, I looked it up and learned that Svengali was a character  in the novel Trilby by George Du Maurier (published 1894). Subsequently the novel was made into several stage plays and movies. The dictionary explains:
I read the Oxford World's Classics edition, which
is unabridged and highly annotated.
"Svengali's maleficent powers of persuasion made such an impression on the reading public that by 1919 his name was being used generically as a term for any wickedly manipulative individual." (Merriam-Webster definition)
Curious about the origin of this intriguing word, I decided to read the novel. What I did not expect: Du Maurier's creation Svengali is a casually antisemitic portrayal of an Eastern European Jew, with a stereotyped appearance, problematic personality, strong accent in both English and French, and lack of humanity. These hateful features were typical of antisemitic writings of the late 19th century, and you may recognize them because they are being reactivated by modern violent white supremacists in our society right now.

I found it very painful to read this book. It was agonizingly familiar to see such descriptions as they were over a century ago and as they are returning to public discourse now. In fact, I regretted deciding to read it. However, because I have done so, I feel that I should look carefully at these stereotypes. First, there's the appearance of Svengali:
"He was very shabby and dirty, and wore a red beret and a large velveteen cloak, with a big metal clasp at the collar. His thick, heavy, languid, lustreless black hair fell down behind his ears to his shoulders, in that musician-like way that is so offensive to the normal Englishman. He had bold, brilliant black eyes, with long heavy lids, a thin, sallow face, and a beard of burnt-up black, which grew almost from under his eyelids; and over it his moustache, a shade lighter, fell in two long spiral twists." (p. 11).
His face and his attitude both bore out these stereotypes: "He was so fond of making fun of others that he particularly resented being made fun of himself— couldn’t endure that any one should ever have the laugh of him." (p. 19). Not to mention his "long, thick, shapely Hebrew nose" (p. 240) and "bold, black, beady Jew’s eyes." (p. 44).

And his devious and disgusting ways: "And here let me say that these vicious imaginations of Svengali’s, which look so tame in English print, sounded much more ghastly in French, pronounced with a Hebrew-German accent, and uttered in his hoarse, rasping, nasal, throaty rook’s caw, his big yellow teeth baring themselves in a mongrel canine snarl, his heavy upper eyelids drooping over his insolent black eyes." (p. 92).

Poster for 1931 film with John
Barrymore. Svengali's features were
left intact, but he wasn't directly
identified as a Jew.
Many features of the character Svengali, especially his skill in manipulating the innocent Trilby, heroine of the novel, were already commonplace racial slurs in the 1890s and have never gone away. By association, Jews were under attack at the time: two notable contemporary events were the Dreyfus affair in France (1894-1906) and the rise of the antisemite Christian Democrats under leader Karl Lueger in Vienna during that decade. Pushback was also beginning, for example the novel Children of the Ghetto by Isidore Zangwill (1892-93) and The Jewish State by Theodore Hertzl (published 1895), but it didn't stop the haters. Antisemitism in word and deed inspired Hitler who was born in 1889 and very much partook of the hatred of Jews expressed in word and deed during the late 19th century.

This post is taken from my food blog, and at this point in my more general review, I discussed the chapters of the novel Trilby that deal with other characters than Svengali, which in fact were far more than half the book. Here, I'm repeating this excerpt, with the additional remark that several other characters in literature have also contributed antisemitic stereotypes, notably Fagin from Dickens' Oliver Twist and Shakespeare's Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. Dickens later regretted the antisemitism embodied in Fagin, and created a more sympathetic Jewish character (though less effective) that attempted to make amends. I don't thing that Du Maurier ever regretted his creation of Svengali. And no one knows any of Shakespeare's thoughts.

Trilby is a very weak novel compared to works of other authors who wrote about society and social issues in the 19th century; for example, Zola, George Eliot, and Dickens. It's quite understandable that Trilby has pretty much been forgotten, except for the character Svengali. The antisemitism in the novel is even more painful when you consider how Du Maurier didn't really take anything seriously, not the characters, not the hateful attitudes, and not the mistreatment of little Trilby.

NOTE: A few interesting articles about the impact of the character Svengali, especially from the point of view of antisemitism.
This blog post copyright © Mae Sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com
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