This is a book of its time and place, fin-de-siecle Europe. What interested me most about this book was the fact that it was the sensation of its time, selling more than 200,000 in Britain and America, spawning a successful play and leaving a permanent mark on the English language by popularizing two terms that endure today: "Svengali" and the "Trilby hat".
What was it about this book that caused such a fuss?
Not the prose, certainly. Syntax is awkward, prose purple, and characters are of the Victorian stripe -- described in sentimental superlatives such as "most ravishing," "transparent as crystal," or "most unclean." There are numerous references to fashion, literature and other cultural phenomena of the day. (I won't get into the anti-Semitism displayed here, but it is unpleasant. And it helps to speak French, as there are lots and lots of untranslated passages in that language.) Here's a taste (one of the better passages, I think, capturing some of the wit that occasionally bubbles up), an elaboration of the narrator's musings about literature:
Feydeau, or Flaubert, let us say -- or for those who don't know French and cultivate an innocent mind, Miss Austen (for to be dead and buried is almost as good to be French and immoral!) -- and Sebasitan Bach, and Sandro Botticelli -- that all the arts should be represented.
I'll agree in part with the introduction to the Penguin Classics version, authored by Daniel Pick, that says: Trilby"seems to occupy several key crossroads of its time. It hesitates between elitism and egalitarianism; amateurism and professionalism; between enthusiasm and horror of the marketplace in general and the merchandizing of talents in particular..." I think, too, what he's getting at in a polite way is that the writing is very uneven; some passages are fine and ironic, while others are confusing rather than merely ambiguous.
I would speculate that Trilby hit a chord with people who were still coming to terms with Darwin's new theories on evolution and survival of the fittest, mysticism versus scientific fact, industrialization and dehumanization. Hence, the character of Svengali, who mesmerized his protege to the point of total control, literally mesmerized the reading public as a kind of elaborate conceit of these issues.
Svengali is in fact the most memorable character in the book -- and he takes up suprisingly little real estate within the pages! For me, the novel fell flat when old Svengali wasn't up to his tricks; everyone else was so "noble," "brave," "naive," or otherwise brimming over in Victorian virtues that I welcomed a character with some less than sterling qualities -- especially one who was so successful at something that is portrayed as unethical at best, evil at worst. He's more human because he's complex. Maybe that's why the term has still stuck around.
I wish I could stomach reading this again to try to hit on the nuanaces Daniel Pick outlines in the introduction. But this is a rather obscure, outdated novel. I'd say it's worth the read for anyone interested in late-Victorian literature. But I don't think I can read it again.