While still relatively young, the brilliant cartoonist and illustrator George du Maurier went blind in one eye, probably as the result of a detached retina. This didn’t prevent him from joining the staff of Punch and doing wonderful work for it until his death in 1896. His best-known cartoon shows a chinless young curate taking the top off a boiled egg at breakfast with his bishop, and their exchange has entered the language: ‘I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.’ ‘Oh no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!’
But a turn for the worse in late middle age led him to put down his potent pen and dictate three distinctly odd novels to his wife and children: Peter Ibbetson (1891), with telepathy as its central theme; The Martian (1897), dealing with life after death and rather fittingly published posthumously; and Trilby (1894), about the wicked hypnotist Svengali.
As a youth, du Maurier had been an art student in Paris, where he lived in the shabby rue de Paradis near the Trinité church – it was still shabby a hundred years later when I first moved to Paris and lived in a romantically run-down pension there. A fellow-student of his, incidentally, was James McNeill Whistler, who was later to recognize himself as Joe Sibley in Trilby, and threaten the author with a libel suit unless the character was removed. (It was – Joe being replaced by a rather wishy-washy Swiss chap called Anthony.)
Du Maurier put all his fond memories of his student days into the first half of Trilby, which deals with the happy comings and goings, gravy dinners and nuits blanches of three young English painters who share a studio in the Latin Quarter. Actually Taffy, the Laird and Little Billee aren’t so much men as boys in men’s bodies, forever ragging each other, breaking into song, going a few rounds with the gloves (there’s a boxing ring in one corner of
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