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Svengali

From Academic Kids

Svengali is the name of a fictional hypnotist in George Du Maurier's 1894 novel, Trilby.

A sensation in its day, the novel created a stereotype of the abusive hypnotist that persists to this day.

Trilby O'Ferrall is literally tone-deaf: "Svengali would test her ear, as he called it, and strike the C in the middle and then the F just above, and ask which was the highest; and she would declare they were both exactly the same."

Svengali is, in Du Maurier's words, an "Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew" with a cruel personality. He "would either fawn or bully, and could be grossly impertinent. He had a kind of cynical humour, which was more offensive than amusing, and always laughed at the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. And his laughter was always derisive and full of malice."

Under his hypnotic spell, Trilby becomes a talented singer, performing always in an amnesiac trance. At a performance in London, Svengali is stricken with a heart attack and is unable to induce the trance. Trilby is unable to sing in tune and is subjected to "laughter, hoots, hisses, cat-calls, cock-crows." Not having been hypnotised, she is completely baffled and cannot remember anything about Svengali or her singing career. When an audience member yells "Oh, ye're Henglish, har yer? Why don't yer sing as yer bought to sing yer've got voice enough, any'ow! why don't yer sing in tune?" she cries 'I didn't want to sing at all—I only sang because I was asked to sing—that gentleman asked me—that French gentleman with the white waistcoat! I won't sing another note!" She is stricken with a nervous affliction and dies tragically a day later.

The relation between Svengali and Trilby form only a relatively small portion of the novel, which is mainly an evocation of Bohemian Paris in the 1850s. The novel has been adapted for the screen many times, the most successful being the 1931 film Svengali starring John Barrymore. (A 1954 version is described by imdb (http://www.imdb.org) users as "unintentionally hilarious". There was a 1983 television version with Peter O'Toole and Jodie Foster).

The word "Svengali" has entered the language meaning a person who, with evil intent, tries to persuade another to do what is desired. It is frequently any kind of coach who seems to exercise an extreme degree of domination over a performer (especially if they believe they can only perform in the presence of their coach).


The Svengali deck is a mechanical card trick with no connection to the Du Maurier novel.

External link

Trilby (http://www.hypnosisinmedia.com/Fiction/Trilby/index.html) Complete online text of the novel.

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