Mesmerists and Other Meddlers: Social Darwinism, Degeneration, and Eugenics in 'Trilby'
Victorian Literature and Culture
About two-thirds of the way through George Du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), a novel that entranced the reading public with its descriptions of Bohemian Paris and mesmerism, there is a seventeen-page digression on The Origin of Species. This rumination is sparked by the fact that Little Billee is “reading Mr. Darwin’s immortal book for the third time” while he contemplates proposing to the parson’s daughter, Alice (180; pt. 5). Ultimately, he cannot bring himself to do so because Alice believes, among other Bible stories, that “[t]he world was made in six days. It is just six thousand years old,” a view debunked in The Origin by Darwin’s depiction of the gradual evolution of species over vast periods of time. While the controversy elicited in the second half of the nineteenth century by Darwin’s theory of natural selection continues today, the question remains: what is this debate doing in a novel about expatriate artists and the woman they love? I read this seeming digression from the sentimental and sensational plot of the novel as a cue to the importance of Darwinian ideas to reading Trilby. In this article, I trace Du Maurier’s engagement in Trilby and in his cartoons with various permutations of Social Darwinism, notably degeneration (especially its relationship to class), society’s moral and cultural evolution, and eugenics. I argue that the novelist negotiates between Darwin and his interpreters as he resists collectivism, or state intervention in questions of social welfare, in favor of individual liberty in matters of sexual selection.
Cambridge University Press
Vorachek, Laura, "Mesmerists and Other Meddlers: Social Darwinism, Degeneration, and Eugenics in 'Trilby'" (2009). English Faculty Publications. 2.