The gothic melodrama Trilby by British author George du Maurier was first published serially in Harper’s Monthly from January to August, 1894. It was released as a book in September.
The story is set in Paris in the early 1850s. The titular character, Trilby O’Ferrall, is a naïve, tone-deaf artist’s model who goes on to become a world-famous singer, thanks to the hypnotic powers of the sinister Svengali. When Svengali suddenly dies, Trilby loses her ability to sing and ends up wasting away.
Trilby wasn’t just a bestseller — the entire country was gripped by Trilby-mania for several years straight. (Not unlike the Twilight-mania that emerged more than 100 years later.)
Many things, from fashion to food, were influenced/inspired by Trilby during this time. Here’s a partial list:
- Trilbies became slang for “(women’s) feet,” as Trilby had particularly beautiful feet
- Svengali became slang for “a person who exercises a controlling or mesmeric influence on another, especially for a sinister purpose”
- Trilby hat
- Trilby dolls
- Trilby ice cream (it was molded into the shape of a foot)
- Trilby board game
- Trilby high-heeled shoes
- Trilby jewelry
- Trilby belts
- Trilby bathing suits
- Trilby cigars/cigarettes
- Trilby hearth brush
- Trilby tea
- Trilby cocktail
- Trilby pie
- Trilby sausage
- Trilby ham
- Non-human namesakes:
- Trilby, Florida
- USS Trilby
- Trilby, stage play
- Trilby (1915), movie
- Trilby (1923), movie
- Svengali (1931), movie
- Influence on other literary works:
- Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker
- Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (1909) by Gaston Leroux
Trilby and its glamorization of the bohemian lifestyle even “excited a vogue for nude modeling among the many young women who wished to follow the Trilby life.” (And this, of course, “alarmed the clergy and other guardians of morality.”)
So where does the name Trilby come from?
For a long time I’d assumed that George du Maurier had based it on the musical term trill, which refers to rapid alternation between two adjacent musical notes. Turns out this isn’t the case.
He borrowed the name from an earlier work of literature, the story “Trilby, ou le Lutin d’Argail” (“Trilby, or the Fairy of Argyle”) (1822) by French writer Charles Nodier. In Nodier’s story, which is set in Scotland, Trilby is a male sprite who seduces a mortal woman.
In 1895 a New York Times writer guessed that the name of Nodier’s Trilby might be “an endearing diminutive of “trall,” a member of the brownie clan,” but I can’t find any outside confirmation that the word “trall” even exists. (Perhaps it’s a Scottish variant of the word “troll”…?)
How many people in the U.S. have been named Trilby?
According to the SSA data, Trilby was the 978th most popular girl name in the U.S. in 1895, the year after the book was published. This was the only time Trilby managed to rank within the U.S. top 1,000.
- 1897: unlisted
- 1896: 6 baby girls named Trilby
- 1895: 12 baby girls named Trilby [debut] (rank: 978th)
- 1894: unlisted
But the SSA data from that period is incomplete, so here are the SSDI numbers for the same years:
- 1897: 10 people named Trilby
- 1896: 22 people named Trilby
- 1895: 34 people named Trilby
- 1894: 5 people named Trilby
These days, Trilby rarely appears on the SSA’s list:
- 2014: unlisted
- 2013: unlisted
- 2012: unlisted
- 2011: unlisted
- 2010: 6 baby girls named Trilby
- 2009: unlisted
- 2008: 7 baby girls named Trilby
- 2007: unlisted
- 2006: unlisted
- 2005: unlisted
- 2004: unlisted
- 2003: unlisted
- 2002: unlisted
- 2001: unlisted
- 2000: unlisted
Trilby may be an unfashionable name right now, but for the parents-to-be who want something a bit retro-sounding, this could be a good thing.
The name is also an intriguing option for lovers of trivia and/or quirky history, as it’s tied to a fascinating pop culture craze from over a century ago. (We might be saying the same thing about Renesmee 100 years from now!)
Plus, Trilby is one of a small number of names with that distinctive “-by” ending, such as Ruby, Shelby, Darby, Colby, Kirby and Rigby.
One possible drawback to the name is the not-so-subtle anti-Semitism in the book itself. Svengali is not merely the “greasily, mattedly unkempt” antagonist of the story, but he’s also Jewish — with “bold, black, beady Jew’s eyes” no less. Then again…similar things could be said about other historical pieces of literature that have inspired baby names.
If you’re considering the naming your baby girl Trilby, I highly encourage you to head over to Project Gutenberg and read (or at least skim) the text of Trilby.
What are your thoughts on the name Trilby?
- Berman, Avis. “George du Maurier’s Trilby whipped up a worldwide storm.” Smithsonian Magazine Sept. 1993.
- Gilder, Joseph Benson and Jeannette Leonard Gilder. Trilbyana: The Rise and Progress of a Popular Novel. New York: The Critic Co., 1895.
- A hat, a hypnotist, and one (partially) bad egg
- McArthur, Benjamin. Actors and American Culture, 1880-1920. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.
- “The Trilby of Charles Nodier.” New York Times 6 April 1895.
- Wikipedia: Trilby (novel), Trilby (play), George du Maurier