Three British artists go to paint in the Bohemian Latin Quarter of Paris, in the 1860s. Taffy Wynn, a reserved and good-natured English giant, resigned his cavalry commission after missing, by mischance, death or glory in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Sandy, the Laird of Cockpen, is a Scottish lawyer's son. Little Billee Bagot is the youngest, slight of build, of almost childish innocence, and yet the others realise that as a painter, he may someday tower above them.
The life and characters of the Latin Quarter are marvellously described, and we can only guess, nowadays, at some of the identities. Whistler the painter was much aggrieved. The three strike up a friendship with Trilby, daughter of a deceased Irish drunkard and Scottish barmaid, who is a laundress and artists' model. She is deeply unsettled by the sinister Svengali, a Jewish pianist with hypnotic powers.
The book is often accused of crude antisemitism, but "crude" seems unjust. Du Maurier claims that Little Billee has some proportion of that Jewish blood which is best diluted, but adds something to all others. Svengali's cruelest jest - they think - is to encourage Trilby to sing, saying she has the finest voice he knows. For she is tone-deaf, and the exhibition is grotesque.
Billee proposes marriage, and Trilby, who loves him, is induced to flee Paris. For besides being a laundress, she sits for "the altogether", and would destroy Billee's life in respectable society. She disappears, and only many years later is she discovered, as Madame Svengali, the singer whose fame is taking Europe by storm. For Svengali spoke nothing but the truth. She did indeed have the finest voice in Europe, which she was entirely unable to use, and that consummate but warped artist, by skill as much as hypnotism, has taught her to be the nightingale of her age.
The story ends tragically, as Victorian melodramas do. But high tragedy arises when a great and noble hero comes to grief through some fatal misconception. Trilby, in her last years, is highly enough respected to have elevated even the great William Bagot, rather than dragged him down. Suppose he and his family had realised? Suppose Svengali, although partially redeemed, had been unselfish enough to tell all, and teach her in Paris?
Joseph Heller wrote of a character whose girlfriends had to wait until a play was over, to know whether they were enjoying it, and then they knew at once. The literary establishment does not like sentiment, because the ordinary reader does not need any help to know if he likes it. But if you want to sample Victorian sentimentalism at its best, this is where to start.