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Durham University

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James, Simon J. & Miller, Emma V. (2016). A Body Undressed for Text: Trilby in Parts. Feminist Theory 17(1): 83-105.

Author(s) from Durham


George Du Maurier’s best-selling novel, Trilby (1894), is as important because of its defiance of social and cultural norms as it is for its apparent compliance with them. Trilby is a fiction that, like its eponymous heroine, attempts to negotiate the perilously fine line between the highbrow and the lowbrow, or to put it another way, between fine art and political commentary on one side, and pornography and sensationalism on the other. This article examines the way that Du Maurier engages his readership in this textual tease – his seduction of the reader – by suggesting the possibility of a peep show where
everything that Victorian respectability abhors may be on display, and then his narratological dressing of the text, to ensure that where there is sexual non-conformity there is
also moralism, and where there is social confrontation there is also historical distance. Understanding the textual appeal of Trilby as a character, the artist’s model who enchanted the fin-de-siècle reading public, is essential to appreciating how the discourses of pornography and fine art interact and have consequently evolved. This article therefore examines why Trilby succeeded with the Victorians where other, similarly sexually active heroines – such as Thomas Hardy’s Sue Bridehead – failed. Trilby the novel and Trilby the woman are both broken down by their author into manageable parts, a pornographic fetishistic technique that simultaneously eroticises, and makes more palatable, the textual and the physical bodies.