‘The Apotheosis of Voice’: Mesmerism as Mechanisation in George Du Maurier’s Trilby

Issue: Vol 7, No 1: Summer 2016
Pages: 61-82
Author(s): Kristie A. Schlauraff (Cornell University)
Citation: http://victoriannetwork.org/index.php/vn/article/view/73

Abstract

This article considers the relationship between mesmeric and sonic influence in George Du Maurier's Trilby to argue that mesmerism offered a significant framework for conceptualising sound in the late-Victorian era. Drawing on Franz Anton Mesmer's theorisation of a ‘universally distributed and continuous fluid' affecting all animate and inanimate bodies, I demonstrate how sound similarly constructs networks of influence that facilitate communication but privilege certain individuals over others. Published in 1894, when mesmerism was firmly categorised as unscientific, but set in the 1850s when its legitimacy remained contested, Trilby exposes the shift from mesmerism as aspiring science to mesmerism as metaphor. Through a comparison of scenes of looking and listening in the novel, I argue that sound facilitates communication between bodies more readily than sight. While looking is depicted as an individualised process that reinforces the separateness of bodies, listening is represented as a collective endeavour that exposes the interconnectedness of the audience members. Trilby's vocalisations facilitate a mode of shared experience previously deemed impossible, yet her figuration as a ‘singing-machine' leaves her isolated. Aligning the mesmeric subject with the mechanised human, Du Maurier's work reveals the relationship between mesmeric and sonic influence to depict sound's most threatening implications.



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