Peter Ibbetson, 1891
The Martian, 1897
The grandson of a Frenchman of noble family who had fled to England during the French Revolution, George Louis Palmella Busson du Maurier (dew MOHR-ee-ay) was born in Paris in 1834, the son of a French father and an English mother. In his youth he oscillated between Paris and London; his early education was conducted in Paris between 1847 and 1851. In 1851 he went to London to study chemistry at the wish of his father, who wanted to make a scientist of him. He had little interest in science, however, and in 1856 went back to Paris to study art. He soon moved to Antwerp to continue his work. During his student days in Paris he had many of the experiences that he was later to use as literary material. At age twenty-three he lost the sight in his left eye, and with it his hopes of becoming a painter.
In 1860 he returned to England to begin his work as an illustrator, first for Once a Week and then for Punch, whose staff he joined in 1864 on the death of John Leech. Gradually he brought about a change in the subject matter of Punch’s drawings. Previously the satire had been directed at the foibles of the middle class; now the object was the fashionable world, particularly the nouveaux riches and those of literary pretensions. It has often been noted that, in addition to their artistic merits, du Maurier’s drawings, because of his close attention to the details of clothes and furnishings, have genuine importance for the social historian. After working successfully for Punch, du Maurier became illustrator for the Cornhill Magazine. This connection gave him the opportunity to illustrate some of the foremost literary productions of the time.
In the late 1880’s, du Maurier’s friend Henry James urged him to try his hand at writing a novel. The result was Peter Ibbetson, first published in the American magazine Harper’s Magazine in 1891. Many of the scenes of the novel (which was made into an opera by Deems Taylor in 1931) were drawn from memories of his own childhood. For the same magazine he wrote the enormously popular Trilby, which was later dramatized and produced in London by Beerbohm Tree. For the background of this story he used the details of his student days in Paris, many of the characters being drawn, in whole or in part, from actual people. The book had great success in England, since poor Trilby’s better nature is developed through contact with the English characters. The novel presents a sentimentalized picture of bohemian life, and the plot is pure melodrama; yet in this novel, in the character of the strange and sinister Svengali, du Maurier created a character whose name has become part of the language, no mean achievement. His last novel, The Martian, while not as successful as the earlier works, is notable for its fantastical theme of human perfection achieved through communication with an extraterrestrial being.