I happened to come across a reference to “Svengali and Trilby” the other day. I had long been aware of “Svengali” as a sort of mastermind mesmerist, but was not aware that he was fictional – from an 1894 novel by George du Maurier, Trilby. I had never heard the word “trilby” until reading Pale Fire, where I found out it referred to a type of hat – worn in PF by “the man in brown,” Gradus (in Britain it is called a “brown trilby”).
What I just found out, is that the name comes from the type of hat with an indented crown and short brim worn by du Maurier’s character, “Trilby,” an Irish girl held under the sway of the evil mesmerist, Svengali (the style later became a hat for men). The book and the play based on it were immensely popular and influential in creating the image of the mad magician and the powers of hypnotism.
I like to think this supports the inclusion of Houdini in Pale Fire as “Hodinski/Hodyna,” as the trope of the artist as magus. It is also supported by reference to Rasputin in PF. It also supports my theory of archetypes, with Gradus as the “shadow” archetype of the unconscious, since mesmerism deals with unlocking the unconscious. Gradus is described as having “mesmeric organs of vision.” Mesmerism was also a subject of research by the SPR (Society for Psychical Research), of which many luminaries alluded to in PF were members. Freud and Jung (both members of the SPR) employed hypnotism in the early days of psychoanalysis.
This is also part of the larger themes of the occult and the Romantic fascination with the occult, including mesmerism. Franz Mesmer (1734-1815)
Typical of the web of allusions in PF, du Maurier connects to several themes. Another is detective mysteries; du Maurier was also the illustrator of the first detective book, The Nottingham Mystery, which featured the evils of mesmerism. As a side note. connecting more threads, Conan Doyle was a great friend of Houdini (both members of the SPR).