Svengali's Web

The Alien Enchanter in Modern Culture

Daniel Pick

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May 11, 2000
296 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
36 b/w illus.
ISBN: 9780300082043
Cloth

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Svengali, the malevolent hypnotist in a sensationally successful novel published by George du Maurier in 1894, became such a well-known character in the culture of the period that his name entered the dictionary as one who exerts a malign persuasiveness on another. This book explores the origins and impact of Svengali and his helplessly mesmerized female victim Trilby in an age already rife with discussions of race, influence, and the unconscious mind.

Daniel Pick points out that Svengali was a Jew as well as a dangerous hypnotist; his depiction struck a chord not only with pervasive nineteenth-century forebodings about irrational interpersonal forces and psychic contacts but also with prevalent anti-Semitic assumptions. He shows how Svengali became the quintessential dark hypnotist of the fin de siècle, whose image was recycled in pictures, drama, verse, and films. Pick not only discusses the work of mesmerists, hypnotists, and critics of entrancement but also relates tales of surrogate passion and psychological foreboding that feature opera singer Jenny Lind, composer Richard Wagner, politician Benjamin Disraeli, novelist Henry James, and others. The book identifies and illuminates a psychological and historical preoccupation—a cluster of Victorian ideas and images, fears and fantasies of psychic invasion and racial hypnosis that crystallized in the figure and phenomenon of Svengali.

Daniel Pick is a psychoanalyst and Professor of Cultural History at Queen Mary, University of London, and the author of War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, published by Yale University Press. He is an editor of History Workshop Journal. 

Svengali’s Web is good, traditional cultural history. . . . Entertaining, provocative, and sui generis, the book should attract a broad readership that includes academic readers at all levels and a general audience.”—Choice



“[Pick] has written a fascinating cultural critique on George du Maurier’s novel Trilby. . . . Pick touches on crowd psychology, sexual control, anti-Semitism, music, and the evil eye as elements in the novel and as aspects of British public life. The result is an interesting view of a great popular success of the time. Recommended for literature collections.”—Library Journal


“The supreme work of historians (after establishing fact) is discovering such connections as Mr. Pick has discovered in Svengali’s Web. The result is not only illuminating but also profoundly affecting.”—Daniel Mark Epstein, Wall Street Journal


“[This] book is a labyrinthine work that rewards with its expansive travels through the Victorian psyche, exploring anti-Semitism, racism, Franz Anton Mesmer, hypnotism, sexuality, the ‘evil eye,’ Jenny Lind and the music world, crowd psychology, the Dreyfus Affair, Sigmund Freud, literary gossip, and a swirl of other topics.”—Nina C. Ayoub, Chronicle of Higher Education


“An absorbing historical study of psychic susceptibility and bewitchment. It should be devoured in the spin-doctors’ citadels of Downing Street and Madison Avenue.”—Andrew Lycett, Thought


“This is a wide-ranging and fascinating study of late-nineteenth-century attitudes and thought, all emanating from the spiderish image of Svengali.”—Leonee Ormond, Literary Review


Svengali’s Web is none the less pan-European social history with a kick, not only by its account of multiple personalities and all that they have wrought with the increasing means at their disposal, but by its tacit acknowledgment that nobody is free from the desire to be either a Svengali or his victim.”—Christopher Hawtree, Financial Times 


“Pick’s book exerts its own power over the reader. It can be read as a well-researched, entertaining story of the Victorian age, or as a serious and important contribution to the understanding of the human psyche.”—Victoria Davenport, Guardian