The term ‘Svengali’ is being thrown around a lot of the newspapers in the UK at the moment in relation to Dominic Cummings. We understand it to mean puppet master or mastermind behind a large scheme or plot, especially if it’s a sinister purpose. In terms of Cummings, he is thought of as Boris Johnson’s Svengali because of the influence he holds over him – or as the Svengali behind Vote Leave.
However, ‘Svengali’ is a very strange word. Where on earth did it come from?
Svengali is actually an invented word, and it popped into existence in 1894 with the publication of George du Maurier’s novel, Trilby. Svengali is the name of one of the characters – actually, it’s the name of the novel’s antagonist. Svengali is a creepy pianist who prays on the trusting Trilby (our heroine) who wants to be a famous singer.
Trilby is a great novel that was extremely popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, selling over 200,000 in 1895 in the US alone. It was adapted for the stage and has been revived many times, as well as at least seven films and countless productions inspired by the book. It is actually also the root of the trilby hat: in stage productions, our heroine would wear a short brimmed hat that became known as a ‘trilby hat’, surprisingly hugely popular in menswear in the UK and US.
Women wanted to be like Trilby. She is boisterous and confident and popularised the female bohemian life – meaning she lead an unconventional life, invested everything into singing (despite not being very good at it), and was a bit of a wanderer. Everyone she meets is in love with Trilby – of course everyone wanted to be just like her!
Amongst her admirers is Svengali, a strange musician who wants to train the tone-deaf Trilby, but Trilby finds him a bit scary and even repulsive. Adamant that he should have Trilby though – literally have and possess her – Svengali hypnotises her. Under his influence, Trilby becomes a successful singer, and he is able to transform her from tone-deaf to superstar – and Svengali reaps the profits.
She is a literal puppet, hence why ‘Svengali’ has come to be synonymous with ‘criminal mastermind’. However, there’s a lot more behind this word ‘Svengali’.
For one, Svengali isn’t just a criminal mastermind, he’s a hypnotist – meaning he employs (supernatural?) powers of the mind to entrap Trilby. Actually, Svengali is a mesmerist, which was an early form of hypnotism very popular when du Maurier was writing. Many writers were interested in (and wrote on) the practise, including Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, the Brownings and the Hawthornes amongst others, including a plethora of anonymous accounts and confessions as to the immortality of mesmerism. Trilby is probably the most popular text to come out of this strange interest.
However, one of the reasons the word ‘mesmerism’ was abandoned (and replaced with ‘hypnotism’) is because of the criminal connotations coming to be associated with it. Indeed, there was a collective anxiety regarding the powers of such mesmerists, and the possibility that this power would be abused. du Maurier’s Svengali is the embodiment of these anxieties, and Trilby was a classic example of vulnerable woman taken advantage of by a scheming mesmerist.
Likewise, Svengali is characterised in quite a problematic way. Not only is he a criminal, mesmerist mastermind who enslaves Trilby, but he is Jewish. He reminds Trilby of ‘a big hungry spider’, and he is physically described as ugly, dirty and literally ‘a filthy black Hebrew sweep’. It is a blatantly anti-Semitic character, and du Maurier overtly draws parallels between criminal masterminds and Jewish people. So, when people refer to someone as a ‘Svengali’, they are actually employing somewhat of an anti-Semetic slur.
Ultimately, ‘Svengali’ describes someone very controlling and with extraordinary influence over others. Perhaps Cummings really is Johnson’s Svengali – indeed, he is the first ever Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister, and the nation has been surprised by Cummings’s utter influence over Johnson’s decisions. Maybe Cummings is a hypnotist, too – it would be quite an exciting revelation to find in the newspapers.
However, this word is also tangled up with hypnotism, criminality, exploitation and racism. It’s used widely in the media whenever a case like this arises, especially in regards to football managers.
As time has passed, Svengali has decreasingly been characterised by his Jewishness, just as ‘Svengali’ has taken on a life of its own away from du Maurier and his novel (just as ‘trilby hat’ has). Luckily for du Maurier, that is, who actually despised the attention he garnered from Trilby.