Curb Your Enthusiasm


Our Daily Correspondent


An illustration for George du Maurier’s Trilby, serialized in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 1894

In a recent Science of Us post, Melissa Dahl investigates the evolution of the exclamation mark. As one grammarian tells her, “Exclamation points are becoming the standard after salutations and happy or eager statements such as ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you’ … It almost seems mandatory in e-mail.”

While few can deny that an unexclamated text reads as terse today, the overuse of the exclamation mark dates to far before the dawn of Seinfeld, let alone the proliferation of electronic communiques. Most recently, I was struck by George du Maurier’s promiscuous use of punctuation in his 1894 novel, Trilby

To the extent that anyone talks about Trilby today, it is usually because the book was the genesis of the term svengali; because said Svengali is an egregiously anti-Semitic caricature; or just because the author was the grandfather of Daphne. A century ago, it was known for its depiction of bohemian Paris and the portrait of its title character, a sexually liberated but pure-hearted Englishwoman who falls prey to the sinister machinations of Svengali.

Svengali—who does indeed practice mesmerism, as well as speaking a really-hard-to-read German-accented French that is written out phonetically—spends a lot of the novel monologuing in a villainous manner:

And, ach! what a beautiful skeleton you will make! And very soon, too, because you do not smile on your madly loving Svengali. You burn his letters without reading them! You shall have a nice little mahogany glass case all to yourself in the museum of the École de Médecine, and Svengali shall come in his new fur-lined coat, smoking his big cigar of the Havana, and push the dirty carabins out of the way, and look through the holes of your eyes into your stupid empty skull, and up the nostrils of your high, bony sounding-board of a nose without either a tip or a lip to it, and into the roof of your big mouth, with your thirty-two big English teeth, and between your big ribs into your big chest, where the big leather lungs used to be, and say, “Ach! what a pity she had no more music in her than a big tom-cat!” And then he will look all down your bones to your poor crumbling feet, and say, “Ach! what a fool she was not to answer Svengali’s letters!”

Then, some twenty pages later,

But you are not listening, sapperment! great big she-fool that you are—sheep’s-head! Dummkopf! Donnerwetter! you are looking at the chimney-pots when Svengali talks! Look a little lower down between the houses, on the other side of the river! There is a little ugly grey building there, and inside are eight slanting slabs of brass, all of a row, like beds in a school dormitory, and one fine day you shall lie asleep on one of those slabs—you, Drilpy, who would not listen to Svengali, and therefore lost him! … And over the middle of you will be a little leather apron, and over your head a little brass tap, and all day long and all night the cold water shall trickle, trickle, trickle all the way down your beautiful white body to your beautiful white feet till they turn green, and your poor, damp, draggled, muddy rags will hang above you from the ceiling for your friends to know you by; drip, drip, drip! But you will have no friends … And people of all sorts, strangers, will stare at you through the big plate-glass window—Englanders.

This gets old pretty fast. And yet the story clips along, thanks partly to all the jolly Left-Bank color, but also to du Maurier’s deployment of the exclamation mark. The narrator is, like Svengali, given to long declamations, and these are liberally strewn with tokens of his enthusiasm. Generally, he will start off fairly calm, warm to his topic, and by the end of the paragraph have become nearly hysterical. To wit,

It is a wondrous thing, the human foot—like the human hand; even more so, perhaps; but, unlike the hand, with which we are so familiar, it is seldom a thing of beauty in civilized adults who go about in leather boots or shoes. So that it is hidden away in disgrace, a thing to be thrust out of sight and forgotten. It can sometimes be very ugly indeed—the ugliest thing there is, even in the fairest and highest and most gifted of her sex; and then it is of an ugliness to chill and kill romance, and scatter love’s young dream, and almost break the heart. And all for the sake of a high heel and a ridiculously pointed toe—mean things, at the best! Conversely, when Mother Nature has taken extra pains in the building of it, and proper care or happy chance has kept it free of lamentable deformations, indurations, and discolorations—all those gruesome boot-begotten abominations which have made it so generally unpopular—the sudden sight of it, uncovered, comes as a very rare and singularly pleasing surprise to the eye that has learned how to see! Nothing else that Mother Nature has to show, not even the human face divine, has more subtle power to suggest high physical distinction, happy evolution, and supreme development; the lordship of man over beast, the lordship of man over man, the lordship of woman over all!

His paeans are not confined to the beauty of the human foot: also worthy of many exclamation marks are love, sausages, the antics of art students, and feminine virtue. Here he is on some kind of bohemian pension in Chelsea:

There were several such houses in London then—and are still—thank Heaven! And Little Billee had his little billet there—and there he was wont to drown himself in waves of lovely sound, or streams of clever talk, or rivers of sweet feminine adulation, seas! oceans!—a somewhat relaxing bath!—and forget for a while his everlasting chronic plague of heart-insensibility, which no doctor could explain or cure, and to which he was becoming gradually resigned—as one does to deafness or blindness or locomotor ataxia—for it had lasted nearly five years!

(Du Maurier is also fond of dashes.)

One wonders whether du Maurier’s stylistic excitability was a holdover from the many years he logged as a Punch cartoonist. One also wonders what his boon chum Henry James made of his approach to punctuation. What can’t be questioned is that it worked: Trilby was a sensation. There was a stage adaptation—the lead actress sported a soft felt chapeau that we still know as the trilby—but there were also songs, dances, soap, toothpaste, and a city in Florida. Svengali also served as the inspiration for the Phantom of the Opera. Apparently, the author grew to resent Trilby’s long shadow, but it made him rich.

I can think of no better way to close this than as du Maurier chose to end Trilby itself:

A little work, a little play
To keep us going—and so, good-day!

A little warmth, a little light
Of love’s bestowing—and so, good-night!

A little fun, to match the sorrow
Of each day’s growin—and so, good-morrow!

A little trust that when we die
We reap our sowing! And so—good-bye!