In 1856 Napoleon III sent Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin to Algeria to frighten the natives with a display of “magical” power so astonishing that they would be discouraged from starting a holy war against the French colonial power. One of those stranger-than-fiction facts that Moore uses to full effect in his novel The Magician’s Wife (1997).
Robert-Houdin is fictionalised as Henri Lambert, who has retired to a secluded life in Tours with his wife Emmeline. The first section of the novel focuses on the Lamberts and their recruitment into the French secret service. Henri is invited to a week-long gathering in the company of the Emperor and his Empress, ostensibly to perform for the aristocratic audience. Emmeline, although bored with the seclusion of her life, is terrified of the grand world she is asked to enter. But, prevailed upon by Henri, she accepts the invitation. The preparatory shopping list includes eight day costumes, including a travelling suit, seven ball dresses and five gowns for tea – all designed by the Empress’s dressmaker. Duly kitted out, they enter the theatrical spectacle of the French court, where appearance and conformity and sychophancy is everything. Despite her best efforts, everything conspires to remind Emmeline of her humble origins (from the quality of the her cloth to the location of her room). Henri is no support. He is away most of the time, dealing with the real business in hand. However, there are other men at hand, some gallant (Colonel Deniau), some not (Napoleon III himself), who have other designs on Emmeline. Given that her marriage has been long dead, it is only a matter of time before Emmeline, bored and unloved, falls prey to one or the other. We observe and understand Emmeline’s loneliness and sadness at a marriage that is neither loving nor the exciting adventure she expected when she married her celebrity husband.
The second section takes the Lamberts to Algeria, where Henri is pacify the natives with his “magical” prowess. He certainly has no doubts in his powers to perform. Emmeline accompanies him but the more she observes, the more she is disabused of the integrity of Henri’s task. Colonel Deniau is on hand though to misdirect her penetrating gaze with his continued attentions which he does with ever diminishing success. Even so, Emmeline is dragged into the deception when her husband’s male assistant falls ill.
It was Deniau who told him to ask me. Deniau has convinced him that I’m the one he must use. Deniau who uses him, who uses me, with compliments and flattery. Deniau is the magician. We are his marionettes.
Although there are many echoes, Emmeline is no Emma Bovary. She is an astute assessor of the situation but powerless to prevent events from taking their course. Through her eyes we see the ingenuity (or is that dishonesty) of her husband’s illusions, the frustrations of the Arabs, the dishonour of the French and an awareness of the ever increasing personal risks to her husband.
In a neat structural device, the sexual tensions of the first section and the danger to Emmeline’s honour are reflected in the political tensions of the second and the danger to Henri’s life. The opulence, snobbery, sycophancy and moral lassitude of the French aristocratic court contrast strongly with the sincerity and charisma of the Arabs in the Algerian desert. And let’s not forget the allegories contained in the French hunting scenes.
The ending, while bleak, is not quite what the reader expects.
(Originally published on Lizzy’s Literary Life 17/10/2007.)