The Magician’s Wife
In October, 1856, after he has retired to his estate in Tours, Henri Lambert is invited to Compiègne, Emperor Napoléon III’s winter palace, for one of his highness’s celebrated séries, weeklong rounds of hunting, shooting, and parties. Such invitations are highly coveted and a sign of royal favor, and while Lambert is delighted, his wife disapproves, complaining that the expense will be prohibitive and that her husband will be only a minor diversion for aristocratic entertainment.
Once at Compiègne, Emmeline feels utterly ill at ease, deserted by her husband while he heads off for male-only meetings and embarrassed that she is a bourgeois pretender among the aristocracy. The isolation provokes a reassessment of her marriage, which has grown stale, and she fears that she has been hoodwinked, just as all her husband’s audiences have. She is more than flattered by Colonel Deniau’s attention and contemplates an affair with him. At a shooting outing, she is horrified by the spectacle and grows ill.
She and her husband eventually have an audience with the emperor, and they learn that he has grand plans for her husband to visit Algeria, where he must perform and dazzle the crowds. Within weeks, the couple arrives in Algiers and must prepare for the first of Lambert’s performances, in which he must convince the local sheiks that his powers surpass those of any of their leaders. One of those leaders, Bou-Aziz, is on the verge of declaring himself Mahdi (chosen one) and thus inaugurating a jihad, or holy war, to rid the desert of the European intruders. If Lambert can overwhelm the audience with his conjuring powers, he may undercut the marabout’s authority and divide his followers.
The performance is a resounding success, except that Bou-Aziz is not in attendance, and they must journey across the desert to his home at Milianah. During the trip, Jules falls seriously ill, and Emmeline is forced to assume his role as her husband’s assistant. While performing her duties, she cannot take her eyes off the charismatic Bou-Aziz, and she feels overpowered by his presence. By means of an extraordinarily clever charade, Lambert escapes certain death and startles the crowd.
As Lambert revels in triumph, his loyal attendant, Jules, dies of cholera, and Emmeline gradually realizes the futility of her and her husband’s lives. In a moment of courage and utter self- determination, she travels out to the marabout’s quarters and reveals the deception that has duped his followers. Bou-Aziz delays the announcement of jihad, and just when Lambert appears victorious, he is shot by a disgruntled Arab and paralyzed, his career and future rendered dubious.
At the heart of the novel’s concerns is the notion of magic and its effects on audiences. The most obvious source of magic is, of course, Henri Lambert, whose prestidigitation is fairly pallid fare once its secrets have been revealed. Lambert is a fraud, especially in the grandiose terms with which he presents himself to Muslims: as someone appointed by God to demonstrate supernatural powers. His role as national hero is also a matter of deception and an empty performance, for Bou-Aziz simply capitulates, not because he fears Lambert’s gifts but because he is convinced of his own spiritual superiority.
Emmeline comes to the conclusion that her marriage is the result of a sleight of hand and coincidence. She mistook her husband for a gentleman but was in fact simply enchanted by a false air of command and enchantment. “Looking back now, I believe that on some occasions he does have a sort of magical power, or at least a summoning of his will so strong that he can make people do things they would never dream of doing.”
The trickery, however, goes much further, and soon it fairly surrounds Emmeline. The attendants at Compiègne are the grand and powerful, but she quickly sees another side to them. They are lecherous, predatory, and shallow. Their leader, Louis- Napoléon, imagines himself an ally to all social groups, though his progressiveness is simply self-serving. The man who imagines himself a restorer of the Napoleonic Empire is a hapless imperialist, most of whose schemes for international glory are repeatedly thwarted.
The concern with trickery allows Moore to explore once again a favorite theme— spiritual belief. In novel after novel, Moore examines characters who wrestle with the subtleties of faith, often left either with delusions or a yearning to fill some inner emptiness. Emmeline is one of these yearners; she feels divorced from a life of meaning, and when she thinks, “Compiègne has changed me,” she has no...
(The entire section is 1910 words.)