The Magician’s Wife by Brian Moore (1997)

The Magician’s Wife is historical fiction, set in 1856 France and Algeria.

Brian Moore 100

This is the final read for #BrianMoore100, a year of reading his novel’s in what would been the Northern Irish novelist’s 100th year.

This year, I managed to read and review Lies of SilenceThe Lonely Passion of Judith HearneThe Doctor’s Wife and now The Magician’s Wife. I enjoyed all of them and plan to continue reading more of his work in the year ahead.

Gustave Flaubert and George Sand’s Letters

According to New York Times essayist and reviewer Thomas Mallon, Brian Moore, in discussing the origins of The Magician’s Wife, gave credit to a note in Francis Steegmuller and Barbara Bray’s translation of The Correspondence of George Sand & Gustave Flaubert.

Flaubert was complaining about the French government and their political priorities, and in his letter to Sand he writes:

“But before concerning ourselves with “social security” and even with agriculture, we send a Robert-Houdin to all the villages of France to work miracles!”

The associated footnote further explains:

In 1856 the French government had sent the celebrated conjuror Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin to North Africa in an attempt to destroy the nefarious influence of the marabouts on the native population. His feats, announced as “miracles”, were a great success.

Strangely, the footnote erroneously names the magician in parentheses as Houdini, however, Harry Houdini changed his name (from Ehrich Weisz) in honour of his mentor Robert-Houdin.

In the novel, the character of the magician, Henri Lambert, is inspired by the historical character of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.


France 1856 Algeria Robert Houdin MaraboutsBeing historical fiction, The Magician’s Wife became one of those books that I often put down to look up the historical characters, such as Napoleon III (the nephew and step-grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte – he was the son of Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense de Beauharnais who married Napoleon’s brother Louis) and his wife, the Empress Eugénie de Montijo. His reign was referred to as the Second Empire and lasted for 18 years (1852-1870).

The first half of the novel is set in France, in Tours, the home of the magician and his wife Emmeline, briefly in Paris, where she is outfitted for the pending visit to one of the Emperor’s chateau.

The second half is set in Algeria, in the cities of Algiers and Milianah.

The Emperor’s Invitation

When the magician Henri Lambert is visited by a highly ranked Colonel Deniau and subsequently invited by the Emperor to the autumn residence, Château de Compiègne for a week of events and festivities, Emmeline is curious as to why these men of politics are interested in her husband and unimpressed by the activities they drag her into.

napoleon III Second empire The Magicians Wife Brian MooreIt becomes clear, that this particular série or group of invitees, are people whose influence might be required, to assist the ruler in his campaigns.

Emmeline looked down the long table to where Lambert was as usual in animated conversation with his fellow diners. Not a first-tier série, this man says. Foreigners, bankers, people the Emperor wants to use in some way. What can he want from Henri?

Because the narrative is seen through the eyes of Emmeline, it remains a mystery for some time as to what use the magician might be to the Emperor, however both the Colonel and Napoleon III attempt to bring her close, in order to help persuade her husband of the mission they have in mind for him.

Colonial Conspirators

They want the Magician and his wife to go to Algeria, to perform tricks of illusion, posing as a superior French version of their influential marabouts (a kind of spiritual leader/healer/wise man), in order to inculcate fear of their power and diminish faith in their spiritual leadership. It was an attempt to destabilise and weaken people in preparation for the French armies to continue their conquest and colonisation of the country.

“There, marabouts or saints have a political and spiritual influence which is greater than the power of any ruler…And because of that, only the marabout can proclaim a jihad or holy war against us. At the moment, Your Majesty, all of Algeria is in thrall to a certain Bou-Aziz, a charismatic marabout who has risen up in the south and is said to possess miraculous powers.”

The Female Gaze

Brian Moore Algeria 1856 Magicians Wife

Photo by Noureddine Belfethi on

It is a fascinating story and all the more interesting because Moore chooses to view events and see those involved in this ‘act of illusion’ through the eyes of the accompanying wife.

Emmeline is never quite in support of the events she is dragged along to participate in, openly showing her disapproval despite their promises to elevate her and her husband in society.

Bored by her provincial marriage and uneventful home life, she briefly considers a liaison with the Colonel, initially responding to his attention, though sees through his contrived flattery and begins to resent him, seeing that he too is looking for acclaim and willing to use whatever means necessary.

A Desert Awakening

The Colonel warns her that a visit to Algeria will change her, and this perhaps is the only truth he speaks, for she has a kind of awakening herself, though not in a way that necessarily benefits the mission they are on.

The turning point for her comes, when their servant Jules falls sick and she is the only one to comfort him. What she learns about him in this little time they spend together, awakens her to certain realities about their lives and the impact of what they are doing there. She becomes the sole voice of conscience with regard to this duplicitous mission, moved by the words and aura of the spiritual leader.

She thought of Bou-Aziz, of his grave, dignified speech, of his resolve to pray for God’s guidance. And in that moment in the courtyard of a French fort surrounded by illimitable desert she remembered the Emperor’s study in Compiègne, the Emperor with his waxed moustaches and his lecher’s smile, puffing on his long cigar. ‘I have great plans for Algeria. In the spring, I will bring our armies to Africa, subdue the Kabylia region and complete our conquest of the entire country.’ But this conquest that the Emperor desired would not ‘civilise’ these people as he promised but instead bring more forts, more soldiers, more roads, more French colonists to profit from Algeria’s trade and crops. And more mahdis, more jihads, more repression.

It is extraordinary that Moore chose to write about this intriguing piece of history, given he was an Irish author living in exile in America, writing about French political activities in Algeria. As is to be expected, though it is a history far from home, he succeeds in making the story a conduit for many of his themes and literary preoccupations.

It was an insightful and sympathetic reading journey, to read about this period and event in history, from an alternative perspective, painted by the outsider, written through the eyes of another Brian Moore protagonist, a viewpoint he favoured, that of a woman.

And I’ll certainly be adding the Château de Compiègne to my list of near future places to visit.

Further Reading

Article New York Times: Sleight of Hand by Thomas Mallon

France Inter: Robert Houdin, un sorcier blanc en Algérie Dec 5, 2021

Other People’s Stories

Recently someone asked as I live in France, was I reading any French authors, which prompted me to look on my shelves and reflect on this question. There were the two Irène Némirovsky books, ‘All Our Worldly Goods’ and ‘Fire in the Blood’ I read earlier this year and after discovering one of my French students was reading Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’, one of my favourite classics and an excellent study of character, we exchanged books, he lending me Stefan Zweig’s ‘le voyage dans le passé’ (in French and an Austrian author so translated from German) while I gave him Paul Durcan’s epic poem ‘Christmas Day’.

Manger Square, Bethlehem, Nativity Church beyond

I have read a couple of Amélie Nothomb books, ‘Fear and Trembling’ a factional account of her year spent in Japan, which was very funny in an excruciating way and I adored Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’, a book I’d put off reading for years and finally read it during a two month visit to Bethlehem, a welcome reward following Karen Armstrong’s
excellent but gruelling ‘A History of Jerusalem’
– One City, Three Faiths after which I had a feeling of absolute awe that there were ANY people left living in that part of the world, having endured one crusade after another as successive peoples carried out their quest to occupy that Holy Land. I also became more wide awake as to how this current generation of people carry the blue eyed gene.

I digress. Back with contemporary literature, my book buddy had mentioned Emmanuel Carrère’s ‘lives other than my own’ to me a few times and her creative writing class are about to be introduced to it, so I found a window of opportunity to read it this week. And what an extraordinary thing it is. Familiar with the phrase ‘truth can be stranger than fiction’; here I am left with the feeling that ‘truth can be as compelling as fiction’.

Emmanuel Carrère was on holiday in Sri Lanka with his girlfriend when the tsunami struck, they had been considering separating and then found themselves in a whirlwind period where the relative significance of these reflections was crushed by that incoming wave and the devastation it wreaked on others.

“Everything that has happened in those five days and was ending then, at that precise moment washed over us. A dam opened, releasing a flood of sorrow, relief, love, all mixed together.

I hugged Hélène and told her, I don’t want to break up anymore, not ever.

She said, I don’t want to break up anymore either.”

The couple return to France only to learn that Hélène’s sister is on a downward spiral with the return of a cancer that she had thought she was rid of when she was a teenager. Juliette, now in her thirties, is a juge d’instance (a judge of small claims and grievances) and has three girls, the youngest only fifteen months old. Through Juliette, Carrère meets her colleague Etienne, a cancer survivor, who shares with the author an insight into both the world of being a cancer survivor and their realm as judges in the small town of Vienne, where they strive and indeed succeed to make a difference.

What makes this recount all the more extraordinary is the sense of the author’s narcissism, long time chronicler of the tormented self, he readily admits this and while I wouldn’t say that being witness to these events resulted in an absolute cure, it certainly lead him, as the book title suggests, to explore and find some empathy in lives other than his own.

While on the French theme, I would like to mention Patricia Sands, author of ‘The Bridge Club’, another story inspired by the lives of others, Patricia is an advocate of the premise that everyone has a story to tell and she does this not only through her novel but via her blog. Each Friday she posts about France and this week, she has very kindly written a post about this blog, which you can view here. So thank you Patricia and do check out her book.