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Memoirs of Robert-Houdin

by Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin
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Memoirs of Robert-Houdin by Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin

This is a great book written by one of the greatest magicians of all time, Robert-Houdin. He describes in his own words his development from a little boy to a star performer. How he started as a watchmaker, performed in the St. James Theater, and ended up helping France with a conflict with the Marabouts. Read it. Highly recommended.

Paul Fleming wrote:

Eighteen hundred and forty-five was a great year for magic, and July third of that year a memorable date for all who love conjuring. For on that day Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin first presented his soirees fantastiques in his own little theater - on what he described as "the smallest stage in Paris" - and thus began a career which won for him the title "The Father of Modern Conjuring," and for magic a respectability it had not previously enjoyed.

"Robert-Houdin transformed the art of magic," says Dr. Camille Gaultier, in the introduction to his La Prestidigitation sans appareils. "It was he who definitely banished the costume of the ancient conjurer, with its robe and pointed cap. He rid the stage of the skulls and other macabre decorations which had encumbered it up to his time, and thus completely divorced magic as a form of entertainment from sorcery and astrology. He denounced the old-time but still current conjuring tables with long covers under which confederates were hidden, and drove them from the stage and the theater. Whatever may be the merit of his specific inventions, it was by these general reforms, and by the excellence of his performances and the perfection of his technique, that he has best served magic by making it an art for people of standing, an art of the drawing-room, and raising the status of the magician at the same time."

It is hard for us to write dispassionately about the Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, for our acquaintance with the book goes back to early boyhood. Though unable to match the record of the professor of English who confessed to reading Stevenson's Treasure Island once a year, we plead guilty to having read Robert-Houdin's Memoirs, in whole or in part, many times in the past three or four decades, and always with more pleasure and inspiration than have accompanied the reading of any but a very few books on magic and magicians. This true story of the boy who dreamed of becoming a magician, who (having been delayed in one way or another) gave his first public performance at the age of forty, who achieved fame and fortune in a single decade, who became a foreign ambassador of his country, and who finally wrote not only a great autobiography but also two important works on the technique and presentation of magic, is a charming and fascinating tale from beginning to end. What is more, it is really good literature, which unfortunately is a rare thing among books on magic. The late Professor Brander Matthews, of Columbia University, thought highly of it; and Dr. Henry Ridgely Evans, veteran historian of things magical, wrote this appraisal of these Memoirs in his book, The Old and the New Magic: "In my humble opinion, Houdin's autobiography is worthy to be classed with the best, even with that of Cellini and Franklin; yes, even with Chateaubriand's superb Memories Beyond the Tomb. It is replete with interesting information about old-time necromancers; constructors of automata; good stories of contemporary magicians; exposes of Marabout miracles; and last, but not least, the fascinating adventures of Houdin himself - the archmaster of modern magic. It bears the stamp of truth on every page, and should be placed in the hands of all students of psychology and pedagogy."

Carl Waring Jones, publisher of books on magic, has just made available a new, 458-page edition of the Memoirs of Robert-Houdin. The title-page credits Dr. R. Shelton Mackenzie with the translation, but Sidney W. Clarke and Adolphe Blind (in The Bibliography of Conjuring, page 65) are authority for the statement that the "Mackenzie translation" (published in Philadelphia in 1859) is a copy of the English translation by Lascelles Wraxall (published in London). Their contention sounds reasonable, in view of the fact that the text of these early editions of the Memoirs is identical, and that, while Wraxall had a "translator's preface," Mackenzie had merely an "editor's preface."' It is probable that the Philadelphia publisher, and not Dr. Mackenzie, was responsible for denying Lascelles Wraxall the credit to which he would seem to be entitled; and that Mr. Jones made the reprint from the Philadelphia edition, and thus repeated the error. It may be noted, also, that Messrs. Clarke and Blind state that the Memoirs were first published in Paris in 1858, whereas Mr. Jones (on page 458) gives 1859 as the year of the first Paris edition.

To the Wraxall text is now added a chapter (Chapter XVII), which has not heretofore appeared in the English editions. This is a thirty-page account of the performance and mode of life of a typical "mountebank" (or roving magician) of France. It may have been omitted from earlier editions on the ground that this type of performer had no exact counterpart in English-speaking countries, and that the description would not greatly interest readers in England and the United States. We ourselves found it quite interesting, and are glad the publisher included it in this latest edition. Sixteen illustrations from a French edition, a portrait of Robert-Houdin, an "invitation ticket" designed by Houdin, and a calligraphy (of which we shall speak again) also add to the attractiveness of the new volume. But we regret the omission of the table of contents (which appeared in both the London and Philadelphia editions), and of the index (which was apparently Dr. Mackenzie's one original contribution to the Philadelphia edition). The book would have gained enormously by their inclusion, and we hope that these aids to the reader will be restored in the next printing.

The physical make-up of the book is not, in certain respects, up to the high standard Carl Jones has set for himself in the past. The type has been entirely re-set, and the type-pages make an excellent appearance. The printing is uniformly good (except for the reproduction of some of the old cuts, which could hardly be expected to be up to modern standards), and the wartime paper is satisfactory - though two different shades were used in the copy which we are reviewing. The cover is definitely disappointing, for it has no stamping whatsoever except a black-ink print of the calligraphy to which we have already referred. This, at first sight, seems to be a confusion of criss-cross lines. However, the persevering reader (with the aid of a note by the publisher) will find that, by holding the book "in a horizontal plane level with the eyes" and revolving it, the author's name, vocation, avocations, and address can be made to appear. This is all very interesting and would be welcome if it were printed on an inside page, but it is clearly a poor substitute for a proper cover-title. Even worse is the fact that there is not a word of title on the "spine," and hence no way of identifying the book without taking it from the shelf and examining its title-page. We would never have believed Carl Jones capable of such a sin of omission, had we not the evidence before us! We have praised his bookmaking without qualification in the past, and hope to do so in the future; but the omission (all from one volume) of the table of contents, index, and cover-title is more punishment than we can take without protest. To put it bluntly, he has not delivered as good a book as his past performance gave us the right to expect, and we are not happy about it.

Nevertheless, we hope the book will sell. For, in getting out this edition of a great classic, the publisher defies the old saying that magicians buy only books which tell how tricks are done, and manifests his faith that they will be interested, also, in reading the life story of a man to whom all magicians, for a hundred years, have owed a debt of gratitude. We hope that his confidence may be justified, and that this work, which has been out of print far too long, will get into the hands of all magical enthusiasts who are not familiar with it. Carl Jones has expressed the belief that "it will raise the enthusiasm and standards of any magician who reads it." We think he is right, and that the book will thus benefit both the reader and the art of magic; and we cannot help envying all those who are about to read these Memoirs for the first time, the great experience that awaits them.

The original French title of this work is Confidences d'un Prestidigiteur. The translation was done by Lascelles Wraxall.

1st UK edition, 1859, Chapman & Hall, London; 1st edition US edition, 1859, Geo. G. Evans, Philadelphia; reprint, circa 1880, Porter & Coates, Philadelphia; reprint, 1942, Laurie, London; reprint, 1944, Jones; reprint, 1964, Dover; 436 pages.

  1. Editor's Preface
  2. The Author's Overture
  3. CHAPTER I
    My Birth and Parentage
    My Home
    The Lessons of Colonel Bernard
    Paternal Ambition
    My first Mechanical Attempts
    Had I but a Rat!
    A Prisoner's Industry
    The Abbé Larivière
    My Word of Honor
    Farewell to my darling Tools.
  4. CHAPTER II
    A Country Idler
    Dr. Carlosbach, Conjurer and Professor of Mystification
    The Sand-bag and the Stirrup Trick
    I turn Lawyer's Clerk, and the Minutes appear to me very long
    A small Automaton
    A respectful Protest
    I mount a Step in the Office
    A Machine of Porter's Power
    The Acrobatic Canaries
    Monsieur Roger's Remonstrances
    My Father decides that I shall follow my bent.
  5. CHAPTER III
    My Cousin Robert
    The most important Event in my Life
    How a Man becomes a Sorcerer
    My first Sleight-of-Hand Feat
    An utter Failure
    Practising the Eye and the Hand
    Curious Experiment in Prestidigitation
    Monsieur Noriet
    An Action more ingenious than delicate
    I am Poisoned
    Influence of Delirium.
  6. CHAPTER IV
    I return to Life
    A strange Doctor
    Torrini and Antonio: a Conjurer and a Fanatic for Music
    A Murderer's Confession
    A perambulating House
    The Fair at Angers
    A portable Theatre
    I witness for the first Time a Conjuring Performance
    The blind Man's Game at Piquet
    A Dangerous Rival
    Signor Castelli eats a Man alive.
  7. CHAPTER V
    Antonio's Confessions
    How to gain Public Applause
    The Count de
    Mountebank
    I repair an Automaton
    A Mechanician's Shop on Wheels
    Nomadic life
    Happy Existence
    Torrini's Lessons
    His Opinions about Sleight-of-Hand
    A Fashionable Greek, Victim of his own Swindling
    The Conjurer Comus
    A Duel at Piquet
    Torrini proclaimed Conqueror
    Revelations
    New Catastrophe
    Poor Torrini!
  8. CHAPTER VI
    Torrini relates his Life
    Treachery of Chevalier Pinetti
    A Conjurer through Malice
    A Race between two Magicians
    Death of Pinetti
    Exhibits before Pius VII.
    The Cardinal's Chronometer
    Twelve Hundred Francs spent on a Trick
    Antonio and Antonia
    The most bitter of Mystifications
    Constantinople.
  9. CHAPTER VII
    Continuation of Torrini's History
    The Grand Turk orders a Performance
    A marvellous Trick
    A Page cut in two
    Pitying Protest of the Harem
    Agreeable Surprise
    Return to France
    Torrini's Son Killed
    Madness
    Decay
    My first Performance
    An annoying Accident
    I return Home.
  10. CHAPTER VIII
    The Prodigal Son
    Mademoiselle Houdin
    I go to Paris
    My Marriage
    Comte
    Studies of the Public
    A skillful Manager
    Rosecolored Tickets
    A Musky Style
    The King of Hearts
    Ventriloquism
    The Mystifiers Mystified
    Father Roujol
    Jules de Rovère
    Origin of the word prestidigitateur.
  11. CHAPTER IX
    Celebrated Automata
    A Brazen Fly
    The Artificial Man
    Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas d'Aquinas
    Vaucanson
    His Duck
    His Flute-Player
    Curious Details
    The Automaton Chess-Player
    Interesting Episode
    Catherine II. and M. de Kempelen
    I repair the Componium
    Unexpected Success.
  12. CHAPTER X
    An Inventor's Calculations
    One Hundred Thousand Francs a Year by an Inkstand: Deception
    My new Automata
    The First Magician in France: Decadence
    I meet Antonio
    Bosco
    The Trick with the Cups
    An Execution
    Resurrection of the Criminals
    Mistake in a Head
    The Canary rewarded.
  13. CHAPTER XI
    A Reverse of Fortune
    Cookery and Clockwork
    The Artist's Home
    Invention of an Automaton
    Voluntary Exile
    A modest Villa
    The Inconveniences of a Speciality
    Two August Visitors
    The Throat of a mechanical Nightingale
    The Tiou and the Rrrrrrrrouit
    Seven Thousand Francs earned by making Filings.
  14. CHAPTER XII
    The Inventive Genius of a Sugar-baker
    Philippe the Magician
    His Comic Adventures
    Description of his Performance
    Exposition of 1844
    The King and Royal Family visit my Automata.
  15. CHAPTER XIII
    My proposed Reforms
    I build a Theatre in the Palais Royal
    Formalities
    General Rehearsal
    Singular Effect of my Performance
    The Largest and Smallest Theatre in Paris
    Tribulation
    My first Performance
    Panic
    Discouragement
    A Fallible Prophet
    Recovery
    Success.
  16. CHAPTER XIV
    New Studies
    A Comic Journal
    Invention of Second Sight
    Curious Experiments
    An enthusiastic Spectator
    Danger of being a Sorcerer
    A Philter or your Life
    Way to get rid of Bores
    An Electric Touch
    I perform at the Vaudeville
    Struggles with the Incredulous
    Interesting Details.
  17. CHAPTER XV
    Seductions of a Theatrical Agent
    How to gain One Hundred Thousand Francs
    I start for Brussels
    A lucky Two-Sou Piece
    Miseries of professional Travelling
    The Park Theatre
    Tyranny of a Porter
    Full House
    Small Receipts
    Deceptions
    Return to Paris.
  18. CHAPTER XVI
    Reopening of my Fantastic Soirees
    Minor Miseries of Good Luck
    Inconvenience of a small Theatre
    My Room taken by Storm
    A gratuitous Performance
    A conscientious Audience
    Pleasant Story about a Black Silk Cap
    I perform at the Chateau of St. Cloud
    Cagliostro's Casket
    Holidays.
  19. CHAPTER XVII
    New Experiments
    Aerial Suspension, &c.
    A Performance at the Odéon
    A Friend in Need
    1848
    The Theatre deserted
    I leave Paris for London
    Manager Mitchell
    Publicity in England
    The Great Wizard
    A Butter-mould used as a Puff
    Singular Bills
    A Prize for the best Pun.
  20. CHAPTER XVIII
    The St. James's Theatre
    Invasion of England by French Performers
    A Fete patronised by the Queen
    The Diplomatist and the Sleight-of-Hand Man
    Three Thousand Pounds taken at one Haul
    I perform at Manchester
    The Spectators in the Pillory
    What capital Curacoa!
    A Torrent of Wine
    A Catastrophe
    Performance at Buckingham Palace
    A Wizard's Repast.
  21. CHAPTER XIX
    An Optimist Manager
    Three Spectators in a Room
    A Magical Collation
    The Colchester Public and the Nuts
    I return to France
    I give up my Theatre
    A Farewell Tour
    I retire to St. Gervais
    An Academician's Predictions.
  22. CHAPTER XX
    Travels in Algeria
    Convocation of the Chieftains
    Performances before the Arabs
    A Kabyle rendered powerless
    Invulnerability
    A Moor disappears
    Panic and Flight of the Audience
    Reconciliation
    The Sect of Aissaoua
    Their pretended Miracles.
  23. CHAPTER XXI
    Excursion in the Interior of Africa
    The Abode of a Bash-Aga
    A comical Repast
    A Soiree of Arab Dignitaries
    A Marabout mystified
    rent-life in Algeria
    I return to France
    A terrible Storm
    Conclusion.
  24. CHAPTER XXII
    A Course of Miracles.

word count: 122272 which is equivalent to 489 standard pages of text

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