- Charles Dickens Magician: Conjuring in Life, Letters and Literature by Ian Keable
Charles Dickens was well known as a novelist, journalist and public reader. But he had many other lesser accomplishments as well: poet, playwright, editor, actor, mesmerist, athlete, musician and so on. He was also an amateur magician – or, in nineteenth-century parlance, a conjuror: Jane Carlyle wrote enthusiastically of “that excellent Dickens playing the conjuror for one whole hour – the best conjuror I ever saw” (56). In this book, author Ian Keable, a practicing British magician who has recreated Dickens’s own illusions in a performance called The Secret World of Charles Dickens, closely considers Dickens’s experiences as a spectator and as a performer of magic, and the influence magic may have had on Dickens’s writing.
Though Keable is not a literary scholar, he has done careful and thorough research for this book and makes no important errors in his treatment of Dickens’s life and writing career, though he omits Little Dorrit from his chronological timeline.
Keable traces Dickens’s depictions of thimble-rigging in Sketches by Boz and Nicholas Nickleby, and considers Dickens’s only depiction of a conjuror in fiction, Sweet William in The Old Curiosity Shop. He also identifies several [End Page 162] conjurors Dickens saw perform, including Ludwig Döbler, Robert-Houdin, Alfred de Gaston, Henri Robin, and Colonel Stodare.
Dickens’s career as a practicing conjuror was limited to a single decade: the 1840s. Dickens bought the stock in trade of a conjuror in 1842, and gave his first proper show in January 1843. Dickens’s best-documented performance, as “Rhia Rhama Rhoos” in Bonchurch, and his last known conjuring show at Rockingham Castle, both took place in 1849.
Much of what we know about Dickens’s tricks comes from a footnote in Forster’s biography, in which Forster quotes extensively from a privately printed playbill (now lost) for the Bonchurch show. Keable quotes from the footnote, and describes the six effects, giving both Dickens’s name for the trick and the name of the trick in modern parlance: “The Leaping Card Wonder” (the “Jumping Cards”), “The Pyramid Wonder” (“Coin in Nest of Boxes”), “The Conflagration Wonder” (“Burnt and Restored Playing Card”), “The Loaf of Bread Wonder” (“Watch in Loaf of Bread”), “The Travelling Doll Wonder” (“Bonus Genius”), and finally “The Pudding Wonder” (“Baking a Cake in a Hat”) (82–83). Keable provides details about these effects and offers some guesses about Dickens’s likely patter, without revealing any significant secrets about methods.
Keable also discusses the greatest theatrical illusion of the nineteenth century, Pepper’s Ghost. (Though Keable does not mention it, Joyce alludes to this illusion in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.) Pepper’s Ghost was based on Dickens’s Christmas book The Haunted Man. Keable points out that the illusion was “one of the most successful and best remembered theatrical versions of a Dickens book,” and asks “how often can one say about a piece of work by Dickens that it succeeded in spite of rather than because of the story?” (177).
Part of what makes this book valuable is Keable’s ability to stick to the facts. He carefully avoids overstating his case, noting many instances where overeager magic historians and Dickens scholars have offered exaggerated and inaccurate claims. He notes that Dickens was highly dependent upon apparatus and “does not appear to have been well-versed in sleight of hand” (91), though Fred Kaplan suggests otherwise. He finds it unlikely that Dickens performed in blackface, as Simon Callow and Ricky Jay have claimed. He is careful not to assume that all articles about magic in Household Words and All the Year Round are from Dickens’s pen, noting that some historians like Trevor Dawson have vastly overestimated the number of articles Dickens himself wrote on the subject. And Keable establishes that, though Dickens undoubtedly saw Robert-Houdin, the greatest conjuror of the century, he was more impressed with the work of Döbler and de Gaston.
Keable chooses to...