A dapper Jasper Maskelyne
White Magic:The Story of the Maskelynes (1936), is a memoir written by Jasper Maskelyne in honour of his English family’s magic dynasty. Most of it concerns Jasper’s grandfather, John Nevil Maskelyne (or “J.N.”, as the family called him), who first gave a magic-show as an amateur with George Cooke, a friend, in 1865. In the early seventies, J.N. and Cooke went on to transform the Egyptian Hall into London’s premier magic venue. It remained so for almost two decades.
The magical life was an obsession for J.N. His grandson tells us that he laboured at it an incredible twenty hours a day. He was in his workshops by 6am, “experimenting with the apparatus for new illusions, or whittling away at one of his innumerable non-theatrical inventions”. He then worked all day, “either in the shops or on stage rehearsing… He played in the theatre every afternoon and evening, and stayed up till two o’clock next morning dealing with business correspondence, arranging his affairs, or puzzling out new turns”.
Something about the world of stage magic seems to breed fanaticism of J.N.’s kind. Not sharing it myself I find it hard to imagine what exactly it might be. Part of it at least, in his case, was a relentless commitment to rationalism: a conviction that the universe worked as mechanistically as one of his own elegant contraptions. He had first been inspired to go into magic to prove that the celebrated Davenport Brothers were swindlers (they had claimed to perform feats through spiritualist agency on stage, until Maskeylne and Cooke demonstrated otherwise). Throughout his career he staged similar revelations of spiritualist humbug. In his time, he claimed to have unmasked the levitationist Daniel Home; Charles Williams, famed producer of spirit apparitions; the slate-writer Dr Slade; and the glamorous blonde medium, Eva Fay.
Fancy my surprise, then, when Jasper Maskelyne relates a strange incident in the life of that determined materialist, J.N. (This may well have been the inspiration for the mystic-mongering in The Prestige, one of the subjects of my last post). For the life of me, I can’t work out why this following episode is included in the book, given Jasper’s own hyper-rationalist belief in the lightness of being.
At one time, Jasper tells us, his grandfather began dabbling in ancient books of magic, looking for inspiration for an act called the “Black Magic Well”. Early one morning he was tinkering with an apparatus beneath the stage, and he noticed the distinct smell of burning. Looking up, he saw a man clad all in black silk standing not far away. The man looked like one of the actors he had engaged for a magical playlet in which the Devil appeared. “When J.N. asked what he was doing there, he did not reply”, Jasper says, “and when my grandfather took a step towards him, he vanished”.
Convinced that he had chosen this dramatic way of introducing a new disappearing-trick, J.N. called to the man, and after a moment or two tried to find him. “The door to his office, which had been open, was now shut, and J.N. heard movements inside. He strode in, meeting a stench of sulphur, but the place was empty. Also, a pile of books on the Black Arts which had been open on the table were flung hastily about. One of them was missing. It was never found”.
“What was it?”, the younger Maskelyne asks us. “Elaborate practical joke? Insane terror at a petty theft? Or something blacker and more mysterious than either? The problem has never been solved; but J.N. took Black Arts playlets off as soon as could after that, and would never dabble with witchcraft again”.