Monday 27 December 2021

The Prince and the Magician

Portrait  of Orléans by Jean-Pierre Franque, musée de Dreux
Here is a curious episode from the late-eighteenth century world of Freemasonry,the occult and ritual magic.  It involves no less a figure than the duc d'Orléans, later Philippe d'Égalité.   According to the fullest account, events took place near Orléan's  residence at the Château du Raincy, about ten kilometres north-east of Paris. 
  An unnamed Jewish sorcerer led the duke into a forest thicket where an demonic being materialised from a supernatural fire. The apparition conferred on him a talismanic ring and imparted an unknown secret: 

"He conversed for more than an hour with this real or phantasmic figure whose hand sealed an iron ring around his neck.  He showed us this ring, but did not confide in us what had been predicted.  He only told us "The matter is of the highest importance, but it is a mystery".  These are the exact words he used.  [D'Allonville, Mémoires secrets (1838), vol. 1, p.145] 

In later commentaries, notably the history by Auguste Viatte published in 1928,  the  mysterious Jew is identified as Chaim Samuel Jacob Falk, the so-called "Baal Shem of London",  a famous Kabbalistic magician of the later eighteenth century.  It was generally assumed that the duke had been promised a magical guarantee for his accession to the French throne. [see Viatte, p.184]

Tuesday 14 December 2021

William Beckford in Paris


 Beckford by John Hoppner, Salford Art Gallery        
Few Englishmen obtained greater celebrity in the late 18th and early 19th century than William Beckford, eccentric, hedonist and creator of the marvellous gothick folly of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire. 

In 1784 Beckford, then a young man of twenty-four, journeyed with his long suffering wife to Paris. In the course of his sejourn he wrote a series of letters addressed to his mistress Louisa, the wife of his cousin Peter.  The letters survive only in copies which Beckford transcribed in his own hand years later, in 1834.  In all probability they were never intended to be sent, but were written for publication; it is reported that the elderly Beckford was in the habit of reading extracts to favoured guests in his retreat at Lansdown Tower in Bath.  How far the letters are genuine reportage and how far fanciful reminiscences, is anyone's guess.  Either way, they are a fascinating read, though possibly more for the light they shed on Beckford's psyche than for their insights into pre-Revolutionary France.

A discussion of the letters, with substantial extracts, is included  in John Walter Oliver's biography, The Life of William Beckford, published in 1932.  [Available for loan on Internet Archive]

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