Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

December 3, 2017

Author: Susan Clarke.


English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory.

But at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire, the rich, reclusive Mr Norrell has assembled a wonderful library of lost and forgotten books from England’s magical past and regained some of the powers of England’s magicians. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and alarm the French.

All goes well until a rival magician appears. Jonathan Strange is handsome, charming, and talkative-the very opposite of Mr Norrell. Strange thinks nothing of enduring the rigors of campaigning with Wellington’s army and doing magic on battlefields. Astonished to find another practicing magician, Mr Norrell accepts Strange as a pupil. But it soon becomes clear that their ideas of what English magic ought to be are very different. For Mr Norrell, their power is something to be cautiously controlled, while Jonathan Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic. He becomes fascinated by the ancient, shadowy figure of the Raven King, a child taken by fairies who became king of both England and Faerie, and the most legendary magician of all. Eventually Strange’s heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens to destroy not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear.

My Thoughts:

Really excellent alternate-history/fantasy. It does take a certain reading taste; for one thing, the book’s a thousand pages long. There are footnotes galore, some of them a page long (!). The characters are far more realistic than likable.

That being said, I love it. Somehow, Susanna Clarke combines 1800s England, faeryland and fae of the best sort (magical and Other and dangerous, strange beyond our laws and completely inhuman), and Jane Austen-esque amusing social commentary, and it all makes perfect sense within that story world.

‘Perfect sense’ in so far as the story is perfectly coherent, never breaking suspension of disbelief. I’m not claiming you’ll actually understand everything, see. Just that you’ll believe it.

Mr. Norrell is a distinctly arrogant, solitary, eccentric English gentleman. He also happens to be one of the first practicing magicians in five hundred years. He is continually self-centered and aggravating, so the reader can hardly help but enjoy watching him be baffled by the social circles of London and bureaucracy of the government when he makes steps to bring himself to official status.

Jonathan Strange starts out an English dandy, with more money than work-ethic, a fairly pleasant temperament but no strong ambitions or plans, and magical aptitude as surprising to him as anyone else. (By the end of the story he will be unstoppable, driven to the point of obsession, one of the most powerful men in England. Watch his transformation closely or you will not even notice it, simply forgetting who he once was.) He goes to Mr. Norrell for apprenticeship as a magician more to please his betrothed with Proper Work than anything else, proves himself a quick learner soon fascinated by the art he has fallen into, and before long the two magicians are working for the government, assisting with the war effort.

‘Behind the scenes’ as it were, threading along through a series of scenes partially unconnected to the two magicians, runs a fae thread. Mr. Norrell called up a fae prince to help him bring a young lady back from untimely death, a one-off favor for a powerful court personage, and went on oblivious to the havoc he wreaked in said lady’s life. Now she lives a half-life under the prince’s thrall, along with her household’s butler simply because the prince took a liking to him. Oh, this will be important later; but for the moment it introduces the reader to the fae (and this is a fae prince done right. Forget about superhuman beauty and instant romance, for the prince’s inhuman features hardly matter to his prisoners. Learn the frustration, the creeping terror, of faery gifts you never asked for and unshakable affection that is destroying your life. Feel the horror of something without a soul, something literally incapable of understanding human emotion. He means well. Stephen begs to be let go. The Lady goes into hysterics at the mere idea of one more dance. Stephen barely talks him out of killing the King of England on a whim. He means well). For the moment it places bureaucratic England, the rules and explanations of magicians, beside a wholly different magic.

The shape of the story shifts slowly across the span of the book. We’re following these two magicians – and the shape of the world is shifting under their feet as they delve deeper into magic. In the beginning Mr. Norrell is smugly sure he knows better than the rest of the world, that as a true practitioner he understands the laws and principles. By the end, they both know that they know next to nothing.

“Strange and Norrel had been merely throwing paper darts about a parlour while real magic soared and swooped and twisted on great wings in a limitless sky far, far above them.”

To sum up: this “magical history” certainly isn’t for everyone, given the detailed writing style and length, but if you’re not scared off by a thousand pages; if you can put up with footnotes; if you love three-dimensional characters and complex character arcs; if you love fae and magic when it is Other and odd and maybe makes you stop and look out the window at the sky and shiver; and if you’re still reading a sentence of this length, then Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is for you.

Content Review:

Sexual Content: The “Spirit of English Magic” is depicted in a painting as a young lady “scantily dressed in a loose smock”. Character is briefly discovered to have five wives, each unaware of the others.

Language: 11 d***, 2 derogatory terms, 1 exclamation of “God”

Violence: In a footnote: a cat was thrown from a three-story window; it survived, but with a bad leg. Historical account of maid seen dancing with fae, blood-drops forming like sweat on her arms and brow – she was found dead and white on the field in the morning. Horse rears, falls, breaks its back – it has to be shot. Characters watch a wolf hunt (as in, humans hunting wolves down). One character shoots another dead, and the (magical) wood grows up through him. Reports a child falling from a roof and being healed. One character kills another by ordering the stones themselves to tear him apart.

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