Susanna Clarke’s first novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is wide-reaching, epic, funny, scary, magical. It is a book of the fantastic, telling the story of an alternate English history – one where England was ruled by magic for centuries, becoming dusty, forgotten and theoretical by the early 19th Century – and two men determined to bring good practical English magic back. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell start as student and teacher, partners, then powerful rivals, their magic threatening to tear England apart, and take it back to the parallel world of the faerie where England once grew. It is a flawed book, but the tensions it plays with, the whole correspondent history of the country, the whole counterpart world of the fae, makes the achievement remarkable, enjoyable, and very readable.
This book was recommended to me so many times from so many places. I was given a copy some years ago but it’s sheer size – 782 pages of fine dense print – was overwhelming, impractical. Recently though, inspired by yet another recommendation and the promotion for the recent BBC adaptation, I bought it on Kindle so it would be transportable and therefore readable. And, despite my misgivings, I tore through it.
Centuries ago in England, the north was ruled by the Raven King, a human boy brought up by faeries and returned to rule with magic. This magic is a part of the natural order of the world: the stones, the trees, the sky a part of the depth of the faery magic that can reach. In the early-19th Century, no one believes in practical magic any more, and ‘magicians’ are gentlemen of leisure, reading the books, debating the theory. Reclusive Mr Norrell appears, determined to bring practical English magic back and help the war against Napoleon. In London he meets a brilliant young magician – the almost foppish, carefree gentleman Jonathan Strange – who is just on the cusp of realising what he can do. They quickly evolve from tutor and student to partners to rivals, Mr Norrell obsessed with control, the Englishness of magic, avoidance of anything faery; Strange experimental and talented, who cannot help but be drawn in by the unknown possibilities of what ancient fae magic can offer.
On another level, this story is also a Faustian tale: Norrell deals with the gentleman with thistledown hair – an unnamed faery, stunningly powerful and terrifyingly charming, prone to moods and torture – to bring Miss Winterdown – fianceé to Cabinet Minister Lord Pole – back to life. This makes Mr Norrell, and therefore practical magic, taken seriously and his goal of bring magic back to England can really start. But the compromises he makes causes untold suffering and madness, and pulls us into the world of the faerie with silver hair. Norrell bargins with the devil, and the loss is significant.
There is an interesting balance of the otherworldly and practical; a tension between proper English ways and the depths of faerie magic. In a way, this manifests itself in the writing, which opens with a self-conscious Austen-like tone:
It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.
But then as we delve deeper into the world of magic, the language lifts, becomes more enchanting, detailed, poetic:
But when the fairy sang, the whole world listened to him. Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands. In the fairy’s song the earth recognised the names by which it called itself.
There is a massive power in magic that Mr Norrell refuses to acknowledge, and that Mr Strange provokes without realising. Magic is recruited to help Lord Wellington fight Napoleon, to brace the good English coast against storms, to help run Government. But it is dangerous, cannot be controlled, is older and goes deeper than Norrell and Strange can ever know. “Magic, which had seemed so familiar just hours before, so English, had suddenly become inhuman, unearthly, otherlandish.” It is worth fearing.
All this is just the very basic premise of what Clarke offers here. There is so much coverage, so many characters, plots, details. She pulls together seemingly incidental moments and stories; no idea is left incomplete, each element contributing to the larger journey through light and shadow.
Despite first appearances, this book has a wondrous depth and scope; it is an epic faux-history of English magic. It touches on the untold depths of magical power in the slumbering world of fae and the fight with the English gentleman to control it, a battle and journey of light and dark, full of characters supporting it, representing it, complicating it. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is based on an incredible, wonderful idea: the parallel world of magic behind all of England; scary, funny, sparkling, dangerous.