Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a rare case of genre fiction piercing the veil of snobbery surrounding it to become a mainstream critical success. It’s not difficult to see why; the style of this novel is more Austen than Tolkien. Happily though, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell manages to both craft a fascinating and vivid alternate history and provide a highly erudite tale, which acts as an homage to the ‘lady novelists’ of early 19th century England as well as a wonderful gothic fantasy which will please fans of Neil Gaiman or China Miéville.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell begins in York in 1807, in an alternate history where a proud tradition of ‘English magic’ has been in a steady decline for two hundred years. A past filled with mythical figures, some familiar to us, such as Merlin, but others completely unknown, is pored over by ‘theoretical magicians’, who study the great magic of the past but seem incapable of replicating it. The events of the novel kick off when two magicians, Mr. Segundus and Mr. Honeyfoot, discover Gilbert Norrell, a practicing magician of an excessively reclusive and conservative character. After much persuasion, Mr. Norrell moves south to London to offer his services in the Napoleonic Wars, as well as to bring about a revival in English magic. Soon another magician emerges, the self taught prodigy Jonathan Strange, a Byronic figure of a temperament anathema to Mr. Norrell, who nonetheless takes him on as an apprentice. It’s not long before cracks in this relationship begin to form, as Strange becomes obsessed with the semi-mythical figure known as ‘The Raven King’, a magician of great renown who had ruled Northern England as a King for three hundred years before vanishing. Meanwhile, an unknown and alien ‘faery’ creature begins to haunt the lives of those caught in Strange and Norrell’s wake.
The alternate history within which Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is set is fascinating, with the links to our own world only highlighting the sense of strangeness to this, nonetheless, extremely plausible setting. Events such as the Battle of Waterloo take on fascinating new twists, with the introduction of real world figures such as Lord Wellington and Lord Byron heightening the eerie sense of familiarity to Clarke’s setting. Clarke doesn’t concern herself with the ‘butterfly effect’, giving us an 1807 remarkably similar to the real 1807 despite hundreds of years of magic. This may irritate the pedants among us, but I really advise those people to simply relax and enjoy this rich and fertile setting. Clarke manages to create an England filled to the brim with mysterious magic, without resorting to going over the top. Clarke’s England feels only an inch away to from the gothic Englands of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Clarke manages create a detailed and balanced world whilst retaining and even hand and avoids drowning the reader in exposition. A lot of the detail behind the world is told in Pratchett-esque footnotes, which means that it can be ignored if you are so inclined, but I recommend not doing so, as that would rob this story of much of its richness. Thankfully it sounds like Clarke isn’t done with this setting, with her short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, as well as a planned spin-off novel, telling more stories in this world.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell isn’t a novel which could be accused of brevity, but most of what we get is entertaining and relevant. An extended jaunt in Venice during the novel’s final act, within which a whole bunch of rather uninteresting characters are introduced, lets down the pace somewhat. This is a novel which is at its best when concerning itself with England, although some lengthy scenes set in Portugal as Strange tags along with Wellington’s campaign makes for compelling and enjoyable reading. It’s not so much the plot itself which sets this novel apart as the way that it is told however; that’s not to say that the plot isn’t excellent, it really is, but it’s not what I will most remember about this novel. The nature of the plot is heavily informed by the style within which is written, with Clarke sticking fairly strictly to her artistic purpose in creating a tribute to the style of the 19th century ‘lady novelist’, so those expecting a dark, twisted or degraded journey had best look elsewhere. As in the best novels of the 19th century, the sex and depravity are there, but lurking beneath the surface, plausibly deniable to those who seek to deny these impulses. As with Jane Austen, what isn’t said is often as important as what is, and there’s a lot of reward to be found in reading between the lines.
Highly stylised novels such as these can often backfire, and thankfully this isn’t at all the case in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There’s a level of authorial interjection here generally rejected by modern writers, yet extremely common in the 19th century, which nonetheless never reaches irritating levels. The novel is told in an extremely omniscient style, regularly popping in and out of the heads of many characters in a manner similar to George Eliot. At times I felt that a greater focus upon the central pair of Strange and Norrell would have benefited the novel, with not every character being as compelling as those, but it’s actually somewhat refreshing to read a modern novel which doesn’t worry too much about limiting the authorial knowledge. Clarke doesn’t simply imitate the style of the 19th century ‘lady novelist’, but adds enough of a modern twist on it to appeal to modern sensibilities. This is not a particularly difficult or challenging novel to read; a respectful homage to a more archaic style whilst bypassing the elements of that style which can grate.
As in Dickens, the characters tend towards ‘vivid’ rather than ‘complex.’ There are plenty of big, entertaining major and minor characters. Strange and Norrell parallel each other nicely, with Strange exhibiting a Byronic charm which contrasts well with Norrell ‘s conservatism. I loved the character of Stephen Black, manservant to Sir Walter Pole, a member of Parliament, who raises to a relatively high position in society despite the fact that he is black in 19th century England. Almost every character fits into an archetype, but these are often undermined in interesting ways. One of the most interesting characters is John Childermass, the manservant to Mr. Norrell, who despite being able to perform magic himself is denied the title of magician due to his low station. I wasn’t quite as impressed with the sinister faery known as ‘the gentleman with thistle-down hair.’ I can tell that Clarke is going down the route of an unknowable monster whose motivations are too strange and alien for us to understand, a perfectly respectable path, but doesn’t quite revel in the depravity necessary for such a villain to work. Perhaps she is trapped by her own style; the sort of depravity this character needs wouldn’t have fit the tone of the novel, but nonetheless this character never really came alive to me.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a fantastic read, certainly one of the most original and interesting works which I’ve read; there really is nothing else out there quite like it. Those without much patience may struggle with this one, as it does have quite a slow pace, but little of it feels like padding. I recommend this one wholeheartedly, even to those who aren’t normally fans of books with magic and fairies.