Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was an odd book, and offered a fascinating and vivid alternate history which begged for re-exploration. Happily, Susanna Clarke does exactly that, with The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, which contains a few stories most certainly set within the ‘Jonathan Strange’ universe, and a few which may not be. I’ll take a quick look at each individual story.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu
The title story of this collection is highly tied into Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, featuring the titular characters themselves and actually embellishing upon an incident only obliquely referred to in the main novel. ‘The Ladies of Grace Adieu’ follows the friendship of three young women in Gloucestershire and their dabbling in magic, something considered to be only within the realm of men. Women didn’t really play much of a role in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, as Clarke herself stated that to preserve the authenticity of the work women had to be kept in the ‘domestic sphere.’ ‘The Ladies of Grace Adieu’ makes up for this though, with a gloriously feminist tale about women gaining a potent and natural power over men. I really enjoyed this one, and it’s certainly one of the highlights of the collection.
On Lickerish Hill
This is one of the more forgettable stories of the collection, a variation on the Rumpelstiltskin story, telling the story of a young woman in the 17th century, who is compelled by her husband to spin an impossible amount of flax. She makes a deal with a fairy, who weaves the flax but threatens to take her away if she cannot guess his name after a month. The antiquarian spelling of this work offers some interest, but otherwise there’s not really much else to this story to distinguish it from other fairy tales.
This was a great improvement over the last story, and follows Venetia Moore, a young women whose fiancé, the dashing Captain Fox, has left her for the mysterious Mrs. Mabb. Venetia investigates this new woman, trying to find the secrets which she conceals. I liked this story a lot; the feminist statements of this collection are usually fairly bold, but here it’s quite subtle. Venetia is frequently characterised by her peers as hysterical, but actually has a better grasp of the situation than those around her.
The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse
It’s never nice when a story fails to live up to its own name, but that’s what we have here. This story borrows the setting of Wall from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, but doesn’t use it in any particularly interesting way. The pompous and arrogant Duke of Wellington angers the proud folk of Wall during a visit and finds that they have let his horse free. The Duke goes forth to find his horse and finds a mysterious woman weaving the tapestry of his fate. I didn’t really understand what this story contributed to the collection; a lot of short story collections have a story like this, a lightweight one which falls in the middle between the more significant entries. It’s a shame, as I was looking forward to seeing a bit more of Wall, but the setting is completely underutilised.
Mr Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower
This was one of my favourite stories in the collection, told from the diaries of Alessandro Simonelli, a pompous and arrogant cad who’s sent from Cambridge to be the rector of a small village. There he encounters a strange house filled with even stranger inhabitants, and is involuntarily drawn into the mystery of this house, as well as his own lineage. Simonelli is a nasty piece of work, but a lot of fun to read about, with his conceited attitude providing a lot of laughs. There’s an interesting unreliable narrator element here too, and we have to wonder how much Simonelli is twisting events to present himself as a hero.
Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby
This was another story I thoroughly enjoyed; at its core it focuses upon the unlikely friendship between the fairy Tom Brightwind and the Jewish doctor David Montefiore. The relationship and banter between these two is delightful, and more than any other story in the collection I felt that there was a lot more I’d like to see from these characters. Tom and David are journeying to Lincoln, and along the way come to the village of Thoresby, which has fallen on hard times due to a series of misfortunes. Tom decides to intervene, in an unsurprisingly convoluted and bizarre fashion. This story was a lot of fun, and certainly stands as one of my favourites.
Antickes and Frets
Like the earlier story about the Duke of Wellington, the protagonist of this story is a real historical figure, in this case Mary, Queen of Scots. This story tells of her detention by the Earl of Shrewsbury, and her attempts to use dark magic to curse Queen Elizabeth and assist her political plotting. This is definitely a better story than ‘The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse’, but it’s still not really a standout. Mary’s palpable vindictive fury is the highlight of this story, but there isn’t otherwise much else to recommend it.
John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner
The final story of the collection concerns itself with a figure absolutely key to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, John Uskglass, the Raven King who ruled Northern England for centuries. This story is presented as a folk tale concerning a time where Uskglass was defeated by a lowly charcoal burner, and an entertaining story it is too. Although written in a much plainer style than the rest o the stories, it has a lot of depth to it, particularly in regard to religion and class. It doesn’t necessarily seem like much at first, but I ended up thinking of this story as one of the most interesting in the collection; more stories about the enigmatic Raven King would be fine with me!
It’s a rare short story collection which is all hits and no misses, and The Ladies of Grace Adieu & Other Stories has its fair share of misses. That said, those misses tend to the shorter stories, so this is definitely a collection worth giving a go, especially if you enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There’s a lot of fantasy with women in it, but not much about women, so The Ladies of Grace Adieu at least offers something which feels fresh. I’m very much looking forward to seeing where Susanna Clarke goes next!