Wednesday 26 July 2023

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke

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Clarke’s epic debut examines the state of English magic in the early nineteenth century. In 1806 there are no practical magicians left in England, those who call themselves magicians are scholars of the subject, never having cast a spell. Enter Mr Norrell, a reclusive Yorkshire magician who claims to have practical skills. He is protective of his status as England’s only magician and hoards books so that others do not have the opportunity to learn. Eventually, he reluctantly agrees to take on Jonathan Strange as a pupil. Strange has spent many years bouncing between occupations, unable to settle on any one pursuit. A prophecy suggests magic will be a lasting interest, and that he and Mr Norrell will become enemies.

Norrell cements his fame when he raises a young bride from the dead. What none of the other characters know, however, is that he summoned a faerie to carry out the resurrection and in doing so promised part of her life to the faerie. Norrell thinks he is careful not to be outwitted by this agreement but it soon becomes clear that neither the groom-to-be nor the young woman would have agreed had they known the years of misery that would result. The faerie and his plan for England are really the crux of the story but it will be some time before the narrative returns to this most interesting subject.

The faerie, referred to throughout as ‘the gentleman with thistle-down hair’ begins to take more than just Lady Pole into his kingdom, Lost-hope. Stephen Black, Sir Walter Pole’s butler, is a frequent visitor. He is the faerie’s confidant but takes every opportunity to try to have Lady Pole released without raising suspicions. At one point the faerie even tries to snare the King of England, hoping to put Stephen on the throne in his place. Lost-hope is a place of endless balls and parades in which nobody takes any pleasure. Those taken from the human world are left vacant and unresponsive and are often considered mad.

Clarke plays with the writing styles of many a famous author including Austen and Dickens, and uses archaic spellings of some words in an attempt to make you feel as though you are reading a book written contemporaneously to the action. It is not a particularly effective technique, but where she does excel is in seamlessly blending real historic figures into the narrative. The early parts of the book concern the magicians attempting to help defeat Napoleon, with varying degrees of success. There are prominent figures littered throughout from Wellington to Byron, but also more subtle references. Clarke’s repeated use of footnotes, which at times are too lengthy and dry, add to the sense of a well-built world with a history that we are not fully privy to. Those who relish in the opportunity to inhabit imagined worlds will find much to enjoy here, whereas some readers will long for a faster pace.

The characters are curious but without much emotional depth. Side characters are not always distinct and when they do come to the fore act in ways you might not expect. Norrell is more clearly defined, being quite unpleasant in his self-absorption and gatekeeping. Strange is more of a loose cannon, his desire to further his knowledge of other worlds driving him to extremes. They are both frequently oblivious to the needs of others and I suppose fit into some of the stereotypes of genius - their fixation on their chosen subject making them neglectful of other areas of their life.

An expansive novel which is always enjoyable but rarely gripping. Much of the secondary storylines could be cut down to make for a story with more onward thrust, but it would be a very different beast if its main concern were the progression of action. Clarke subtly deals with topics of race, class, and gender. We see injustice most clearly in Stephen’s story and the loss of the name given to him by his mother. There are moments that should spike sadness in the reader but the characters are on the whole lacking in emotions and this often dampens our reaction to events. An interesting, often amusing read that plods along at a gentle pace.

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