Published by Bloomsbury
Review by W. R. Greer
I'm usually cautious about reading long novels. As a reviewer, once I start a book, I feel obligated to finish it and write the review for it, regardless how painfully it plods along. From time to time I've grabbed a lengthy novel I expected to enjoy and then found I had to slog through page after page before its disappointing end. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke has almost 800 pages and I was sad to see it end. If a sign of success is that you've left your audience wanting more, then Susanna Clarke has succeeded wildly with this novel. It was a delight to read from beginning to end and I definitely wanted more when it was done.
The novel is set in England in the early 1800s and the only known magicians are theoretical magicians, not practicing ones. They didn't perform feats of magic, and no magician had in hundreds of years. Instead they read about it, wrote about it, and argued about it. They didn't even know why they didn't practice it; it was beyond their mindset to even contemplate why. Such a society of magicians existed in the city of York. They heard of another magician in Yorkshire, who claimed to have a vast library of books about magic, but they doubted whether he was really a magician because his handwriting was too small. This magician, Mr. Norrell, challenged them all that he would perform an act of magic. If he was successful, they would give up being magicians and give him their books about magic. If he didn't perform the feat, then Mr. Norrell would give his oath never to make any claims to be a magician again. The magicians all agreed, except one, and being proper English gentlemen, they were bound by their word. When Mr. Norrell made all the statues in the cathedral in York begin speaking, England became aware that it had a real magician in its midst for the first time in hundreds of years.
Mr. Norrell, reclusive, insecure, and socially inept, moved to London in hopes of restoring English magic and being its only practitioner. Aided by Mr. Lascelles and Mr. Drawlight, who immediately saw Mr. Norrell as their path to fame and fortune, Mr. Norrell begins to move about in the proper social and political circles. One of the cabinet ministers, Sir Walter Pole, saw no need for the government to use the aid of a magician until Mr. Norrell performed a great feat of magic on the minister's young bride. That act cemented Mr. Norrell's fame, notoriety, and long relationship with the government. This act, also had the unintended consequence of bringing to London a thistle-haired gentleman from the land of fairies who soon began to use his own magical powers to satisfy his own needs.
Fairies hadn't been seen in England in hundreds of years, and their previous existence, along with other magical creatures, was being doubted by some in London. Mr. Norrell knew that England's history was shared with fairies, and England's special place in the world was due to its close proximity to fairy kingdoms. Northern England had even been ruled for 300 years by the Raven King, a man abducted by fairies as a youth who then learned fairy magic and raised an unconquerable fairy army to take the northern half of England for his own. Mr. Norrell set about to remove all other magicians from society and horde every book about magic in his own library, so that he himself could the only magician in the land and control the new English magic.
From the western part of England near the Welsh border lived a wealthy gentleman named Jonathan Strange who needed to find some way to occupy his time. He decided to study magic and found he had a real talent for it. While Mr. Norrell had spent years in seclusion studying spells and knowledge about magic, Jonathan Strange picked it up easily. Jonathan Strange came to London, upsetting Mr. Norrell's carefully controlled environment about magic. Mr. Norrell decided it was best to take Jonathan Strange as a pupil, so he could both have assistance with the work he was doing for the government and also control the magical knowledge of Jonathan Strange. Whereas Mr. Norrell merely suffered interactions with other men and women, Jonathan Strange was handsome and gregarious. Jonathan Strange and his wife, Arabella, were popular features of the London social circuit. Once Jonathan Strange struck out on his own and began to learn magic without the assistance of Mr. Norrell, he decided he no longer needed to be a student, but a magician in his own right. This was exactly what Mr. Norrell most feared, and the ensuing feud between the two pushed them farther apart. As the thistle-haired fairy continued to wreak unseen havoc in the world around them, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell were unaware of the dangers that lurked about their lives. Until it hit too close to home.
The previous four paragraphs don't even do justice to the plot outline for this novel. The book is written as if by an unnamed narrator, some future scholar or magician, who is telling us the story of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, complete with footnotes. The footnotes are full of historical references or little stories and vignettes that often have very little to add to the stories of the two magicians. What they do, however, is help to tell the story of English magic over the centuries and life in that period of the early 19th century. The story moves slowly at first, but I found the reading of it passing quickly. There have been inevitable comparisons between the Harry Potter novels and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and perhaps the one thing they both do well is to use the imaginative setting and storyline to illuminate insights and truths about the human condition. While this novel may be about two magicians, it's also about love, jealousy, envy, friendship, greed, power, arrogance, and redemption. It's also as much about England as anything else.
Susanna Clarke has delivered a novel of wit, humor, and a re-creation of England that harkens to Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. What keeps the pages turning for the first half of the book is her entertaining imagination about the history of English magic, the world of fairies, and her poking fun at English society, although it's obviously done with some reverence. At one point, she describes part of an ale-house:
The walls of the parlour were ornamented with cheap engravings - portraits of famous criminals of the last century who had all been hanged and portraits of the King's dissolute sons who had not been hanged yet.
The English were confident of their superior place in the world. They had the world's only two magicians in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, their aristocracy was composed of proper gentleman, and they would be able to defeat Napoleon and his armies. While an English family was visiting Venice, the author notes:
They were excessively pleased with the Campo Santa Maria Formosa. They thought the facades of the houses were magnificent - they could not praise them highly enough. But the sad decay, which buildings, bridges and church all displayed, seemed to charm them even more. They were Englishmen and, to them, the decline of other nations was the most natural thing in the world. They belonged to a race blessed with so sensitive an appreciation of its own talents (and so doubtful an opinion of any body else's) that they would not have been all surprized to learn that the Venetians themselves had been entirely ignorant of the merits of their own city - until Englishmen had come to tell them it was delightful.
When one of the servants is transported by the fairy across many kingdoms, both human and fairy, he's unable to recognize a new place:
When he awoke it was dawn. Or something like dawn. The light was watery, dim, and incomparably sad. Vast, grey, gloomy hills rose up all around them and in between the hills there was a wide expanse of black bog. Stephen had never seen a landscape so calculated to reduce the onlooker to utter despair in an instant.
"This is one of your kingdoms, I suppose, sir?" he said.
"My kingdoms?" exclaimed the gentleman in surprize. "Oh, no! This is Scotland!"
Susanna Clarke's description of characters and settings is brilliant at times, instantly conveying, often with humor, an image that is easy to place in the mind's eye. She describes a very old woman: "Her skin was the white, almost transparent skin of the extremely old, as fine and as wrinkled as a spider's web, with veins of knotted blue." Or her first description of Arabella Strange as moderately pretty, but: "She was always very ready to smile and, since a smile is the most becoming ornament that any lady can wear, she had been known upon occasion to outshine women who were acknowledged beauties in three counties."
It is this type of enchantment that Susanna Clarke weaves through Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Some readers may find the first half of the book moves slowly for them as the story behind the magicians unfolds and the author indulges her flights of imagination and fancy. That combination of imagination, description, and humor kept me happily turning the pages. The plot surges forward in the second half of the book in surprising and unexpected ways. I read the last two hundred pages in one sitting, unable to put the book down until I was finished. And I didn't want it to end.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a wonderful, entertaining, and thoroughly enjoyable novel. I am glad I came under Susanna Clarke's enchantment and I'm eager to press this novel into the hands of family and friends and urge them to read this book.
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