Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s alternate history fairy-tale, opens with one of its characters asking a question that carries through the rest of the novel’s thousand pages.
“Mr Segundus wished to know,” he said, “why modern magicians were unable to work the magic they wrote about. In short, he wished to know why there was no more magic done in England.”
This is an England that had once been a very magical place, yet is no longer so. Over the decade “history” the novel covers (1806-1817) we see two new magicians arrive to provide their spells in service to their county in the Napoleonic Wars. The magic of previous generations had been lost, or forgotten, or become dysfunctional in some way. This was apparently despite the many books about/of magic that had been written by the very real magicians of the past, making their secrets and practices clear. Indeed, as the novel opens, England has many leaned societies of magicians, but these members are exclusively of a “theoretical” type — quite unable to cast a single simple spell.
The title characters are our heroes, of a sort. Mr Norrell, an uncharitable and unsociable Yorkshire gentleman who had devoted his youth to carefully studying the remaining books of magic, while also hoarding them away from others. Jonathan Strange, the more sympathetic of the two, is of a more obsessive and intuitive character, sociable and likable, ready to befriend Norrell, and complement his own innate ability by becoming Norrell’s apprentice.
Reviewers have noted the imbalance between the two protagonists, with Strange being the more compelling of the two, yet only actually arriving in the narrative proper a third of the way in. I personally found a great deal interesting in Norrell, however, when I recognized parallels between him and the Isaac Newton I had recently been reading about. Indeed, as I previously described, many of Newton’s pursuits could be described as attempts to recover magical techniques or knowledge from the past that had become lost or forgotten. Norrell’s inclination towards either preserving his recovered knowledge and even monopolize magic are reflected in many of Newton’s own inclinations. The ultimate difference being that science is not magic, and Newton himself was indebted to many of his contemporaries, (most controversially to John Flamsteed for astronomical data). But if you were trying to imagine the mentality of a man like Isaac Newton, I think you could do much worse than consider the character of Norrell.
It can be considered a kind of rule in story telling that you make a promise at the start of a story and you must deliver on it by the end. The question of why there is no magic done in the England certainly makes a clear promise that some kind of light will be shed on the matter. While neither the reader, nor the characters, get direct or complete answers to that question, we do however learn a great deal that is interesting on the subject. Plenty can be deduced a careful reader — enough to leave the book satisfied.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was a publishing sensation. Bloomsbury invested heavily in marketing it, imagining that it would allow them to expand beyond their foundation of Harry Potter sales. I think it is fair to say that almost twenty years on, it is regarded as a classic. In as far as such a thing could be said at this point. I certainly found the length no obstacle, and by the final third I was enraptured by the characters’ unfolding trajectories and their ultimate ends.
It is easy to say that a novel is just words on the page, but the word “just” is doing a great deal of heavy lifting. I find myself increasingly paying attention to what goes on in an individual paragraph the way that film buffs concern themselves with actors, cinematography, and special effects. Take the following paragraph, which demonstrates quite well the Austen-esque prose styling along with Clarke’s ability to capture the regional richness of England which I either never really encountered or appreciated before in English fiction.
At no. 9 Harley-street Lady Pole’s country servants were continually ill at ease, afraid of going wrong and never sure of what was right. Even their speech was found fault with and mocked. Their Northamptonshire accent was not always intelligible to the London servants (who, it must be said, made no very great efforts to understand them) and they used words like goosegogs, sparrow-grass, betty-cat and battle-twigs, when they should have said gooseberries, asparagus, she-cat and ear wigspg 173
The list of alternates given in that paragraph pass by quickly in the way that good set dressing, special effects, and cinematography do, but this is harder to pull of than you might imagine. The following paragraph similarly stood out to me, again for it’s command of its setting, but also for the kind of fantastical whimsy that the likes of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Neil Gaiman manage to tap into. If it could be meaningfully produced industrially you’d find it sold in the Harry Potter stores scattered all across England.
Whereupon Mr Strange told them how, to his certain knowledge, there had been four copies of The Language of Birds in England not more than five years ago: one in a Gloucester bookseller’s; one in the private library of gentleman-magician in Kendal; one the private property of a blacksmith near Penzance who had taken it in part payment for mending an iron-gate; and one stopping a gap in a window of the boy’s school in the close of Durham Cathedral.pg 281
For those of you reading this who are put off by a thousand page door stop, there is also the BBC miniseries adaptation that I hear was pretty good. And if you would prefer a shorter novel, her second, Piranesi was released last year, is much shorter, and also very good. The New Yorker wrote a good profile of Clarke discussing it.