Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell feels like the best of British literature, combining Sherlock Holmes eccentricity with the warm/cool, fast/slow, fun/grim adventure of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and then dropping in a bit of Wilkie Collins’ gothic ambiguity. In short, Susanna Clarke’s novel is a fantasy that has in it a lot more than a wonderful story.
Magic has gone out of England. Magicians as they are now are just ordinary men with their noses in books and whose tongues form words of speculation instead of incantation. Magic isn’t something that is done – oh no, not anymore – magic is something to be theorized, opined about, written down in lines of rhetoric…magic in this age, the Age of Napoleon, is only an armchair philosophy. Enter stuffy Mr. Norrel, recluse of Hurtfew Abbey, practical magician.
Gilbert Norrell, as intransigent an old fogey as ever they come, wants to bring magic back to England, however much he shoots himself in the foot (Our first encounter with Mr. Norrell is with the snobbery he displays in disbanding the only magicians in York that do still exist). His protégé (til things turn sour anyway) is Jonathan Strange, son to a surly no-goodnik who stumbles into the profession of magic through a street magician’s prophecy.
All is well and good while the war’s on: fooling the French never was so easy, and the government finds that this magic of rearranging Spain and flooding footpaths and creating armadas out of rain to be quite advantageous.
But then the darker shades of magic creep in. The very act that, through a bargain that’s Mephistopheles in style, brought Mr. Norrell to the attention of the government (and so gained him the commission for the war with Napoleon) has also opened the portals to Faerie, and the mysterious “man with the thistledown hair” poses a greater threat to England than Napoleon did.
What makes Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell such a rare novel is its ease of narration. It’s a warm sort of fantasy with a coziness and humor lolling between its harsher scenes, and its magic is one slightly dusty with disuse and that needs gradually to be unearthed. Clarke’s characters and writing are strong enough to let her story rise and fall in a natural way. No need for dazzling; no need, as Mr. Norrell knows, for the bang! and smoke and glitter that fight for readers’ attentions in so many fantasy novels.
That one half of Clarke’s protagonist duo is a fuddy-duddy scholar and the other half a curious and excitable dabbler (in a minor way reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes) certainly works to her novel’s advantage. Things would have been just a bit too shiny had her heroes been suave young studs or fierce heroines without a human quirk to them.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell succeeds because it isn’t showy. Lost kingdoms, fairies, stone castles and dark woods, ancient prophecies – the usual fare – are all here, but her Victorian pastiche, historical setting and reliance on good description to illustrate her world go a long way in scuffing it up just enough to make it livable in our minds.
Transmuting the magical into something comprehensible is no easy task, and Clarke employed numerous mediums – music; celestial imagery; Mother Nature, earthy in her smell and bittersweet in her taste; a close understanding of feeling that’s uncanny in its exactness – to grab hold of its vaporous wisps and bottle them for our understanding. The result is an arched prose that funnels these elements into descriptions of magic both gorgeous and precise.
But the spell which held the ships in place appeared to be weakening (which presumably explained the melting ship at the northernmost point of the fleet). After two hours it stopped raining and in the same moment the spell broke, which Perroquet and the Admiral and Captain Jumeau knew by a curious twist of their senses, as if they had tasted a string quartet, or been, for a moment, deafened by the colour blue. For the merest instant the rain-ships became mist-ships and then the breeze gently blew them apart.
Paired with this sort of description, Clarke can get away with being a little lazy, too (though the few times she equivocates it doesn’t come across as laziness; it instead lends her characters a little impishness). “Stupid” means very little when it comes from the mouth of a nitwit, but when it crops up among words more refined its force is doubly pronounced in the exactitude of its meaning. In the same way, Clarke’s use of the vague “magical” for describing magic becomes especially effective in the way it gradates the magic she writes: the nature of this “magical” magic turns in an instant into something whimsical, small and a little silly, like a hobby of blowing smoke rings.
Clarke didn’t limit herself with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to just one story, either. The ebb and flow of her novel is twofold as it dips in and out of Faerie, too. There are two simultaneous stories, linked by spider-thin ties til the end when they converge suddenly as a seamless whole, surprising in its solidity.
With the space of a thousand pages, Clarke takes her time and the result is an enduring novel much more substantial (though equally as ingenious as) the rain-ships that fooled the French.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell · Susanna Clarke · 2004
Bloomsbury, 2017 · 1006 pages, paperback