Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell (2004)

Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. „I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, „but a gentleman never could.”

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I don’t read books like this one for action. Not even for characters, although some characters in “Jonathan…” are very good. Slow-paced behemoths like that – I read for atmosphere and quotes. It’s a cross of… Dickens, Austen, and a bit of Connie Willis if her all books were the length of the “Doomsday Book”. I’d recommend, probably for the first time, to watch TV show before reading the book – it takes all the action and excitement and condenses it in a relatively short (seven episodes) form. And since action is not the main point of the novel, you can safely reach for the book after that, to savour all the details – the language, the irony, the literary references. And illustrations! Portia Rosenberg did a great job, illustrations look great and match the tone of the novel. I strongly advise to read paper, preferably hardcover version. Leather-bound edition would be perfect, it would look and feel like one of the books of magic we read about in the novel. Maybe Folio Society will get to it 🙂

I agree with Kat Hooper (great reviewer from Fantasy Literature), who wrote:

1. This is one of the finest novels I have ever read. Ever.

2. You might hate it.

(1) might be too much, but, as often, I find myself agreeing with Hooper’s views. This is a great book for the right reader. And I’m not judgemental here. There’s nothing wrong with you if don’t enjoy “Jonathan Strange…”, you’re missing something but you can have a perfectly satisfying life regardless ;). But if you find yourself in the right mood (for an extended period of time, it is a couple hundred pages) – you’re in for a feast.

So, it’s a slow-paced behemoth, but what is it about? Well, the revival of English magic in an alternative early-XIX-century England. What’s alternative about it? Well, there is mad king George IV, war with Napoleon, early industrialization and science, social divisions known from cinematic adaptations of classic novels and all that, but, rather early, reading footnotes (I love footnotes! Every book would be better with footnotes! And this one has 185 of them!) we realise that it’s not precisely our England. Serious people study history of magic, fully believing that magicians walked the Earth a few hundred years ago, and everybody accepts as a historical fact that northern England was ruled by a Magician King. After his mysterious disappearance magic slowly vanished and now can be found only in old dusty tomes, studied by bored gentlemen. Nobody practises magic anymore, but there are plenty of theoretical magicians. Until one day, in York, a spell is performed. And after that, magic awkwardly returns to early modern England. Chaotic, supernatural force in a world of scientific progress and rational thought. The results are ambiguous.

Mr Norrell, first practical magician in generations, has all the best intentions. Working with his pupil, Jonathan Strange, he wishes not only to restore English magic, but to do so in modern, scientific way. A kind of magic that wouldn’t seem out of place in XIX-century world. Their task isn’t easy, because magic is inevitably connected to illogical and spontaneous world of faeries. And not the Tinkerbell type. “The gentleman with thistle-down hair” and his compatriots are not necessarily evil but unstable, extremely self-absorbed and completely amoral. But they are the essence of magic, and to pretend they can be excluded… well, the results are the source of most of what action is there in the novel.

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Jonathan Strange is wealthy, in love, and has no idea what to do with his life. Luckily his love interest, Arabella, demands that he finds a respectable profession. Accidentally (well, it was destiny, actually, as we’ll learn) he becomes the second English practical magician. His ideas differ from his master’s, he realizes the importance of fairies and the irrational aspect of magic, but not the level of danger they pose.

“You know, Mr Strange, you really should try to rid yourself of the habit of wishing for things. It is a dangerous thing in a magician!”

Strange&NorellGood-natured Arabella is the moral compass of this story. In a men’s world she is satisfied with her role, not a magician herself (though there had been female magicians) nor an action hero, but an active force in her life and not just the addition to her husband.

He gave her his heart. She took it and placed it quietly in the pocket of her gown.

It’s nice to have a happily married couple in a story.

Let’s admit, though, this quote describes best the general attitude towards women:

of the two magicians who lived in the house, one was a charlatan and the other was a woman – neither attribute likely to recommend its possessor to the gentleman-magicians and gentleman-historians of recent years

I won’t introduce more characters here, there are too many, gentlemen, commoners, scoundrels and hard working people. All are presented with a high degree of irony, the picture of English society of these times we can get from literary classics mentioned before, but with the added layer of magic.

Magic is there, is very central to the book. But English gentlemen are English gentlemen. Unmoved by silliness, walking steadily on earth even when the skies are falling. Willing rather to deny reality than common sense. And valuing their comforts:

Mr Norrell assured Mr Strange that he would find war disagreeable. „One is often wet and cold upon a battlefield. You will like it a great deal less than you suppose”.

And the world is much nicer place. Even in war, there is chivalry and restraint. People have manners and know their place. Those who don’t – get punished. Of course, some norms are relative:

This is worst of all!” he declared in passion, “It is one thing to change Spain by magic, Mr Norrell, but this is England!”

It’s more of a satire on a certain kind of books than on a society that does not exist anymore. Very retro, since books of that kind are no longer written (and less and less read). It’s beautiful.

It’s also very much a book about books. Books of magic, and real-life books that Clarke references, sometimes very directly, sometimes rather subtly. One could probably write thesis on that issue, and it’s a joy to discover all the tropes and quotes by oneself. One example, the presence and actions of Byron, and the Italian part of the story, is a giant nod in the direction of Tim Powers, a very interesting American fantasy/horror writer, whose novels “The Stress of Her Regard” and more widely known “The Anubis Gates” are an excellent combination of history, mystery and mythology. I’ll post something on him one day. Things like that make reading Clarke so fun 🙂 You can explore some of the tropes here.

But most of all it’s a book for bibliophiles.

How is a magician to exist without books? Let someone explain that to me. It is like asking a politician to achieve high office without the benefit of bribes or patronage”.

Maybe I’m a bit like Mr Norrell myself, at least in my attitude towards books 😉 Mr Norrell is terminally shy, socially awkward to the highest degree, but he knows his library. His greed knows no bounds, he travels across England to buy rare tomes and deny them to other aspiring magicians. He’s Scrooge McDuck of book collectors. It pains him to even lend a valuable volume to his firend and pupil, Strange. His plan to revive English magic is in danger from himself – he can’t bear the idea of sharing his library with anybody. A library to behold and admire. I want one like that…

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One annoying thing… I don’t want to spoil too much, but… we are used these days to genre-savvy protagonists. Our magicians here see many signs of the approaching troubles. The source of some strange events is clear for readers. They are oblivious until it’s too late. Despite… but, again, no spoilers… Certain naivety and light-heartedness is expected from an English gentleman in this kind of novel, but Clarke is stretching it… or maybe such is a force of faerie magic…

I would like to end this review with several quotes from a very interesting discussion involving some of the people behind “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” TV series. They did read the novel, and have some interesting observations.

First, a little more about Strange (in opposition to Norrell) and novel in general, from Bertie Carvel, playing Jonathan Strange:

This is a story about the meeting place of the rational enlightened movement that tries to box the world in and up around it and something else—something more romantic, something more.

So, for me, that’s a real question at the heart of the story — and for my character, who is described as having “talents but no skill.” He’s somebody whose understanding of the world is instinctive and idealistic rather than scientific. I read somewhere that the progress of the Enlightenment led to the disenchantment of the world. This is a story about re-enchanting it, and asking, what if that project hadn’t succeeded quite as totally as it seems to have done?

And about very scientific magic of Mr Norrell (or his attempt to make magic so), from the director, Toby Haynes:

It sort of seemed like the magic was, in a way, not the focus of the story, even though it seemed superficially that it’s the focus. It was more about people using magic to serve their own motivations—whether it’s to get the girl that he loves, or further your own career. It could have been about early science. The fact that it’s about magic was, you know, brilliant for me because I like magic, and I love Harry Potter and I love “The Lord of the Rings,” and here was an epic book which people had failed to adapt, so the opportunity was incredibly exciting.

Lastly, an attempt to save the book from feminist’s wrath 😉 :

My character is ostensibly rescuing his wife but, in fact, she rescues him. So it’s quite a 20th century, feminist angle, which seems to reflect the world we live in. I think that it’s a modern story as well as a historical one. (Bertie Carvel again).

Is the book too much references, literary games, satire and footnotes and not enough story? Every reader must judge for himself, for me, it’s not. Just enough action to justify publishing it as a novel, and all the great stuff described above to provide me with lots and lots of fun. Highly recommended for sophisticated readers 😛

Score: 9,5/10

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4 thoughts on “Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell (2004)

  1. Hello, it’s me, the brutish simpleton who doesn’t admire Clarke’s book 😛
    My first attempt at “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel” came years ago, when the book was freshly translated into Polish. I read a bit and just took another book. Clarke’s work simply bored me and, to be absolutely honest, I felt that reading it would be a waste of time. Why? I like footnotes – but either in scientific books or in esteemed Pratchett. This one falls into neither of the categories. I appreciate satire and irony – but too much of it and the book becomes empty shell, a vehicle used to prove the author’s prowess and nothing more. Vide Pratchett, or Dickens, or even Willis, for that matter. Clarke doesn’t even come close. I love books, but I much prefer reading them to reading about them. And I like books where something really happens! I would probably view reading “The Wheel of Time” as a form of extremely cruel punishment, something along the lines of Chinese water torture. Plus, my inner Victorian/Edwardian times fan simply never existed.
    To me “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel” felt stylized within an inch of its life. It was flat and lukewarm at best.
    But…
    After glowing reviews from Piotrek I decided to give this book one more try – in English this time. The language of the book is of paramount importance, and, sadly, the fantasy/sf literature in Poland suffers from serious shortages of good translators. It may well be that Clarke’s book is neither flat nor too stiffled with good intentions – I promise to check and let you know whether my opinion changes 🙂

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    • All right, I did it. I read “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, all 800 or so pages (in the paperback edition there’s more than a 1000 pages, it is a hefty book). If not for my declaration above, I would never have finished it. However, I did, and now I will share with you my pain ;).
      It is well written. The prose is elaborate, coherent, and stylistically consistent. I admire the effort of keeping a 1k pages in a style evoking the XIX-th century English writing style, of mimicking Austen so thoroughly. But it seemed to me that this was th main idea behind the book – there is really not much else in there. The whole plot could be easily fit into a tenth of the original length, without much loss.
      There’s a special English word for books like this. Dull.
      And it fits right in, and in more than one sense: to say the book is slow-paced is to say nothing at all. I became interested in the book’s plot for the first time around 600th page. My interest didn’t last long, however. 80, maybe 100 pages total. The atmosphere of “Jonathan Strange…” is also dull, by design: it’s sluggish, overcast, darkened and depressed by the presence of fairies. I even found the characters dull – slow-thinking, uninteresting to the point of making an art of it, presented in a very unfavorable way by an omniscient (and irritating) narrator.
      As for a feminist angle and happy marriages – well, I guess it all boils down to one’s definition of “feminist” and “happy” ;).
      All in all, my rating for this book can’t exceed, even after Piotrek’s glowing review and all the subtleties of the book he pointed out, 6,5/10.

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  2. Pingback: John Crowley, Little, Big (1981) | Re-enchantment Of The World

  3. Pingback: Genevieve Cogman, The Invisible Library (2015) | Re-enchantment Of The World

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