Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Reviewed: June 7, 2005
By: Susanna Clarke
782 pages, $29.95
It’s not that I’m anti-Harry Potter,
but I am tired of the bandwagon advertising effect that seems to have accumulated
around J.K. Rowling’s highly successful creation. So, once again, I find myself
starting off a review by saying that that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
is NOT “Harry Potter for grown-ups”, as some reviewers have been saying.
For one thing, it’s even longer than
The Order of the Phoenix, and the pages are bigger with more print
No - I’m being silly. Clarke’s intriguing
novel falls into that class of fantasy that deals with alternate history and
divergent worlds. Magic is not hidden in her 19th century Britain, it just
isn’t well known, and most of the people who do know anything about it have
a merely academic knowledge. They get together in societies and talk a lot,
but they don’t actually DO anything.
In a sense they’re a bit like over-aged
fans collecting all the cards for some role playing game without every actually
playing. For cards, substitute books, and you just about have it. Magic, in
this Napoleonic era, is a debating game for learned gentlemen.
All that changes when the reclusive
Mr. Norrell enters the game. Norrell is the real deal, a scholar who has not
only collected the books, but also recited the spells and animated the statues.
More, he is determined that these dilettantes should stop mucking about and
recognize the power of English magic for what it is.
Norrell is a complicated fellow. On
the one hand he wants people to do the thing properly. On the other, he really
doesn’t want to share. There’s a part of him that just wants to sit in his
library and horde the books, and another part that revels in the notoriety
of being THE English magician.
He is very intelligent, and yet he
is easily hoodwinked by a pair of social climbers who fasten themselves to
his ascending star and control the world’s access to him, to their profit.
One of his first big acts of magic,
after he reaches London, is to arrange for the resurrection of an important
man’s wife. In doing this, he sets in motion a train of events which will
reverberate through the novel and gives a fairy lord known “the gentleman
with the thistledown hair” access to our world. The consequences for the revived
Lady Pole and a butler named Stephen Black are pretty harrowing, but this
is just a small part of the story.
Jonathan Strange is a young man of
no particular learning or focus. Some thought he would amount to nothing,
like many a rich man’s son, but Strange takes up a dare to make something
of himself in order to please his fiancee, and what he choses is to become
a magician. He seemS to have a bit of natural talent along these lines and
comes, in due course, to the attention of Mr. Norrell, who is eventually persuaded
to take him on as a pupil.
It is a thorny relationship, for Strange
is not satisfied with theory and very prone to practice. Where Norrell had
provided the British government with a succession of protective spells and
illusions which helped them in their war against the forces of Napoleon, Strange
goes on campaign with the Duke of Wellington and practices a much more potent
range of magic against the French.
As a consequence, Strange incurs the
wrath of Norrell’s fairy acquaintance, and his wife is stolen from this plane
of existence, a act which sets the stage for many dramatic events in the final
chapters of the book.
Clarke isn’t drawing on the usual literary
style used to tell stories like this one. Oh, there’s a touch of Dickens in
her choice of names and her humour, but her aim (according to some interviews
I’ve read) was to be more like the work of Jane Austin and the Bronte sisters
and, in that, she does succeed.
What we see of this world of hers is
very complete, with legends stretching back centuries, citations to imaginary
books of lore, footnotes which sometimes go on for pages and are short stories
all on their own. It’s an upper class world, to be sure, but it has depth
Too much detail sometimes. I was more
than a month reading this book, and there were times when I set it aside and
read some other novels that moved a little faster. Clarke sets out her story
at a very sedate pace, in a deliberately long winded style which, while it
serves to immerse you in another time and place, does take its dear old time
getting to the point.
That said, I kept it by my chair and
it kept me coming back. Her world is an intriguing place, and I did want to
know how it would all work out. I surely do wish she would write the story
of the Raven King and the secret history of magic in Britain, instead of just
using them as a background to the tale of the two magicians, but I also think
that tantalizing us was her aim all along, and she’s certainly succeeded at