Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Reviewed: June 7, 2005
By: Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury
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 on them.

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 and detail.

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 it.