I’ve gotten used to being a decade or two behind the times. I just got Netflix a few weeks ago, I don’t have a cell phone, and I still cling to some vestigial regard for the political and civic institutions of my native land. Yeah, I know – I’m a real museum piece, sure to be coming soon to a display case near you, right next to a stuffed Neanderthal skinning a rabbit with his teeth.
So when I decided that the next book I read would be something recent, and having plucked it from THE PILE, I wasn’t distressed – or even much surprised – when I glanced at the copyright page and saw that this “new” book’s date of publication was 2004. 2004! There are tech billionaires who were in kindergarten then. (Heck, there are tech billionaires who are in kindergarten now.) So much for recent.
But none of that matters, because that not-nearly-as-new-as-I-thought-it-was book, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, is, without qualification, one of the greatest fantasy novels I’ve ever read, and I started reading them when Richard Nixon was president.
[Click the images to embiggen.]
Set in England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Clarke’s book tells of the odd friendship, bitter rivalry, and ultimate reconciliation of the nation’s only two practicing (as opposed to merely theoretical) magicians, who are instrumental in restoring magic to the land after three centuries during which the arcane art had practically vanished from Albion. It is an incredibly rich book that contains multitudes, by turns whimsical, bleak, arch, terrifying, satirical, poetic, tragic, mystical, stirring, suspenseful, romantic, eerie… sometimes all on the same page. It is also very funny; more than once Clarke had me laughing out loud with her cunning, perfectly timed and constructed jokes. I will not deprive you of the pleasure of discovering the best one for yourself, but you’ll know it when you find it; the punchline is “Scotland.”
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has almost too many virtues to enumerate, so I will content myself with mentioning only two — style and substance. That should cover just about everything.
Clarke has chosen not just to set her book in the early eighteen hundreds, but to write it as if it itself is a book of that era, in measured, mannered, ironic, highly civilized prose that Jane Austen herself would have recognized and appreciated. Not every writer can pull this sort of thing off; when it doesn’t work, it’s highly embarrassing, like Keanu Reeves in a period movie. When it does work, though, it can elevate a book to a higher plane than it could have otherwise occupied. In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, it works. Clarke’s Faux-Regency diction is never false or fussy, chiefly because she doesn’t overdo it or push too hard. The narrative voice so successfully transports you to another time and place that, turning the pages, you feel as if you’re sitting on a velvet-upholstered Louis XVII sofa, reading the book by candlelight.
The story that Clarke tells is often quite dark, but the darkness never feels oppressive because the tale is continually illuminated by the brilliant flashes of wit that gleam from every page. Even when the situation seems most hopeless, the graceful, cultured style reassures you that in the hands of such a restrained and reasonable guide, ultimately nothing very terrible is going to happen. It allows you to hold on to the hope necessary for negotiating the book’s grimmer passages.
This deliberately antique style is ideally suited to Clarke’s purposes, and in speaking of it, musical metaphors (just like invoking Jane Austen) are inescapable. Reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is like spending an evening listening to elegant, expertly played Haydn, his string quartets or one of the “London” symphonies… if Haydn’s notes had the power to summon storms, raise the dead, and compel stones to speak.
All of these amazing things and more happen during the course of the story, which spans just a little over ten eventful years. The novel is packed with extraordinary incidents – the statues of York Cathedral come to life and resume centuries-old quarrels (and reveal a murder that had taken place in the church five hundred years before); French ships are blockaded in their port by a phantom fleet conjured out of rain; people walk in and out of mirrors; shocking crimes are committed and concealed; the epic battle of Waterloo is fought and won with means mundane and magical; whole cities are transported from one continent to another and back again; politico-magical factions form and clash in the press in battles more merciless than any between the French and British Empires; the King of England is assaulted by the invisible agent of another realm; a pillar of impenetrable supernatural darkness engulfs Venice; the immemorial intercourse between England and Faerie is reopened after centuries of silence and the earth itself awakens and calls out to any who can hear.
The Phantom Blockade
All of this is effected through a cast of vividly realized characters, chief among them Mr. Gilbert Norrell, the first true English magician in centuries, stiff, awkward, pedantic, cautious, unsocial, yet desperately lonely and yearning for friendship without even realizing it, and Jonathan Strange, warm, radical, practical, impulsive, bold, touchy, lonelier than he would like to admit, two men who are ultimately less rivals than necessary and complementary aspects of the same personality, as they eventually come to understand.
Supporting, opposing or merely looking on in amazement at all this are people like Henry Lascalles, whose aristocratic indolence and hauteur mask a psychopathic violence; the Duke of Wellington, a man as adept at his deadly brand of sorcery as Norrell and Strange are at theirs; Stephen Black, an ex-slave who endures undeserved misery only to come into a startling and unexpected glory; Norrell’s servant John Childermass, outwardly cynical yet tirelessly working to restore to England its true ruler, John Uskglass, the lost and legendary Raven King, who is the fount of all English magic and the shadowy figure that looms over the whole story; Vinculus, a sham street magician whose shabby exterior conceals a numinous power and an extraordinary secret; Emma Wintertowne, a blameless girl brought back from the dead into a life worse than death; Arabella Strange, strong-willed, commonsensical, understanding her husband better than he does himself, whose beauty inadvertently imperils her very soul; and, most memorably, the Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair, an inconceivably ancient and powerful and malevolent inhabitant of Faerie whose capricious favor is just as terrible as his wrath, and whose sinister whims provide the mainspring for the story’s action after he is foolishly summoned to this world by Mr. Norrell to aid in a bit — a rather large bit — of magic. Oh yes… Lord Byron makes an appearance too. In this company, the poetic genius and flamboyant sinner almost seems a mundane sort of person.
All of this in a book that some have complained is slow! “It’s boring — nothing happens,” some have said. (Really! I’ve seen it in online reviews. Take my advice — if you want to keep your temper, don’t read those damn things… except this one, of course.) I can only suppose that such people’s definitions of “nothing” and “boring” differ from mine.
Maybe they just don’t like footnotes; Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell admittedly has a lot of them. Clarke uses these footnotes — some quite brief, many rather long — to expound and expand on the imagined magical history and literature that her book is grounded on. I found them wonderful and positively looked forward to them, which was a big change from the last heavily footnoted novel I read, David Foster Wallace’s postmodern doorstopper, Infinite Jest. In that book, Wallace used footnotes to impede and derail his own narrative, as if to chastise and punish anyone foolish enough to want an actual story; Clarke, on the other hand, generously uses her footnotes to give her readers even more story, stories within stories. Perhaps she thinks that in the end stories are all we have, and so we can never have too many of them; in any case her old-fashioned notion that the primary job of a book is to delight its readers means that I’m with her on this one.
Jonathan Strange pays a call
Certainly Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is in its way a restrained book, and if you believe that nothing succeeds like excess you may find its low rape and beheading quotient (as in none) distressing. But bring a little patience and an awareness that restraint can actually heighten drama and raise the stakes of action and you will discover that this is a book filled to the brim with love and hate, meanness and generosity, knowledge and fear, prophecies and portents, laughter and terror, violence and tranquility, honesty and intrigue, despair and joy, sublime poetry and good English dirt. It has that most precious and most welcome thing (especially when it appears on the last page of a long novel that you’ve given yourself to for weeks and weeks), a perfect ending; when you set a book down with both a tear in your eye and a big grin on your face, you know you’ve spent your time well.
Much of this unique and superb book is concerned with books themselves, primarily ones on magic. Mr. Norrell is an obsessive collector of volumes in his chosen field, and in fact, he buys up virtually every book on the subject in the country, so anxious is he to keep them from falling into the hands of potential competitors. Early on, this leads to a distinction being made between books about magic and books of magic. The first kind, however well done, are common and relatively tame. The second kind are rare and powerful. They are not merely dry, dead histories or barren exercises; you can conjure with them.
The Gentleman and Emma Wintertowne
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, unlike so many fantasies that fill the chain bookstore shelves, is not just one more book about magic; it is a book of magic. If you have not yet read it, don’t let anything hold you back. Open it, enter it, commit to it and let it cast its spell over you. When you emerge breathless on the other side, you will know without a doubt that even at this late date, the roads to Faerie are open, and there is still such a thing as magic in this world.
Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, Silver Age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife. His last article for us was The Astounding Life of John W. Campbell.