Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

To young men of a studious turn of mind, who did not desire to go into the Church or the Law, magic was very appealing, particularly since Strange had triumphed on the battlefields of Europe. It is, after all, many centuries since clergymen distinguished themselves on the field of war, and lawyers never have.

It is my settled custom to delay discovering great novels until everybody else has already praised the life out of them. And so it is with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. A marvelous, original conception carried off with what looks like effortless grace, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a sprawling, lengthy epic in the heroic fantasy vein, but set in early 19th Century England and narrated in a style reminiscent of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen (and probably other Victorian authors of whom I’m ignorant. I was always a little weak on my 19th Century English fiction). If you’re looking for headlong, fast-paced adventure, this is not the book for you. This is a leisurely book, whose pleasures are subtle ones. I found it totally delightful.

(I might also add that I forgot the author’s name, and could not recall throughout my reading whether the author was a man or a woman. Coming from me, that’s high praise.)

It starts in 1806, with the appearance of two characters who are not even very important to the story, but on whom author Clarke lavishes chapters. They are “theoretical” magicians in York, England, in a fictional England where magic works and has been historically honored, though it has been neglected for centuries (in this world the Church has no objection to magic). The two friends join a society of theoretical magicians, and in time come into contact with Mr Norrell, who makes the shocking claim that he is a “practical” magician, and would be happy to demonstrate his power. His price for the demonstration, however, is that all the magicians of York agree to abandon all magical studies in the event of his success. He does succeed, and the York Society of Magicians is disbanded.

Before long (though it takes many pages) Mr Norrell becomes a national celebrity, and moves to London. His approach to his discipline is exclusive—he wants to own all the magic books, and doesn’t want anyone to do magic except himself. Nevertheless, when he eventually meets the talented gentleman, Jonathan Strange, he takes to him and agrees to be his teacher.

Their uneasy collaboration, and eventual rupture, are emblematic of the cultural world of 19th Century Europe—the tension between Enlightenment and Romanticism, between reason and liberty. Mr Norrell wants magic under strict control—his own. Jonathan Strange wants to push out the walls, to test the limits of his powers. The drama—amplified by the dangerous activities of a Fairy Gentleman who abducts ladies and wants to make a sympathetic black servant the King of England—grows by degrees until we are treated to an epic showdown that no reader will forget.

Years ago I read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and was intrigued by his description of real fairies (elves), as not being by nature small creatures with wings, but strange, dangerous, unpredictable beings.

For the trouble with the real folk of Faërie is that they do not always look like what they are; and they put on the pride and beauty that we would fain wear ourselves. At least part of the magic that they wield for good or evil of man is power to play on the desires of his body and heart.

I pondered what kind of a story one could write, if one were to imagine someone who had a real fairy godmother, rather than the kind you see in Disney movies. The ultimate result of those meditations was my upcoming novel, Troll Valley. But I must admit that the story strayed a little from that theme; my fairy godmother is not nearly as successful (in that “weird” sense) as the Fairy Gentleman of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

The book is a wonderful achievement, and is highly recommended to educated readers. I can recall no problem with language or subject matter that should put off Christians, unless they find the whole concept of magic unacceptable, as some do.

12 thoughts on “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke”

  1. I’d somehow gottenthe impression this was an “all-the-buzz-for-a-while” book that I could ignore; seems not.

    You recommended Betrand’s police procedural Pattern of Wounds a while ago; I read that (aloud to my wife, in fact): that was good. Thanks for that tip.

  2. I was going to recommend Ladies, but it seems Loren beat me to it. However, nothing in The Ladies of Grace Adieu is as masterful and oddly eucatastrophic as the Fairy Gentleman plot. Still, that feels like complaining about The Odyssey simply because it isn’t The Illiad.

  3. As an old English major who has always enjoyed reading(and studying at the University)19th Century English, European,and Russian novelists, I confront and judge Susanna Clarke’s novel with a mixed mindset. Clarke is a modern English writer and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is her first novel. I was astonished and captivated with the first couple of hundred pages of her 800 page novel. Clarke writes like a 19th Century English novelist. It is a very artistic piece of literary work that sets it apart from other modern novels. However, her creative written landscape of this 19th Century literary style is both appealing and frustrating for the average modern reader. The Novel was an evolving literary genre that came into its own during the 19th Century, more or less. I first became aware of this during high school when I was reading edited versions of some of these classic novels in paperback and one day I came across an unedited version of the same novel which was a bit of a shock and a rite of passage for me. 19th Century novelists had an agenda where they wanted to explore character studies and contextual places and societies and how they interplay with one another. The plot was secondary and provided structural support for the extensive descriptions of people, places, and societies. Balzaac, often described as the Dickens of France, stated that his life’s ambition was to do character studies of every different personality he came across in everyday life. Balzaac would often pay a person to sit with him for a time so he could make extensive notes about their appearance, their gestures, and the way they verbally and non-verbally communicated. Balzaac would also make extensive notes while attending different kinds of social gatherings. So, by calculated choice,the 19th Century novelist would often get sidetracked and become obsessed with extensive descriptions at the expense of the plot and/or subplots which would be buried underneath them. Sometimes it works and sometimes it often doesn’t. Another thing to keep in mind is that 19th Century novels were originally published in installments(chapters) in newspapers or magazines. They were later judged to be worthy of book publishing by how well or how poorly their subscriptions and street sales were. Balzaac and Dickens became literary titans of their day, but even they had to submit to editing by newspaper and magazine editors (and sometimes book publishers)who simply refused to completely publish their lengthy manuscripts. Returning to Susanna Clarke’s first novel, she has successfully captured the literary landscape of a 19th Century novel, but she also has succumbed to its weaknesses of submerging and burying plot lines underneath extensive descriptions. For me, the final six hundred pages of text dragged on and on. I just wanted to finish it and the ending was anti-climatic and uninteresting. Many 19th Century novels are written in a similar way, but Clarke’s novel escaped the editing it would have been subjected to because it is such a novelty in the 21st Century. I don’t regret reading it, and admiring its literary artistry, but I could not recommend it for the average modern reader of novels. The currently produced BBC series will probably do a good job of adapting it to make it fun to watch. Actors will love doing it because of all of the character and personality descriptions. I am reminded of the fact that many years ago I was introduced to Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles through a BBC series that was adapted from those novels. It was an excellent series, and it inspired me to read the novels, which was a laborious task that I couldn’t recommend to just anyone. 19th Century novels are just not everyone’s cup of tea, but they are certainly good material for making movies and TV series.

  4. Thanks for the feedback, Brad. Those novels do make for good TV, but they can be hard to translate too. We watched a series based on Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, and it was a bit tough until we learned it was a satire. In that light, we gave it more leeway to be an odd, sad story half-filled with ugly people.

  5. Most of the 19th Century novelists had social political agendas for what they wrote about and were making graphic illustrative statements about the realities of the day, and would often get in trouble with the established order they were writing about. Some, like Balzaac, were forced into exile and wrote most of their work as a ex-patriot. Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is a timeless indictment of human ignorance and greed. I saw it on DVD long after it aired (I haven’t watched TV for many years)and was very impressed with it. Perhaps the agendas of these novelists required them to be careful with their plot lines, but they were also experimenting with an evolving literary form that significantly influenced the development of British, European, and Russian Literature.

  6. If you would like a more pleasant reading experience of a classic 19th Century novel I would recommend Balzaac’s Eugenie Grandet published in 1833. It is a fine example of a short novel that had evolved into a longer novel, but not yet too much longer. Magazine and Newspaper editors really loved these kinds of novels. The plot lines within this novel are much more distinct and the extended descriptions are not so long and so annoying. The novel is a character study of a Miser. Eugenie’s father is a miser and the novel describes him and his life and what it was like for Eugenie to live with him, and how it ultimately shaped her view of her own personal life. The deathbed scene of Eugenie’s father is one of the most unforgettable descriptions in Western Literature. Not because it was so morbid, but because it was so tragic. It was a powerfully graphic illustration of greed incarnate. It makes me deeply sigh just remembering it. You can read an English translation of Eugenie Grandet (as I did), with or without a Kindle, on the Project Gutenberg website. Enjoy.

  7. Much to my surprise, I was able to watch the first three episodes (of seven) of the BBC TV series Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on YouTube. I don’t have any subscriptions and I don’t watch television. (I tried Netflix for six months, but dropped it since I wasn’t using it enough to justify it). It is a fun series to watch as the male actors particularly are really enjoying the embellishment of their characters. “I am Strange”… “Indeed”. Since the director (in a video clip I watched) explained that they were purposely exercising restraint with special visual effects to allow the actors to use their own skills to make magic alive within their character portrayals. It makes the special visual effects more enjoyable (like the ghost fleet and the sand horses) and much more interesting when they occur. I hope my access to the series continues and is not terminated (I suspect it is an illegal upload). It does not inspire me to reread the long novel itself, but I may one day reread the opening hundred pages or so which is a unique reading experience.

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