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.