Guest Review! “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke

Jack made his first appearance on Monday in our joint review of Macbeth, and he was so inspired by the reviewing process, he decided to recap another recent read. Enjoy, and don’t hesitate to show him some love in the comments!

Title: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
ISBN: 9781582346038
Pages: 800
Release date: August 26, 2004
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Genre: Historical fantasy
Formats: Paperback
Sources: Personal collection
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Summary

The novel is set in early nineteenth-century Britain, in the midst of the Napoleonic wars. The first few chapters do not feature either of the title characters, but instead discuss the Learned Society of York Magicians. This group does not perform any magic of their own, instead meeting to discuss magical history and other less useful endeavors. In fact, they all believe that magic has left the world.

Soon, Mr. Norrell’s servant, Childermass, arrives and tricks the men into agreeing never to refer to themselves as magicians, on the condition that Mr. Norrell will perform some actual magic in front of them. Norrell makes the statues at York Cathedral speak, and with that the Learned Society of York Magicians is dissolved. This is the first of many examples of Mr. Norrell making every effort to keep magic out of the hands of those he deems unworthy, which includes everyone but himself.

News of this magical feat gets out, and soon Mr. Norrell is drawn to London to reinvigorate English magic. Unfortunately, his prickly demeanor does not ingratiate him with the locals. It is only when Mrs. Pole, the wife of a prominent government official, dies unexpectedly that Norrell is able to show what his magic can truly do. He summons a faerie (always referred to as The Gentleman with the Thistle Down Hair), who brings her back to life. But the faerie is tricky, as faeries are, and he also stakes a claim to her for half of her remaining life.

Norrell doesn’t care about Mrs. Pole, focusing more on her husband’s prestige, and she’s already dead anyway, so he doesn’t give this deal much thought. Lady Pole is back from the dead, and Norrell is showered with acclaim and attention. He then sets to work using his magic to defeat Napoleon.

The faerie, however, is far from gone, and he immediately begins enchanting Lady Pole and Mr. Pole’s head servant, Stephen Black. He regularly whisks them away to a faerie kingdom to participate in dreadful balls and dancing, which are apparently quite miserable and repetitive. Both of them have no energy in the human world after dancing the night away, and they become mere shadows of their former selves.

Finally, in the last few chapters of Volume 1, Jonathan Strange is introduced. An impulsive young man who wants to become a magician, he apparently has quite a knack for it. It isn’t exactly clear why he’s so good at magic, but he is able to perform a few spells with apparently no training at all. When he begins his tutelage with Mr. Norrell, they do not get along, but both endure the other in order to learn more magic. Norrell particularly detests Strange’s wife, whom he views as merely a drain on Strange’s time.

The relationship between Strange and Norrell, the likeable young sorcerer and his more experienced tutor, is truly the meat of the novel. Unfortunately, it takes at least 300 pages to get to this point. There is some interesting politicking, and both characters are reasonably well developed, though not necessarily engaging. Eventually their alliance turns into a rivalry; The Man with the Thistle Down Hair, who hates them both, exacerbates their differences. The war in Europe remains in the background; Strange ingratiates himself with the British Army far more than Norrell, which only widens the rift between them.

The Raven King, a great sorcerer from the past, looms over both men. It is just a matter of time before he shows up—I mean, there’s a raven on all the covers; this isn’t rocket science. But explaining the circumstances and results of that interaction might give the story away; if you want to know how it ends, you’re going to have to slog through it yourself!

Analysis

The Good:
The prose is excellent, as you would expect from such a highly lauded work. Clarke was clearly trying to make the setting more realistic by emulating classic authors such as Dickens and Austen, authors on whom we rely to summon up the nineteenth century for us. Thus, her novel seems almost as real as history. Which is great. The use of footnotes to provide background information is unusual in a novel, but it came across as charming.

The Gentleman with the Thistle Down Hair was an enigmatic and interesting villain. He popped up quite a lot, but still it was never really clear what he was all about, or why he acted so strangely. Presumably, his erratic behavior was related to his being a faerie. His ideas of proper behavior and general morality were refreshingly alien, and creatively done.

The Not-So-Good:
The overarching plot is about the relationship and competition between Norrell and Strange. But I never really cared about it, and it seemed like a rigged fight anyway. Strange was far more sympathetic than Norrell, and more talented, and it seemed like just a matter of time before he got the better of his former master.

Moreover, the novel is too long. It sags under its own weight. Clarke seems content to allow too many chapters to reveal exactly one fact to the reader. For example, one chapter reveals that Lady Pole hates Mr. Norrell (at least, in my reading, that was the only relevant information in that chapter). Couldn’t that have been worked into another chapter, for the sake of expediency?

Final Assessment:
The book has its strong points, but ultimately I was disappointed. A few interesting scenes involving magic and politics cannot redeem the generally glacial pace of the story. I can’t say I’m going to recommend this to anyone, even though the story is a unique accomplishment.

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