“Two magicians shall appear in England…”
I tend to catch the tail-end of trends, like an enthusiastic gate-crasher at a party long since broken-up. When friends and family suggest—nay, insist—that I must, I absolutely must watch such-and-such a movie, listen to such-and-such a CD, or read such-and-such a book … well, I generally accept the generously proffered item with a nod of thanks, only to let the item gather dust on my desk or else serve as an improvised coaster.
Passionate readers are a persistent bunch, however, so eventually I was browbeaten into picking up the bestselling fantasy novel by and English author featuring English magicians. Wait a minute, but I’d already been cajoled into reading Harry Potter (and, yes, loved it).
‘No, you silly ass,’ comes the rejoinder: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
All right, so I’m a few years behind the times. Susanna Clarke’s whopping doorstopper of a debut met with smashing success upon its publication in autumn of 2004: long tenures on bestseller lists, near-universal critical acclaim, numerous awards, and the movie rights snatched up by New Line, the company behind The Lord of the Rings series. (It was later made into a charming TV series, available streaming on Amazon Prime and blu-ray.)
Yet Strange & Norrell is a strange novel indeed. The Potter series is breathless, page-turning storytelling packed with likable heroes and snarling villains—surefire ingredients of the mega-hit bestseller. Clarke, however, prefers atmosphere to story, slow build-ups to cliffhanger suspense, ambiguity to resolution, characterization to characters, and dry wit to belly laughs. It is as much a comedy of manners as it is a fantasy novel. The book even looks strange, with its lengthy footnotes, quaint typesetting, and antiquated spellings (‘stopt’ instead of ‘stopped,’ or ‘chuses’ instead of ‘chooses’) all meant to evoke the bygone era Clarke is writing about: early 19th century England.
The History of English magic
Strange & Norrell re-imagines English history as the history of English magic. (Harry Potter by way of Jane Austen crossed with Patrick O’Brian gives you an idea). The events of the novel begin sometime around 1806, a time when English magic had been relegated to dull history books and studied, rather than practiced, only by “theoretical magicians,” members of gentlemen’s clubs who are really just dry and dusty academics. No one actually does magic anymore.
Enter Gilbert Norrell, a small, elderly gentleman with a nervous disposition who claims that “I myself am quite a tolerable practical magician.” Norrell’s attempt to revive English magic involves establishing himself as its foremost practitioner, and eliminating all potential rivals to the title of “Greatest Magician of the Age.”
Enter Jonathan Strange: a young man of independent means who almost literally stumbles upon magic as his vocation. He is Norrell’s opposite: impulsive, courageous, sociable, and anxious to try new things. Strange comes to discover that magic can be learned not just from books, but from Nature herself: the trees, the stones, the sky, the rivers (talk about ‘books in the babbling brooks’) just as Romantic artists, poets, and musicians were around the same time enamored of the idea that Nature is the fountain of inspiration.
Over the course of 800 pages, Clarke charts the growing enmity between Strange & Norrell, as well as detouring to several subplots, one of which includes a villain who is both comical and blood-chilling: a powerful faerie with the evocative descriptor of “The Man with the thistle-down hair.” Amusing cameos are also made by King George III, the Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, and a whole host of English figures from the Napoleonic era. Strange’s encounters with Wellington in Spain and Byron in Venice are calculated to delight any and all Anglophiles.
Indeed, the novel entire is a love song to England—or perhaps a melancholy ballad. This is not William Blake’s “green & pleasant lands,” an idyll of the rolling hills, verdant countryside, and quaint cottage manners (though these welcome features do appear from time-to-time). In an encounter between Strange and the wicked faerie, for example, “the wood no longer struck Strange as a welcoming place. It appeared to him now as it had at first—sinister, unknowable, unEnglish.”
Clarke’s book has a brooding, wintry atmosphere (every few scenes transport the reader to a desolate moor, blasted heath, or dark forest) appropriate to its treatment of magic as a not wholly holy business. Strange tosses off a comment to the Man with the thistle-down hair about how he can’t perform spells with certain objects present, including a consecrated host. Such an aside will likely alarm the judicious reader more than it apparently does the absent-minded Strange. For all the brouhaha about Harry Potter being anti-Christian, Rowling situates her story in a specifically Christian moral universe: good and evil are clearly defined and she valorizes friendship, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. Clarke’s ethos is more ambiguous—the lines between good and evil are blurred, and magic seems more and more a means of accessing power humankind was never morally equipped to possess.
More Things in Heaven and Earth…
Hamlet’s line, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” could have serve as an appropriate epigraph to this story. The unpredictability of Susanna Clarke’s world—the eerie sense that a mirror could become a door or a dark forest suddenly spring up in the middle of a city street—owes something to G.K. Chesterton’s wild-and-woolly The Man Who Was Thursday, a book Clarke has cited as an influence. As the story progresses, one begins to feel like a disoriented visitor to the “kingdom behind the mirror” that Strange describes: “I wish I could give you an idea of its grandeur! Of its size and complexity! Of the great stone halls that lead off in every direction … I saw staircases that rose up so high I could not see the top of them, and others that descended into utter blackness.”
Though Clarke’s pacing is deliberate, she holds the reader’s attention with her meticulous craftsmanship, characteristically British wit, and the generosity of her visionary imagination. A single one of her footnotes contains more humor, style, and creativity than most fiction released nowadays. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a sumptuous medieval tapestry of a story—a tapestry that doubles as a magic carpet—gilded with lavish detail, colorful characters, exotic places, and finely-wrought decorative flourishes. “Author as magician” clichés are as applicable to the prodigiously talented Ms Clarke as they are to her sister sorceress, JK Rowling. Prepare to be enchanted.
Note: My introduction to Clarke’s wonderful book arrived by way of Simon Prebble’s virtuoso audiobook rendition. His gravelly, mellifluous voice was the soundtrack to many long walks I took over the course of a gray, rainy winter. It was a rare and unexpected treat to feel the world fall away as his masterful narration transported me to the faraway lands of Clarke’s fertile imagination.