Thursday, 29 September 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

First published in 2004, it is a testament to this novel's popularity that I had to wait months for it to become available at the library, only to discover that due to demand it can only be taken out for two weeks at a time and it was approximately a thousand pages long. Luckily I am a fast reader and even though it is large, it is not a dense read. From start to finish it was an absolute pleasure. It isn't often I read a book of that size and feel I could instantly dive in and start it again.

Clarke sets her novel in an alternative England, blending the historically accurate with the fantastic. Magic was for centuries widely practised in England and reached its peak under the three hundred year reign of John Uskglass, the Northern King. By the early 19th century magic has died out and is solely the study of theoretical magicians. The novel centres around Mr Norrell, who astounds England by revealing he has the ability to practice magic, and Jonathan Strange, a younger man with magical abilities who becomes his pupil. Norrell and Strange have a complicated relationship that Clarke depicts very realistically; as the only two magicians in England they want to work together, but vanity and ego inevitably get in the way.

The depiction of England is very recognisable, with many historical episodes and people, such as a mad king on the throne, and the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. The prose is at times reminiscent of Jane Austen, with a wry tone creeping in. Clarke also uses old fashioned spelling of words familiar to readers of Austen, such as ‘chuse’ for ‘choose’. Dickens is also called to mind, largely through the pencil illustrations throughout the book. Footnotes are widely used throughout the novel, some as scholarly references explaining magical terms and theory. Others create the mythology of this version of England, with centuries old stories of Uskglass and his fairy cohorts. Often amusing, these footnotes are an effective tool for our understanding of this world.

For all the lightness of tone in this novel, magic is often depicted very darkly. The tales of Uskglass, like many of our own fairytales, often involve acts of cruelty. Magic leads Norrell and Strange down dangerous paths. The few times we get a glimpse into the fairy kingdom we see a cruel and menacing world. Early in the novel Norrell makes an unwise pact with a fairy, the Gentleman with Thistle-down Hair, to bring the young Lady Pole back to life. By his terms Lady Pole will live but spend half her life in the fairy kingdom. While Norrell believes she will appear to die after thirty years or so, in reality she is forced by the fairy to spend every night at balls in his castle, in the kingdom of Lost-Hope. Through her the fairy meets Stephen Black, her husband’s servant, and he too is enchanted. The fairy is attracted to beautiful people and things; the guests at his balls wear beautiful clothes, and he gifts Stephen priceless ornaments and treasure. For all this, his house is a cold, unwelcoming place. Unable to speak out and weary, Pole and Black can do nothing. The Gentleman with Thistle-down Hair is unable to understand they do not want to be there, that they do not want his gifts, that they find meaning in their human lives. He exists outside any human constructs of morality, and by extension so does the rest of the magical world. Norrell and Strange have opened England up to perilous forces.

The above subplot is the most major of many in this book; if any criticism can be made of this novel it is that Clarke does spend some time on events and characters that are not strictly necessary for the main thrust of the story. But it is such an enjoyable world to spend time in, and many of these diversions so entertaining in their own right, that it is a fairly minor quibble. The end brings many different storylines and details together neatly and smoothly; also I found it to be unexpectedly moving. I was left with a satisfying lump in my throat at a beautiful ending to a beautiful book.

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