Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

jonathan strange & mr norrell book coverJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2004] – ★★★★★

Neil Gaiman called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrellthe finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years”, and I will agree with him. It is a very long book, but it is totally absorbing from the very first page. The novel begins in autumn 1806 with Mr Segundus, a theoretical magician, wanting to know why there was no more magic done in England. He is a new addition to the society of magicians in York, England. Practical magic has declined in England and there are apparently no practising magicians left in the country. The profession of a practising magician has fallen in reputation, and Mr Segundus comes to inquire of another magician who lives in Yorkshire why this is the case. He finds, however, that not only the reclusive Mr Norrell has an established library filled with rare books on the practice of magic, he also claims to be a practising magician himself! Mr Norrell soon desires to establish himself as the only practising magician in the country. The episodic-in-nature plot is delightful to read, and, in style, it reminds of Dickens’s Bleak House [1853]. Delving into the British folklore, Clarke opens up a fascinating magical world, which you will not want to leave, and takes her task quite seriously. Inside the book, one will find a gripping adventure-mystery, great characterisation, unforgettable atmosphere, humorous sequences, and the masterful use of the language. The book’s story, format, style and language all give the impression as though the book was written back when it was set – in the 19th century. In sum, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is quite brilliant in every respect, and I cannot recommend the novel highly enough. As I would like to discuss the book here in some depth, the following review will contain spoilers.

<<SPOILER ALERT>>  

  • Structure, Style & Plot

The novel is divided into three volumes titled Mr Norrell, Jonathan Strange and John Uskglass, and spans some years – from autumn 1806 to spring 1817. The plot is really episodic in its nature. At the centre, we have two magicians who hold completely different views on magic, and it is intriguing to follow their lives, thinking what their partnership will bring. One mischievous fairy does her wrongdoing in the background – putting people under his melancholy spell; there is a war with France where magic is employed to combat enemies; and there is also the mystery of one book of magic that was once the property of Vinculus’s father. While telling this story, Clarke always puts it into a broader context, and, as the plot moves forward, we linger to hear about other characters, such as Mrs Brandy or Mr Honeyfoot, or stop at the Peep-O’Day-Boys male servants club in London to soak up its atmosphere. We also get to know the story of the Raven King (the originator of all English magic). That way, Clarke tells her story in a bit of a circular way, but never forgetting the main thread. This way to tell the story, with much description, additional characters and background information, is actually the way to write the novel in the 19th century. Therefore, Clarke simple does what Charles Dickens (Bleak House [1853]), Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame [1831]) and Alessandro Manzoni (The Betrothed [1827]) all did. Despite the length of the story and the amount of description, the plot remains interesting and entertaining.

Clarke employs a number of literary devices to make her fantasy believable, and it is the seriousness with which she approaches the subject which is the most amazing. It is as a result of that almost academic seriousness, as well as real locations (the Cathedral of York and the Piazza San Marco) and real personages (Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron), that the novel is read like a very compelling account. The novel is known for its extensive use of footnotes (telling about ancient magical legends and the content of the books on magic). Although it is tempting to skip those, they provide fascinating contexts and additional information, ensuring that the magical realms and the presence of magic are facts, a way of life, in the story. The importance placed on books and learning in the novel will please many avid book readers and book fans.

The story is also full of irony, and it is also where seriousness and ridiculousness, as well as horror and humour, overlap. The book is full of insightful, witty observations. My favourite are: “who was it that said a magician needs the subtlety of a Jesuit, the daring of a soldier and the wits of a thief?” [Clarke, 2004: 793], and “My dear Lascelles”, cried Drawlight, “what nonsense you talk! Upon my word, there is nothing in the world so easy to explain as failure – it is, after all, what everybody does all the time” [Clarke, 2004: 98].

  • Characterisation

One of the things which makes Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell such a good read is the great insight into the characters, and the way Clarke handles characterisation. The openness of Jonathan Strange, one of the practising magicians in the novel, is contrasted with the secretive nature of Mr Norrell, another practising magician. Mr Norrell is all “Englishness” with his shy and introverted demeanour, and an inner sense of superiority, whereas Strange is friendlier, more open, as well as whimsical and contradictory [Clarke, 2004: 543]. A brave and bold young magician (Strange) takes on a fearful and reticent older one (Norrell). Strange thinks it is wrong to ignore darker foundations of magic and the practical magic of fairies, and considers that a more liberal approach to the practice of magic must be adopted. In turn, Norrell is too fearful of spontaneous and bold displays of magic, and wants magic to be better regulated.

The author, quite cleverly, keeps the personalities of Norrell and Strange unclear on purpose, and that uncertainty provides for an element of intrigue. Norrell is all arrogance, as well as hatred for other practising magicians, but he is also probably quite misunderstood in the society since he keeps to himself and does not express his points of view. Similarly, Strange may be open and friendly, but there is also a reference to his vanity [Clarke, 2004: 793], and the author finds it hard to define his virtues [Clarke, 2004: 243]. Moreover, Strange’s usage of black magic in war makes his goodness and innocence a bit questionable.

Clarke introduces a multitude of other characters, such as Mr Drawlight and Mr Honeyfoot, but I personally got intrigued by Childermass, Mr Norrell’s man-of-business. His description is quite vivid: “with his long hair as ragged as rain and as black as thunder, he would have looked quite at home upon a windswept moor, or lurking in some pitch-black alleyway, or perhaps in a novel by Mrs Radcliffe” [Clarke, 2004: 17]. The description of his personality is as intriguing: “Childermass was one of that uncomfortable class of men whose birth  is lowly and who are destined all their lives to serve their betters, but whose clever brains and quick abilities make them wish for recognition and rewards far beyond their reach [Clarke, 2004: 42]; Childermass knew the world…knew the games the children on street-corners are playing – games that all the other grown-ups have long since forgotten…knew what old people by firesides are thinking of, though no one has asked them in years…[Clarke, 2004: 49]. However, female characters are drawn rather simplistically in the story, sometimes being damsels-in-distress to be rescued by their gentlemen, even though the author also does this to accord with the (writing) traditions of that time.

  • Atmosphere & Setting

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is also a very atmospheric novel. It has detailed descriptions of places. The novel locations stretch from England (York, Brighton, Plymouth and London) and France (Brest), to Belgium (Brussels), Italy (Venice and Padua), Portugal (Lisbon), and even Africa. We move from the stately houses in London to the battlefields in Portugal. For example, in London, we are introduced to Piccadilly, Oxford Street and Fleet Street, and the character residencies are at Harley Street, Hanover Square and Soho Square. Then, after the Bedford Coffee-House at Covent-Garden, London, we find ourselves at the Caffè Florian, Venice, Italy. One Venice location is described in these terms: The campo was crowded with people: there were Venetian ladies coming to Santa Maria Zobenigo, Austrian soldiers strolling about arm-in-arm and looking at everything, shopkeepers trying to sell them things, urchins fighting and begging, cats going about their secret business” [Clarke, 2004: 742].

  • British Folklore and Similarities with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter

Most parallels of this book with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series may be explained by the fact that both authors delved deeply into the British folklore and fairy-tales to give substance and contexts to their respective stories. Thus, both stories feature magic connected with roads, transportation, and mirrors. Clarke, in particular, paid attention to old stories of fairies and people put under enchantments. Other similarities are more telling. A prophecy plays an important (if not central) role in both stories, and if in Harry Potter, there is “a boy who lived”, in Jonathan Strange, there is “a magician who still practices magic”. Both of these statements are striking in their respective worlds. Like Rowling, Clarke starts her novel with some event occurring which has huge significance and impact on the community. In Harry Potter, Harry seems to vanquish Lord Voldemort when he is just one year old, restoring peace to the community, whereas in Jonathan Strange, the practise of magic finally returns to England when Mr Norrell manages to bewitch the Cathedral of York. There are also similarities between John Uskglass and Harry Potter, and between John Uskglass and Lord Voldemort. Both Uskglass and Potter are presented as “saviours” who came from foreign kingdoms and achieved much at a young age. Both Uskglass and Lord Voldemort were “brought up” by magic (Hogwarts and a fairy kingdom respectively), and turned a little against their respective communities. Both of the rulers or leaders disappeared at some point and there have been rumours about their sightings.

  • Messages

There is also more than a whiff of The Phantom of the Opera [1910] and Alice in Wonderland [1865] in Clarke’s story, and some of its messages include – (i) knowledge is power, and (ii) the inability to see the picture/life events clearly for some reason, i.e., the consequences of a clouded perception. In Jonathan Strange, some narrative concerns the hunt for books and relevant, useful information on magic. There is an almost information war between Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange, and both recognise that the ultimate power lies in knowledge. Mr Norrell collects books and makes sure no other magician lays hands on books of magic, whereas Strange tries to gain ultimate knowledge on magic through some direct contact with fairies.

It is likely that neither Norrell nor Strange are able to see the story unfolding clearly – some vital events in the story. Their perception is clouded by the sense of their self-importance and immediate concerns. Misunderstandings cause problems and more confusion in the novel. There is also this inability in the novel to communicate the most important information. For example, neither Lady Pole nor Stephen Black can communicate that they are under enchantment because of their enchantment, and, at some point, Strange is too self-absorbed to pay attention to what his wife is telling him. In fact, she tries to communicate some vital information to him on a fairy. In turn, Mr Norrell is too frightened by fairy magic and is reluctant to think about it, and, thus, does even want to think what the fairy in the story may be trying to do with Lady Pole.

  • Similarities between Magic in the Story and the Nature of Law in the UK

Having my degrees in law, I could not help but notice the parallels between how the author presents magic in the story and how law is perceived in the UK. Like law, magic in the story is either of a theoretical or practical variety. One may study magic in theory, and one may engage in the practice of it. The same is true of law. Law may be written and unwritten – and magic may be in a written form (domain of Mr Norrell) and of customary, spontaneous variety (domain of fairies). There are references to magic in the story being on par with religion, medicine and the law. Clarke even uses the same term as in law to designate people who are not familiar with magic – laymen, and there is a distinction drawn between laymen and magicians (lawyers and laymen in law). Norrell may stand for scholarly, theoretical and rigid law, while Strange stands for flexible and practical law, and together they represent the whole.

The importance of books in the story is also relevant to law. Both law and magic strive to find the ultimate authority to underpin them. Such ultimate authority (an authoritative source for the subject) is difficult to find. In Clarke’s story, there is a quest to find a book written by the Raven King, which will be the ultimate book of magic. Similarly, law is often concerned with finding the ultimate authority or principle. It may be statutory law, customary law or case-law. In Jonathan Strange, magicians sometimes refer to some incantations in past cases of magicians performing magic as though these are authoritative sources of magic and they are lawyers in court who state principles found in past cases to prove their present case (start using the same spell).

  • Ending & Possible Criticism

There is an intrigue towards the end when Strange resorts to very unconventional and dangerous methods to gain knowledge of magic. The ending can be criticised as a bit unsatisfying and slightly illogical, but there is also this feeling that it should have always ended that way. One may also question whether all the chapters are really that necessary, but most plot lines and additional information inexplicably come together, while also providing for ambiguity. Perhaps, the book could have been shorter, but then there might not have been so much character depth or atmosphere.

To conclude, it can be said that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a perfect fantasy novel and an unputdownable book, which is beautifully-written. It is a compelling and fascinating read which pays particular attention to characters, location descriptions and magical history. This very British novel is both witty and humorous, and dark and intriguing. My only regret is that I cannot read it anew as though for the first time.

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