Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

SusannaClarke_JonathanStrangeAndMrNorrellLenora Rose wrote this review.

“Yes, I tried reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell…. After three hundred pages and far too many cups of Turkish coffee to keep from nodding off while reading it, I gave up. It’s dry, it’s boring, it’s unreadable.” Jack Merry

It’s a rare day when I disagree with our Jack Merry so thoroughly as I do in the remark he made above, in a recent edition of the Green Man staff newsletter The Sleeping Hedgehog. And I’ve never had a disagreement with him that could not be settled by bringing him a good drink from the pub while I settle down with an over-spiced tea.

If the book is unreadable, why did I take umbrage at those who dared to interrupt my reading for trivial things (like “Supper’s getting cold” or “We should be heading out now if we’re going to make it by 8:00. Are you sure that’s what you’re wearing?”)

Susanna Clarke’s novel is superb. There’s no other one-word summary for it.

Much has been made already of the Austenesque aspects of her style, but it warrants saying again — the dialogue and the descriptors ring utterly, authentically Victorian. Much has also been made of the footnotes, some of which are short stories in their own right, and some running for several pages. (Not always, it should be noted, necessarily the same ones, though there is a strong correlation.) Both of these things are true, and bear repeating — as does the fact that Jane Austen is one of the bestselling authors of all time, and has not been out of print. One could do far worse than to borrow aspects from the best.

However, one thing I have not seen mentioned nearly often enough is how funny she is. Granted, the overall story is serious, far branching, and full of implications of the blindness of humanity and the shallow popularization of wonder. But with over 800 pages, there’s more than room enough for sly, slow-building jokes to draw a smile, and quips to bring a laugh — jests between characters, and between the author and alert readers.

I found myself reminded of Terry Pratchett in reverse — using a serious story to hide the undercurrent of humour instead of, as Mr. Pratchett does, hiding a serious undercurrent under laughs. Pratchett and Austen may sound an unholy combination, but they’re most certainly not the only elements involved. I could probably list half a dozen other writers, masters all, whose influences can be found here. But, that said, I can’t think of any writer except Susanna Clarke who has created magic with the feel of that practiced by these stolid English magicians, with inspiration and bland pragmatism at once, or anyone else who has combined quite these elements in quite this way.

The plot is something like a particularly wild tree, starting with a single narrow trunk and spreading in all directions, tangling on itself — but, seen from any distance at all, making a pleasing whole.

It begins with an innocent inquiry — why, with its rich history of magic, does England have no practicing magicians — or, more accurately, any active magic at all? The question is turned on its head almost instantly, as Mr. Norrell reveals himself as a magician, demonstrates his power, and travels to London not only to promote himself as a practical magician, but to advance his personal agenda about which historic branches of magic are worth noticing and which should be ignored. This academic motive propels the book — Mr. Norrell is beyond cautious about what knowledge of magic should be disseminated, but even wishes the most famous of ancient magicians, the Raven King, be ignored and forgotten. (In a nice reflection of how pervasive Norrell’s attitude is, the Raven King’s name isn’t actually given out until about the time Jonathan Strange’s rather different approach begins to trump Mr. Norrell’s. At first I thought this an accident, until I began to note what other aspects of story changed at the same times.)

From there, the plot branches, and some of the branches cross at unexpected moments, making it hard to count each one. How they come together, too, is a surprise, and some do not quite conclude themselves, precisely, but remain as unanswered questions. The most essential ones do — the villain is punished, the magicians have learned some lessons, the imprisoned are free if not always how they expected to be, and magic? Well, that would be telling.

There are some unusual and risky things done in the course of the book and the story — the Napoleonic War being reduced to a subplot not the least of it. The weakest aspect, I think, is the lag before several key characters arrive. The gentleman with thistle-down hair, a figure of whom the two magicians are hardly aware though he works at cross purposes to them throughout, does not appear on the scene for eight chapters, and Stephen Black, a servant whose enchantment and gradual transformation is one of the keys to the story, for another seven. Jonathan Strange likewise doesn’t appear until page 127 — and even then, as a minor character in the background of a chapter, and doesn’t reappear or take a serious role until almost 200 pages in.

There is plenty to occupy the reader in the first pages even so, between Mr. Norrell’s rather splendid first demonstration of magic and the plots of minor villains and allies. But though there was enough to carry me though the first part with enjoyment, the story doesn’t really begin to come to life until the above three are on stage.

Yet I cannot think of a part of the opening to cut. Susanna Clarke’s digressions and odd side remarks and branches of plot are so pervasive, and so liable to later prove relevant to other branches of the story, that it’s virtually impossible to point to one and say with certainty it could be plucked out without damaging the rest. Many of the seemingly inconsequential things come into play in one way or another, or resonate with more central events.

Many others simply create the veracity of the setting. The world Susanna Clarke creates is altogether as thoroughly detailed as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, if rather more prosaic and less full of wonder. The story we read is only a late part in a much longer history, set in a few small locales in a much broader universe. The sense of just how much world there is outside the story — in England, Europe and the rest of our world, in Faerie, and in even less known worlds — is one of its riches.

The characters are broadly drawn, but sharply distinct. Like the world they inhabit, there are implications that the visible parts of every character we meet are a small segment of the whole. Each character is deeply flawed, the heroes as much as the villains. Mr. Norrell’s honest love of books — and don’t so many of us share this trait? — turns into an obsessive hoarding of knowledge away from others. Jonathan Strange’s ironic bent turns self-destructive when he’s faced with real tragedy, and both of them miss things that seem obvious, not for stupidity, but because of their own most particular perspective. These are blind spots we can believe.

Probably my favourite character is Norrell’s servant Childermass, whose depths hint at the most interesting stories. Jonathan Strange himself is a close second, if only because of the appalling conclusions he reaches from the little information he grasps, and his combination of eager scholar and restless experimenter.

So much more could be said about this book but I’d rather urge you to read it yourself. As our Jack Merry’s remarks suggest, it’s not for everyone. But nothing is, and as for me, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell made me gasp, and giggle, and laugh, and very nearly made me cry. It kept me up very late at night, and got me reading again first thing in the morning.

One final note. Another reviewer for another respectable source has noted that Susanna Clarke was granted a three book contract, and assumed that meant this book is the opening of a trilogy. Of which, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, (publisher of three of her short stories and one of her biggest fans), has stated:

“Allow me to presume on my small acquaintanceship with Susanna Clarke in order to tell you that John Clute’s assertion that Jonathan Strange was planned as the beginning of a series was entirely pulled out of John Clute’s ass. There is no such plan. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a complete work. Susanna has more recently said she might write a different novel with the same background, but it would not be about the same people. And yet people keep repeating Clute’s entirely erroneous assertion that the book is the start of a planned-out series à la Jordan, Martin, Donaldson, etc. It’s not, and it never was.”

And that, I think, really does say it all.

(Bloomsbury, 2004)

[Update: The book was adapted into a seven-part series by the BBC, which was broadcast on BBC One in 2015. It was available in America for a time via Amazon Prime, but sadly that’s no longer the case.]

Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

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