The Ladies of Grace Adieu
by Susanna Clarke,
illustrated by Charles Vess.
Bloomsbury 2007 (2006).
I have quite a few illustrated reprints of 19th- and early 20th-century folk- and fairy-tale collections on my shelves, some even facsimiles of the originals, and so this collection of short stories by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in many ways seemed familiar. Not only were the Charles Vess illustrations deliberately reminiscent of those of Arthur Rackham and his ilk, but the writing often recalled antiquarian texts with the occasional scholarly footnotes.
In fact I was often reminded of the ghost stories of M R James in that they seemed as if written by an earlier avatar of that academic. Above all, of course, the style was unmistakably that of Susanna Clarke’s own magnificent debut novel with its Regency aesthetic and period spelling – and no worse for that.
That this collection has been compared unfavourably with that doorstopper of a fantasy is unfortunate since it should be judged solely as a group of short fictions: as such it is much more successful than many an uneven selection of miscellaneous tales, even those by a single author.
The informative introduction is by Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies at the University of Aberdeen (though you will search in vain for any online bibliography by, or even biography of, the holder of this prestigious post); he describes this book as an ideal primer on Faerie or the fairy realm.
The title story — in some ways the most memorable of the eight tales — is set in the same period as the action of Strange & Norrell, and in fact Jonathan Strange himself puts in an appearance. The three ladies living in the Gloucestershire parish of Grace Adieu are proof that, despite Gilbert Norrell’s assertion that he was the first and foremost modern practitioner of English magic, men did not have the monopoly of that power; as Lady Catherine of Winchester wrote, “magic belongs as much to the heart as to the head.” The ladies further demonstrate the truth of this medieval writer’s assertion, that “everything which is done, should be done from love or joy or righteous anger.” Righteous anger is the motivation in this case when intruding males attempt to impose their arbitrary wills on the ladies.
“The Ladies of Grace Adieu” must be partly inspired, I believe, by Renaissance images of the classical Three Graces; in particular Botticelli’s Primavera features these mythical figures dressed in diaphanous robes, whose near neoclassical style was not only popular in the Regency period (when this story is set) but is also referenced in Jonathan Strange’s vision of
“three ladies in pale gowns walking (almost dancing) upon the bank above him. The stars surrounded them; the night-wind took their gowns and blew them about.”
The title of the story is also allusory: the village title isn’t, as might be assumed, “goodbye to grace” (a comment on the ‘unnatural’ abilities of these three females) but grace à dieu, French for “thanks be to God”. In other words, whatever finally happens to Captain Winbright and Mr Littleworth — and to the put-upon Miss Pye — is only just, the consequence of righteous anger, the attribute of the God of the Old Testament. And of female practitioners of magic.
“The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse” is a whimsical version of the familiar fairytale of a visitor to the Otherworld. Featuring Britain’s heroic general — who has already appeared in Strange & Norrell — the story shows the army commander in an unfavourable light, contrary to his popular appeal, completely out of his depth in Faerie. (This tale was inspired by the village of Wall which appears in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.) The other story that links indirectly with Strange & Norrell is Lord Portishead’s “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner”. As Professor Sutherland points out, the Raven King John Uskglass (who is a key figure in a “somewhat obscure novel”) features in folktales of a type in which “the rich and powerful are confounded by their social inferiors”. And so it proves in this wonderful and humorous retelling from A Child’s History of the Raven King.
“Mrs Mabb” is very reminiscent of the group of Tam Lin ballads, about a young woman who tries to rescue her true love from the clutches of a wouldbe fairy lover. Venetia Moore is in love with Captain Fox but he mysteriously disappears, apparently captivated by the charms of Mrs Mabb. There are echoes in this tale of the Dancing Princesses motif, and a hint of the Mr Fox folktale (which proves to be a false lead), but the clue of course is from Mrs Mabb herself — who must be related to (if not indeed the same as) Shakespeare’s Queen Mab, referred to in Romeo and Juliet. Another queen appears in the short tale “Antickes and Frets” which gives an alternative view of Mary Queen of Scots. In her deluded attempt to dispose of the Queen of England by any means possible Mary Stuart even apparently resorted to magic. But she had not reckoned with the redoubtable Countess of Shrewsbury, Bess Hardwick.
Two of the tales are told in the first person. “On Lickerish Hill” is told by the relatively unlettered Miranda (a name surely inspired by The Tempest) who marries above her station. Set in 17th-century Cambridgeshire, this is based on the Suffolk version of the Rumpelstiltskin tale type, “Tom Tit Tot”. I suspect the choice of word is deliberate: ‘lickerish’ is a medieval spelling of a French word meaning lecherous, and so her fairy bride seems to be. This is a delightfully told (if at times sinister) narrative, which brings in John Aubrey and a clutch of Cambridgeshire worthies (if their topographic surnames are anything to judge by).
The second of the first-person narratives is “Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower”. Here we have some rather dubious characters, not only the Fairy Widower — who is as sinister as the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair in Strange & Norrell — but Alessandro Simonelli himself. Professor Sutherland reminds us Simonelli is a notoriously unreliable narrator, and we see some aspects of this in the tale where he tries to show himself in a good light, all of which is confirmed when we learn of his origins.
“Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby” purportedly first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1820. It recounts the friendship between the gentleman fairy Tom Brightwind and the 18th-century Jewish physician David Montefiore. On a journey to Lincoln the pair passed through one of the Lincolnshire villages called Thoresby which had dire need of a bridge to revive its ailing fortunes. As is the wont of lecherous fairies there was an ulterior motive to Tom Brightwind stopping in Thoresby to deal with the inhabitants’ lack of a decent river crossing.
Several strands emerge from this striking group of tales. First, almost as if to counteract the dominance of male figures in Strange & Norrell four of the tales focus on women. True, not all act or end up well, but they are at least centre stage as it were. Second is the creative use of traditional tales, mediated through the kind of language spoken or written in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Third is the geographical range of tales — we go from Gloucestershire to Cambridgeshire, Derbyshire to Lincolnshire, Staffordshire to Cumbria.
And fourth is the strong sense of verisimilitude running through all the tales which, despite our certainty that this is all fantasy, almost persuades one that there must be a grain of truth in them — so much so that one is tempted to research further despite it being a futile exercise! (Yes, Reader, I succumbed to the temptation, such was the magic of these delicious stories.)