A Faerie primer

The Three Graces from Botticelli’s Primavera (circa 1482) in the Uffizi, Florence

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.

Figures dancing around the church at Rode, near Bath, from a painting I saw in the building in the 1970s

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.)

31 thoughts on “A Faerie primer

  1. Wasn’t aware this existed, so added to my tbr list. I liked the doorstopper a lot, and your review makes me want to read this collection asap… thanks! Btw, that Botticelli painting was the first painting that made me cry when I saw it years ago, so beautiful…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome, glad this piqued your attention! Yes, this painting is justifiably popular, and like a tapestry each little section as well as being beautiful had a story of its own to tell. But our son (8 years old at the time) reserved his tears for The Birth of Venus. To me they were both overwhelming.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Can’t claim any credit for his sensitivity! He also wanted to see the Mona Lisa in Paris a year or so later but that was a considerably less moving experience, in fact he was seriously underwhelmed.

          Liked by 1 person

            1. I’ve seen it (in the flesh, as it were) a couple of times now, this last behind bulletproof glass, and was astonished how such an iconic image could be stripped of its magic. Whether it was over-familiarity, its surprisingly small scale or the fact that you can’t really examine it for the crowds milling around and the tight security I don’t know. I only know that I’d rather see a decent reproduction of it or read a scholarly study about it than ever see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre again.

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            2. Yeah the setting isn’t good, as such it’s hard to truly judge for artistic merit. I read it owes its popularity more to the media
              spectacle of its disappearance in the beginning of the 19th C than anything else…

              Liked by 1 person

    1. Like El Greco the elongation in his figures can be a little distracting, but whether that’s from an eye defect (as I’ve seen suggested for El Greco) or because they were designed to be seen from below and not face on, I don’t know. But the faces are truly exquisite, and the composition masterly.

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      1. I don’t remember reading anything about an eye defect in Botticelli- the second explanation is more likely – I never thought of it as distracting myself. His quality of line also followed through to commissions he had that were not specifically for elevated positions.

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          1. I’ve tracked down the reference now, it’s on her Wikipedia page where the last update is from 2005. I can’t help but wonder what is going on, yet obviously she doesn’t want to disclose more to the public. I shall fervently hope for good news one day soon.

            In the meantime, I have seen Muriel Barbery’s The Life of Elves compared to Strange & Norrell, and so I am very excited to read that.

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  2. I had no idea she had another book out there! While this sounds like a good winter read ( I have an affinity for reading fairy-tales in winter) I am going to seek it out today.
    Thanks for the review Chris.
    The first painting that moved me was Raphael’s “The School of Athens”. As a child I would sit quietly for what seemed like hours looking at a copy that a friend of my dad had in his office.

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    1. I suppose that’s why many of us drift towards representational paintings — because they promise a story to be told. I like many abstracts because they evoke a feeling, or admiration for their design, but art that contains a narrative (but which you can absorb in your own time, unlike a play, say, or an audiobook) thankfully doesn’t look like going away. The Raphael certainly invites you to look again and again. And it’s a Fresco for All Seasons!

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  3. Great review. I’m happy you enjoyed Clarke’s works. Next stop, Sylvia Townsend Warner: *Lolly Willowes*, and *Kingdoms of Elfin* (the latter is a collection of short stories set in Faerie). And don’t forget Lord Dunsany’s *King of Elfland’s Daughter*, which inspired Gaiman’s *Stardust* (and possibly a good portion of 20th century fantasy writing).


    1. Thanks, Lizzie, I had fun writing it! Those two authors have been on my radar for many years but I never really got round to them. Let’s hope I continue to have a healthy life with all my marbles intact so I can enjoy the mountain of books that are calling to me!

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  4. Sounds like an interesting collection. Clearly I have been living in a cellar for some years because I’ve never even heard of Susanna Clarke. I’m not really a fan of fairy tale, perhaps too many scary Irish tales from my grandmother when I was little. Interesting that the more mechanised/dgitalised our world becomes the more people seem to be drawn to otherwordly tales.


  5. I loved JS and Mr N – adored it. That scene where the sculptures at York Minster speak had goose pimples racing over my skin. And her scholarship – creating that whole world and its background, the style and language she used – were astonishing. I’ve had this little volume sitting. waiting to be read for some time, though. Not sure why – perhaps I was disappointed it was short stories as I’d loved being swallowed by the world of JS and shorts don’t gulp you down in the same way.
    Perhaps I’ll search it out again after your great review. Thanks Chris.
    Tragic if ill health cuts Clake’s career short. I’d read another book from the world of English Magic in a shot.


    1. I was pleased that the TV adaptation was so close to the original Strange & Norrell book — I thought too that they’d done well on screen considering that so much of the novel depends on its literary allusions and references.

      As for this collection, do give it a go, Lynn: there are striking characters, chilling predicaments and dry humour galore. In fact, if you enjoyed the extended footnotes in S&N you may enjoy this too — the stories are almost like footnotes she couldn’t fit into the novel, and strangely enough they seem to hang together well rather than pull against each other as do disjointed or discrete pieces in other collections. I found myself imagining links between most of the individual stories …

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      1. elmediat

        I expanded upon the Dunsany allusion. Beyond the Fields We Know is a collection of fantasy short stories by Irish writer Lord Dunsany, and edited by Lin Carter. The title is derived from a description of the location of the border of Elfland used several times in Lord Dunsany’s best-known novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter.

        Also kudos on the use of Faerie as opposed to Fairy. Though they cover much of the same folklore & literary territory, there are differences in tone and reference between the two. 🙂

        There was a time when I could inhale a book, savouring textures, imagery and layers of meaning. I still read, but often moving in fits and starts. Now, only a few novels are consumed / consume my imagination – most will lie fallow and then rise up a brief garden of delight. Consequently, I have multiple books on the go and go through themed short story anthologies. I will also dip into Project Gutenberg from time to time. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I must get on to those Victorian and post-Victorian writers like Dunsany which I’ve neglected over the years. Short stories are always a good standby for me too — a bit like non-fiction — when I can’t face a lengthy or worthy novel.

          I tend to reserve ‘Faerie’ for the traditional land or or environment inhabited by the Fae, and ‘Fairy’ (derived from Faerie) for modern interpretations, whether for the Fair Folk or their realm.

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