Beyond superlative

raven
Detail of raven from a print by Alison Fennell: “Constellation Raven”

Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Bloomsbury 2007 (2005)

Here is a homage to Regency literature that surpasses mere pastiche. Here is an alternate history that makes one doubt the history one knows. Here too is a fantasy for those who hate fantasy. Here, in short, is great literature — involving as well as immersive, and above all beautifully written. It certainly deserves its accolades, both public and individual.

This is a story about the revival of English magic in the early 19th century brought about by the foremost magicians of the age. This is also a story about the dangers attached to re-awakening dormant forces that one may not understand, let alone control. All those Arabian Nights stories about the perils of letting the genie out of the bottle or of unwittingly killing the genie’s son by carelessly discarding date stones are reminders that fairy folk and their peers are not to be trifled with unless you know what you’re letting yourself in for. So it proves for Gilbert Norrell and for his pupil Jonathan Strange.

But Strange and Norrell aren’t the only ones to suffer unwelcome interest from that quarter — there are the innocents such as Lady Pole, the butler Stephen Black and even Mrs Strange — and this is where Susanna Clarke has excelled herself. She knows her fairy lore, Irish, Welsh and Scottish as well as English, and she knows about the contracts that entail from any contact, whether witting or unwitting, with the Sidhe, Tylwyth Teg or the Unseelie Court. She also is familiar with and fond of Georgian and Regency literature and so is able to frame her retellings of fairytales as if told by, say, Jane Austen or Laurence Sterne.

The first ‘volume’ focuses on Gilbert Norrell, and he comes across as a cold fish: vain where his powers are concerned he is determined to have no rivals, ruthlessly acquiring all copies of key works on magic and disparaging any potential upstarts. At one point he really goes beyond the pale and appears to lose any lingering sympathy we might have had for him. We learn from the second ‘volume’ that Jonathan Strange is a a different kettle of fish: a comfortably off dilletante he eventually settles on magic as his chosen hobby, after which he becomes every bit as obsessed with the craft as the man who reluctantly takes him on as his pupil. But where Mr Norrell is staid and reclusive Strange is exuberant and outgoing, even travelling as far as Spain to aid the Duke of Wellington in his Peninsular war against the French.

A professional rivalry appears to take centre stage, were it not for Norrell’s ill-advised bringing of Lady Pole back from the dead. Having drawn the attention of an unnamed Gentleman with Thistledown Hair the self-proclaimed foremost English magician must take responsibility for all that then follows. The Gentleman becomes enamoured with Lady Pole, then Stephen Black, coercing them to attend his nightly balls; he even spirits away the one person whom Jonathan Strange should prize above all others. There seems to be no way to extricate any of these from the several plights that befall them, a conundrum that energetically drives the plot in its later stages.

Despite the title there are several other vividly-drawn characters that draw our attention. Apart from the amoral and vindictive Gentleman we have Lascelles and Drawlight, two rascally individuals who hope to cash in on Norrell’s social naivety and growing prestige; you have to hope that they will get their come-uppance (though I latterly had some sympathy for the unfortunate Drawlight). Norrell’s servant Childermass is an extraordinary creation — cunning and yet blunt, loyal and resourceful — one whom I wanted to hear more about. Vinculus the soothsayer was another intriguing personage, along with the “unnamed slave” Stephen Black who is destined to become a king, just not in the way we expect. One could go on — it is to Clarke’s credit that these disparate individuals (and a few others) not only remain distinctive but encourage us to engage with them.

raven sutton hoo
Raven detail from Sutton Hoo shield

Constantly alluded to yet barely present is the enigmatic John Uskglass, the Raven King (Volume III is named for him). Like his Viking predecessors his war-flag or guðfani had as an emblem a raven in flight; the largest of the corvids of course has enjoyed a long mythic, even Otherworldly association. In the author’s parallel history John Uskglass ruled an independent kingdom encompassing the North of England, set in place not long after the Norman Conquest, and though presumed in human terms to be long dead he has not been entirely lost to human tradition. Imagine a raven flying high over a desolate landscape, as if in a Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting: a distant silhouette emitting a doleful cronk neatly symbolises the far-reaching and almost baleful influence Uskglass wields over English magic.

Clarke’s canvas is magnificent, not only in treatment but also in range: we travel from London thoroughfares inhabited by popinjays to the sparse wilds of the Yorkshire moors, from the battle-scarred Spanish countryside to the narrow calli and murky canals of Venice, from the liminal county of Shropshire in the Welsh Marches to the limbo realm that is Faerie. And yet hers is the view seen through a powerful magnifying glass, the precise observations of a smart Regency female and natural philosopher: it’s noteworthy that while she comments on the self-inflicted disasters brought about by so-called rational men it’s the women — particularly Arabella Strange, Lady Pole and Flora Greysteel –who have the potential to transition from seemingly weak unwilling victims to unexpected but stronger survivors.

Strange & Norell is beyond superlative. There is so much to enjoy — and I haven’t even discussed the footnotes, which almost form a parallel narrative, or questions of morality, which arise almost on every other page. If you’ve read the novel you will know why this is an outstanding achievement; and if you haven’t the only way to know if my statement is true is to read it yourself. I promise you won’t regret it.

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13 thoughts on “Beyond superlative

  1. earthbalm

    I too loved the book. I bought it in York after watching the filming of some scenes for the TV series just off Goodram Gate. It’s such a brilliant fusion of all kinds of myth, philosophy, genres and styles. I loved the book’s footnotes which make reference to other (imaginary) texts.

    “Strange & Norell is beyond superlative. There is so much to enjoy — and I haven’t even discussed the footnotes, which almost form a parallel narrative, or questions of morality, which arise almost on every other page. If you’ve read the novel you will know why this is an outstanding achievement; and if you haven’t the only way to know if my statement is true is to read it yourself. I promise you won’t regret it.”

    I have to agree with you.

      1. earthbalm

        You are welcome. The book was amongst those I’ve put aside for you so I think I’ll hang on to it and come back to it some time in the future for a re-read.

        1. Wish I had the original hardback, that would be worth hanging onto! But then I wouldn’t have this paperback edition with a superb intro by Audrey Niffenegger or the Reading Guide with Clarke’s suggested further reading that includes Austen, The Earthsea Trilogy, China Mieville, Dickens, LOTR, Gaiman, Garner, Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci books … and a host of other stuff I’ve either read or planned on reading; shows clearly what her influences and models were!

  2. Great review, Chris.

    Love your enthusiasm for the book – which I wholeheartedly share. Totally gorgeous in every way, from tone to ideas to characterisation to the worlds she creates, the book is truly a masterpiece. I loved Childermass too – he could easily sustain a novel of his own. Though there was a large part of me that wanted to bash the titular characters’ heads together for their self absorption and the huge mess they create in their search for English Magic, I wanted to read more, to see what happens to JS in the end.

    Sadly that seems unlikely to happen, though with this book, Clarke confirmed she is a brilliant writer even if she never types another letter.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. So glad you enjoyed this, Lynn. While it’s never fair to compare a book and a TV adaptation, I thought the broadcast version brought more sympathy to Norrell’s character in the final act, bringing out what was latent in the text; I actually felt quite sorry for Gilbert, while the book suggests they are happy to work together to pursue their hobby/life’s work. Great piece of work, nevertheless!

      1. Yes, he’s the harder of the too to sympathise with – JS makes more amends as I recall than Norrell. But Clarke certainly knows her fairy fiction, doesn’t she? So often the one who makes the pact with the fairy folk isn’t the only one to suffer. Yes, lovely stuff indeed. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Patient as a stone | Word Shamble

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