Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

by Susanna Clarke

Cover image

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Copyright: 2004
ISBN: 1-58234-416-7
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 782

Buy at Powell's Books

Magic has a grand tradition and sweeping impact on English history, leaving behind not only extensive works of scholarship but political remnants, including a Northern England that is still ruled in theory by John Uskglass, the Raven King, even if he has been inexplicably absent for hundreds of years. It is not, however, something that is still done. It has politely passed out of the realm of gentleman and into the realm of frauds and street con-men, due mostly to the inability of anyone to properly perform it.

Anyone, that is, except for the reclusive Mr. Norrell, the foremost (and least communicative) scholar of magic in the kingdom, whose primary devotion is to the acquiring of every book about magic available so that they will not be misused by lesser lights with inferior understandings. Mr. Norrell may sound like a shadowy and mysterious power; instead, he is more the petty schoolmaster and irascible museum curator who does not want anyone looking at his displays unless they have exactly the correct attitude. He has taught himself to perform magic through his extensive research, but is extremely careful in how he performs it. There are, after all, proper ways to do these things.

Norrell, despite his ability to dispense with the community of purely theoretical magicians, simply does not have the personality to attract attention at court and pursue his grand plan of reviving English magic. Not, that is, until he attracts the attention of all of London in one stroke by resurrecting the wife of a prominent nobleman. The dark and extremely secret bargain that he strikes with a fairy to do this, a type of magic that he decries even more vehemently from that point onward, forms the core of the eventual main plot that does develop, but not until much later.

Enter, at this juncture, Jonathan Strange, a forthright and charming fellow who is Norrell's opposite in personality but not in interest. When he acquires his own magic, the only working magic in the kingdom independent of Norrell's, he eventually seeks out Norrell to get access to the library that he holds exclusively. In a surprising and then very insightful turn, Norrell, breaking suddenly from his previous behavior, welcomes Strange as a pupil. Finally, someone to talk to intelligently, and someone who can help revive the practice of English magic properly!

And so it goes. That summarizes but the first few hundred pages of Clarke's sprawling debut novel, a monumental, detailed achievement full of small events that are never rushed. It is at times a comedy of manners with magic, and at other times a pre-Victorian fantasy of the intrusion of fey lands and fey concerns, no less threatening for being frequently understated and subtle. Clarke succeeds admirably in her intended construction, and whether that results in delight or frustration depends on one's personal tastes, mood, and perhaps the angle of the light by which one reads it.

Strange & Norrell, perhaps most infuriatingly, steadfastly refuses to go anywhere quickly. This story is about texture more than plot, and the portrait of the world is lovingly uncovered brushstroke by brushstroke, enhanced with various jaunts, adventures, side stories, and interesting scenes that bear only a passing relationship to any primary storyline. There is a villain, imperiled innocents, a plot against the country and king, even a climatic magical battle, but if you're reliant on such things to keep up your interest in a book, this one will be a long slog. The text, but for some ellipticism and a few carefully chosen archaic spellings, is easily readable, but there are nearly 800 pages of it and most of that attention is not lavished on plot. When I was in the mood for it, I loved taking a slow stroll through the world; when I wasn't, I was wishing that Clarke would get on with it already.

Where this book shines, however, is in the convincing portrayal of history. This is in some respects an alternative history, the story of another world in which magic plays a formative role in England, but delightfully it avoids any extended recitation of alternative events. In fact, the details of history are sparse and conveyed incidentally, leaving sufficient room for the reader's imagination and sense of wonder to add any necessary details. Instead, the sense of depth is derived from the entirely fictional history of magic.

Both main characters are, above all else, scholars of magic. They frequently cite their predecessors, debate the merits of different interpretations and positions, analyze the truth of dubious records, and argue over the safety of lines of inquiry and experimentation. In short, they act far more like real scholars than any of the scholarly mages that fill fantasy novels. Combine this with the fiction that this novel is itself a scholarly work of magic history written some decades later, giving rise to the frequent, amusing, and excellently-written footnotes that expand on these frequent debates, and you have history construction through core sampling. The richness and depth of the entirely fictional history of magic infuses all of Clarke's world, giving it a sense of reality and grounding far beyond that of more exhaustive constructions. This could be dry and boring if done poorly, but it is not. Slow, yes, but even the apocryphal stories related in footnotes are suffused with a dry and extremely English sense of wonder.

Neil Gaiman has famously described Strange & Norrell as "the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years." I join other reviewers in noting that by English Gaiman almost certainly does not mean "written by someone from England," but rather is attempting to capture the inherent Englishness of the story. Despite adventures in France, Italy, and elsewhere on the continent, this is a story about English magic, English scholarship, English history, English concerns. It deservedly won a Mythopoeic Award and evokes mental images of the Inklings' scholarship as much as their fiction. Oxford dons, pipe smoke, and uniquely British mythology are well-served.

Pacing is one of the most difficult aspects of fiction writing to get right, and normally for a first novel I would be noting a few standard failures that will hopefully improve in later attempts. Here, though, that would not be quite honest; while I found the pacing at times glacial, I believe this was fully intentional rather than a failure of craft. With the exception of the somewhat irrelevant Italian adventures that slow, perhaps unnecessarily, the final burst of action, Clarke's refusal to allow the plot a running start seems a calculated effect. Others clearly adored this; I was less impressed, but will still praise the evident skill.

If I wasn't as enamoured of the pace, or of the strangely unsatisfying ending that failed to provide much emotional release (but left room for subsequent volumes to be appended), I can only praise the characterization. Mr. Norrell is a wonderfully complex character whom one slowly warms to despite a myriad of repeatedly demonstrated flaws, and Strange, despite starting neatly in the mold of brave and likeable hero, manages to escape it and become as isolated in his own way as Norrell is by personality. Their connection evolves believably through the story and is one of the better portrayals of deep friendship between academic rivals that I've read. All of those pages aren't wasted; Clarke's brushstrokes are not purely ornamental.

I recommend trying this book to anyone who reads fantasy, in the full knowledge that some portion will fall in love and some portion will put it aside in boredom. It is very much not to everyone's taste, and in fact is somewhat not to mine, but it is still a notable achievement. Give it a try, but perhaps via a library or a friend; you may not want to commit until you see how well the first few hundred pages draw you in.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-09-15

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21