Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 22, 2020
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Aside from its award wins and nominations (see next paragraph), there are several other things that distinguish Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, not the least of which is that it was a debut novel, and it took her more than ten years to complete. Another is its complexity and length. I have a suspicion that if Clarke was American any US publisher would have talked her into making it a trilogy. It is in three volumes, each of which are more than novel length. The trade paperback I have is almost 800 pages, and other editions have been more than 1000. My copy has very small print, and the many footnotes are in an even smaller font. So small that my eyes could only take reading for short periods, so I borrowed the e-book from the library (for which I could increase the font size), only to find the footnotes were held to the very end of the file, and the footnote numbers did not act as a link to that section. I compromised by also getting the audible version, wherein the narrator (Simon Prebble) noted when he was referencing a footnote, and used a different tone of voice, but I wish he had also added an "end of footnote" comment. I was following along in the e-book since I don't process purely audible content as well as I do print. Some footnotes are very short, but the majority are at least a quarter page in the paperback, some half a page or more, a select few span multiple pages. Some of the longer ones could have been short stories on their own.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell's award wins include the Hugo, World Fantasy, Locus (for first novel, also nominated for fantasy novel), Mythopoeic, the SF Site readers poll, the Geffen for its Hebrew translation, Time magazine's Book of the Year, and Ms. Clarke was named Newcomer of the Year by the British Book Awards. It was also a finalist for Nebula, British Fantasy, British SF, International Horror Guild, and the inaugural Xatafi-Cyberdark in Spanish translation.
According to wikipedia, Neil Gaiman promoted the book as "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years." He later clarified, when asked about Tolkien, that he did not consider The Lord of the Rings to be English fantasy, but rather high fantasy. That distinction is important here. It is set primarily in England during and after the Napoleonic Wars, with references to earlier eras. Written in the style of the period, a cross between a magical romance and an historical document, Clarke addresses, but also skirts around, the quintessential English attitudes of arrogance and superiority. Colonialism is mentioned, but neither defended or condemned, except in a few comments by various characters. Not everything is historical however, since this is an alternate reality, one in which magic was once prominent in England, with several attempting to bring the magic back. Centuries before the main action there had been an infant stolen and taken to Faerie, where he learned magic. When he returned to England he gathered an army and conquered most of the north, and for many years he ruled as its king, while the southern half of the country was ruled by the succession of kings we know from our history. Known as the Black King, the King of the North, or most often the Raven King, his true name was never known, although he did adopt the name John Uskglass, from a dead nobleman he claimed as father. After many years of rule he disappeared, along with his castle, presumably returning to Faerie. In the several hundred years since then other magicians attempted to recreate Uskglass's spells, including Martin Pale and Ralph Stokesey. They also eventually disappeared, along with their homes and other possessions, but a few books survived, and others were written later.
Gilbert Norrell had collected as many of those books as he could find, jealously guarding them in the library of his home which had been converted from the old Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire. Many other gentlemen considered themselves magicians, but only theoretically, content to read, or in some cases write, histories of earlier magicians. Norrell was a practical magician, since his books contained many of the spells developed by those earlier magicians, and he had adapted many for his own purposes. One of his spells protected his library as if it was in a labyrinth, accessible only by the right steps and turns, known only to him. A group of Yorkshire magicians invite him to join their group, but Norrell had no intention of doing so. Instead he challenged them to allow him to exhibit his magic skills, and if he was successful they must vow to give up their pursuit of magic. Only one of them, John Segundus, refuses to sign the declaration. Norrell, of course, does show them remarkable, verifiable, indisputable magic. Segundus is persuaded to write the London press about the incident, then goes off to pursue his own path, returning to the story later. His letter brings Norrell to the attention of government and military leaders, who implore him to help in their campaigns against Napoleon.
Volume Two is devoted to Jonathan Strange, although he had made a couple of brief appearances in the first part. He becomes a pupil of Norrell's, but since Norrell is reticent to leave England, or even London after he moved there, Strange journeys to the continent to aid the Duke of Wellington in Portugal and Spain, then later at Waterloo. A rivalry develops between the two magicians, since Norrell is still jealous of his knowledge, allowing Strange access to just a few books. Strange wants to know more about Uskglass, Norrell warns him that pursuit is too dangerous, and besides, Uskglass had abandoned England, and Norrell felt he should be forgotten. Strange contends that all the magic they are aware of originated with Uskglass. Both are stubborn, both make mistakes which they are reluctant to admit, or to remedy. The rivalry escalates to the point Norrell destroys, through magic, a book Strange has written and published, retaining only one copy for himself.
There are multiple other characters important to both magicians, some historical, such as the previously mentioned Wellington, Napoleon, other military and government figures, even Lord Byron and Polidori, whom Jonathan Strange meets during a holiday to Geneva in Volume Three. Also King George III, whom Strange visits in the madhouse, in an attempt to magic away his affliction. Norrell had several supporters, some of whom later betray him; his servant John Childermass, along with Christopher Drawlight and Henry Lascelles, neither of whom are magicians, they just like being seen in the company of Norrell now that he is considered the pinnacle of English magic. John Uskglass might even have made an appearance toward the end. Or did he? Throughout the book there were at least four I suspected might be Uskglass in disguise, including Childermass, Stephen Black, butler to Sir Walter Pole, and a street magician named Vinculus. The final suspect was a fairy only ever identified as "the Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair," who was connected to a spell Norrell had cast early in Volume One. I will neither confirm or deny if either of them were more than they seemed. Other important characters are the Lady Pole, wife of Sir Walter, Strange's wife Arabella, and several members of the Greysteel family, whom Strange meets in Venice later in his European holiday.
If I was to criticize anything, which I don't really want to do, is it should have been shorter, more tightly edited, including several of the footnotes. There were several instances when I felt she abandoned a story line too soon, took too long to get back to it, or concentrated on an event I didn't think was as important. Then again, everything adds up to paint vivid portraits of the two rival magicians, their personalities, their hopes, and their dreams. It is unfortunate that both were so self-absorbed they neglected other things just as important, and thus they lost the loyalty, or at least the companionship, of some they should have cherished more dearly. After all was said and done, there were those in England, and possibly other countries, that considered themselves to be either Norrellites or Strangites. I wouldn't align with either, although that might change if the oft-spoken of sequel is ever published, but it has been sixteen years, and Clarke has published only a few short stories and one novel, this year's much shorter Piranesi, since 2004. This came out after I created this site, although in a year I didn't read much due to a heavy work load. Due to peculiarites of Nebula eligibility, it was finalist for that award the year after it won the Hugo. For 2004, I've read just two of the other finalists, one of them just this year. For the following year, it's only three others, and those were several years later too. Not having read as much as I would have liked, both then and previously, I can't echo Neil Gaiman's sentiments with confidence, nor can I say it's better than the unread finalists those years. I can say it is an excellent novel, informative, evocative, richly detailed, and I recommend it highly. While I usually don't care for audio books, I can recommend this for those who do. Simon Prebble's rich British accent is very good on the exposition, and with altered accents for the various characters, including the ladies. He is an actor as well as audio narrator, but not for the recent BBC adaptation of the book, which I will be watching soon. It will have to be very, very good to equal the quality of Ms. Clarke's prose.
EDIT: I've now watched the series, and while it is condensed and a few minor things were changed, it is equally excellent, and recommended. Check out my new review.
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