Ashton, bookseller at Harry Hartog Miranda, writes about his most recent read, Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell."
“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange.
Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question.
“I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”
The year is 1806. George III is King of England, Napoleon brings war and conquest against the non-French peoples of the world, and magic is no longer done in England. Magic in Regency England is only spoken and written about by a very sober and unimaginative group of individuals who call themselves theoretical magicians, which is a roundabout way of saying that they are not magicians at all – merely glorified magical historians. The claim to fame of Johnathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell, apart from appearing in the novel’s title, is that they are the first practical magicians in England since time out of mind – which is to say that they can do a bit of magic.
Susanna Clarke makes brilliant use of her chosen context and has a practiced mastery of tone as she faithfully draws on the literary traditions and conventions of the period in a delicious pastiche. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is alternately a fantasy novel, gothic tale, comedy-of-manners, alternative history, and historical fiction; playing all of these roles to great aplomb. Clarke's wit is simultaneously dry and sparkling, especially when her novel plays the part of comedy-of-manners, inhabiting drawing rooms and parlours, peopled by caricatures with the ghosts of Austen and Dickens looking on approvingly.
The novel’s gothic pangs can be felt in the treatment of magic, a force of nature which is simultaneously wondrous and terrifying. Much of the most fantastical feats of magic in the book are accompanied by a distinct sense of wrongness and severe consequence: associated with madness, death, oppression, and the night. Fairies, as beings of much finer and purer magical sensibilities, to whom English magicians owe much, are not the beautiful and benevolent fey folk that inhabit modern consciousness. Instead, they are amoral and protean: dangerous, seductive, and ill-understood.
Perhaps because of magic’s unknowable quality, Clarke, in a dazzling feat of creative world-building, creates a meticulous invented history of magical scholarship, replete with famous magicians, books of magic, and fairy tales. This history is conveyed through footnotes throughout the book, some even going on for several pages. Some may find these footnotes an off-putting indulgence on the author’s part, and I daresay that I would usually agree, but I could not help but be charmed by the obvious love and enthusiasm that suffuses them. They seem to burst off the page with intense and feverish imagination: an entire world beaming out the pages, unable to be contained. Moreover, the footnotes give the novel a much-needed sense of magical realism, giving the magical world legitimacy over our real world, despite the inclusion of historical figures such as George III, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, and the Duke of Wellington. Such is the extent of this magical realism, and so complete the primacy of the fantasy world, that, in order to truly understand the book, one needs to first understand the detailed history that Clarke has created for her world. One story, for instace, is of particular importance...
Cast your minds back to the Middle Ages. Imagine an aristocratic Norman family that owns land in the North of England. Now, imagine, as you may have already, that that family has enemies who covet their land: dynastic struggle, intrigue and betrayal, death, and a lone orphan left to die in the woods. This is the story of the origins of the Raven King, whisked from the woods by fairies and raised as a nameless slave in one of their kingdoms, where he received a magical education. At least, that is the story by the Raven King’s own account… Much about the Raven King is uncertain, including his origins. When he returns to conquer Northern England, he claims John Uskglass, the lord of the deposed Norman family, as his father and namesake, but this is much debated by magical historians. What is certain is that the Raven King ruled for some 300 years, until, for reasons unknown, he vanished, abandoning England and his throne and taking all of English magic with him. A pall of august and capricious mystery lies across the Raven King, part historical and part legendary, which leads characters of the novel to wonder at and fear him in equal measure.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is as much a book about the Raven King as about the titular Strange and Norrell. No, he’s not in the title (unless, as Neil Gaiman quips “he hides behind the ampersand”, which I sincerely believe he does) his shadow lies across all of it; they are his actions, his prophecies and compacts that reach across the temporal divide and set much of the plot in motion. Primarily, it is the question of the King’s legacy that begets the ideological conflict at the book’s heart: a philosophical face-off between Messrs Strange and Norrell with the future of magic and the nature of Englishness at stake. Gilbert Norrell is a priggish scholar possessed of prodigious magical learning who yearns to make magic “respectable”. He excoriates the foreign and fickle fairy magic of the Raven King as not only disreputable and un-English, but as treacherous, and altogether too wild for comfort. Norrell fears the Raven King and his influence. Jonathan Strange, however, is cast from a very different mold than Norrell: he is young, charming, and Romantic where Norrell is middle-aged, conceited, and tedious. A short-lived student of Norrell’s, Strange comes to openly revere the Raven King, whose magical legacy Strange views as England’s heritage and a fundamental part of its character.
The novel sees Strange evolve into a dark and driven Byronic hero who despises Norrell, who himself becomes a deeply naïve and sympathetic villain. In the end, however, they will both need to overcome their differences and work together if they are not to defeat the fairy threat that is ensorcelling British subjects and usher English magic into the modern age.