The International Writers Magazine: Review
shall appear in England
The First shall fear me
The second shall long to behold me
Strange and Mr Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury ISBN 0-7475-7055-8
books in particular await my attention, Eleanor
Rigby by Douglas Coupland and Kafka on the shore
by Haruki Murakami. They still wait. I have been reading Jonathan
Strange and Mr Norrell for weeks now and as
if by a certain black magic although I have actually, remarkably,
reached the end, there is a blackness that envelopes me, prevents
me from picking up another book, a heaviness that stays with me
day after day and yet, like a horse blanket in the depth of winter
is welcome, despite the weight.
A colleague of mine
was amazed I was reading this book, hed read somewhere that is
was bad, another sneered that they wouldnt read anything that
attempted to write in faux 17th Century English. Another because it
was popular. This is possibly why people dislike some 'academics'
It is England around 1790 AD
Mr Norrell, a small, mean-spirited man of means, who lives in Hurtfew
Abbey, somewhere near Doncaster is a magician of some accomplishment.
He alone possesses almost all the books of magic ever written and anything
at all about the Raven King (who once rulled all Northern England almost
a thousand years ago, it is said).
Mr Norrell's one purpose in life it seems is to rid England of all and
any rivals and buy up all the knowledge of magic to prevent anyone learning
anything. To this end he is very successful, tricking a number of theoretical
magicians into disbanding after a spectacular demonstration of magic
in York Cathedral.
Mr Norrell repairs to London, where, he hopes to place magic before
the nation and make it serve the Government. Of course, the Government
is quite indifferent to his grand purpose, this, despite the best efforts
of his supporters, the enthusiastic social climbers Mr Drawlight and
Mr Lascelles. They introduce him to London society, his fame is indeed
spread, but he does little or no magic.
This changes when the wife of Sir Walter Pole dies and Mr Norrell, (employing
some black arts, indeed raises her from the dead). It is this act which
at once is his triumph and final trump card in getting the principles
of Government to take magic seriously and also the seeds of his nemesis.
There is a terrible bargain made with the Fairie King that will be the
ruination of Sir Walters wife.
Mr Norrell is now established as the magician of England
and it is at this moment of triumph that Mr Jonathan Strange comes along.
Altogether different in character, with a lovely wife. He is personable,
(and although hasnt been able to read many book on magic thanks
to Mr Norrell) he has flair and talent for magic that far surpasses
Mr Norrell. Despite this, he becomes Mr Norrell's pupil (in part because
Mr Norrell wishes to thwart the progress of Mr Strange).
Magic, in the hands of these two men, is, at last, pressed into service
for the nation. Mainly to keep Napoleon in check, but also to prevent
flooding, fires and other catastrophes.
(There is a rather nice moment when Mr Strange visits Portsmouth to
get a Naval vessel off the sandspit where she is grounded and the odd
consequences of his experiments with sand which cause some irritation
with the Navy).
That we believe all this is astonishing, that it is credible and absolutely
mesmerising is amazing, that all this is accomplished by a first time
novelist is terrifying. The compelling narrative grips from the start
and with wonderful and strange, extraordinary characters it keeps us
in its vice for the whole journey.
When Mr Norrell contrives to be rid of his rival, Jonathan Strange is
sent to Portugal to assist the Duke of Wellington against the French.
Certainly we would never have won without Mr Stranges help, this
is sure. Wellington is hard to win over, but once convinced by Strange
with some remarkable road making (that disappear once the soldiers have
marched upon them) he remains loyal and a fierce supporter of magic
in battle. When in 1815 Mr Strange is recalled to Belgium to aide Wellington
once again, the vivid colours and action and details of the Battle of
Waterloo are remarkable pieces of writing and magic or not, transform
Indeed such is the reputation of Jonanthan Strange he is consulted to
help cure the real King's madness, but he knows that is impossible.
Nevertheless he gains some insight into the working of the Faire King
from this episode and madness is a portent of things to come.
In London, however, Mr Norrell has an enemy, the fairie king he made
the fateful bargain with at the beginning over Lady Pole is growing
ever more ambitious. He lives in an invisible palace called Lost-Hope
adjoining Sir Walters home and night after night Lady Pole and
Stephen Black the butler are forced to dance and keep him entertained.
The Fairie King is obsessed with raising the Butler to become King of
England and Sir Walters wife to become his own. Later his greed
grows and he desires Jonathan Stranges ladywife as well.
Neither magician is aware of the growing menace, obsessed as they are
with each other and their rivalry. Strange is developing his skills
fast and just in time discovers the Kings Road (the Raven Kings direct
routes between places which involves large mirrors) because he discovers
treachery in one of Mr Norrell's cohorts. Strange wishes to liberate
magic so all may practice it in England. Norrell seeks to keep it all
to himself and prevent all knowledge of the Raven King.
At nearly 800 pages Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is captivating,
an adult Philip Pullman if you will with shades of Anna Kavan with the
relentless social detail of Jane Austen. Every setting in London and
Europe in the 1800s is convincing and it is peopled with citizens
who are endlessly curious and gullible and that is exactly right.
Is it too long? perhaps, but it is totally absorbing. When at last the
magicians are pitted against each other, one brooding in London and
another driving himself mad in Italy, with his wife spirited away by
the Fairie King, somehow all loose ends are tied together and you find
yourself adrift on a cold windswept moor, unable to find your way home
again, unwilling to pick up another story, in case, there is more, a
nugget, a chapter you somehow missed, mislaid, or one that was magicked
away when you were out of the room.
You wouldn't want to go there, but certainly, once in Mr Norrells
world, you dont want to leave.
© Sam North Feb 2005
is the author of the historical novel Diamonds
The Rush of 72
all rights reserved