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The International Writers Magazine
: Review

Two magicians shall appear in England
The First shall fear me
The second shall long to behold me

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
by Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury ISBN 0-7475-7055-8

wo 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, he’d read somewhere that is was bad, another sneered that they wouldn’t read anything that attempted to write in faux 17th Century English. Another because it was ‘popular’. This is possibly why people dislike some 'academics' so much.

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 Walter’s 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 hasn’t 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 Strange’s 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 historical writing.

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 Walter’s 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 Walter’s wife to become his own. Later his greed grows and he desires Jonathan Strange’s 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 1800’s 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 Norrell’s world, you don’t want to leave.
© Sam North Feb 2005

Sam North is the author of the historical novel Diamonds – The Rush of ‘72

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