Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
US Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 09-08-2004
782 Pages; $27.95
Date Reviewed: 09-08-04
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004
It's tempting to dismiss fantasy as lightweight literature because, after all, the author's just made it up. Invention, in this view, is no substitute for scholarship. But fantastic invention itself can become scholarship, as demonstrated by authors as diverse as J. R. R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert. The best fantasies are those in which the author has created an alternate world, and from that world, simply selected a story to tell. The trouble is, that creating an alternate world is a time-consuming task. The reward for telling a story set in your alternate world is uncertain. And yet, there are certainly rewards for the risks.
Susanna Clarke spent over ten years re-creating the world we knew, and readers may now reap the rewards of her efforts in the form of her first novel 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell'. Like many of the great fantasies, this novel reveals itself to be a work of great scholarship. Clarke has gone back and carefully re-invented English history as we know it. Into our mundane world, she's inserted magic and a sort of alternate universe inhabited by sinister faeries. Her history with magic starts long before the novel itself begins, in 1806. But that history haunts every page, overshadows every conversation. As we read 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell', we sense the immensity of tradition, of lore, of stories and tales that populate Clarke's revised reality. Moreover, we actually get to read a fair number of them in footnotes to the text itself. Clarke's scholarship doesn't stop behind the scenes. She brings it up front and makes it thoroughly enjoyable.
'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' does not simply rest on its scholarship. Having made the world anew, Clarke decides to tell her first story from that world in a manner appropriate to the setting. She writes in a style reminiscent of the great Victorian novelists, particularly Charles Dickens. Readers hoping to find slick bestseller-style prose amidst these pages will be sorely disappointed. While Clarke does smooth out the diction and avoids some of the stylistic excesses that make Dickens tough sledding for the average reader, she does adopt the grammar and even the spelling found in novels written nearly two centuries ago. She laces her story with footnotes and asides, histories and fairy tales from the alternate history that she has so carefully created. With every word, every phrase, Clarke immerses the reader in her world.
Having arrived in that world at page one, the reader will find that this particular novel recounts the exploits and experiences of two magicians who try to resurrect the almost lost tradition of magic, beginning in the year 1806. The first man we meet, Gilbert Norrell, is a snappish, insecure scholar who has amassed a collection of nearly every known text on the subject of magic. He alone, in the "modern" world of 1806, has the ability to actually practice, as opposed to study, magic. But Norrell is petty and rather cowardly. Only when he's conned the other magicians in York out of their volumes and ability to practice magic does he actually do anything. Having succeeded once, he moves to London to once again bring back the tradition of English magic. He intends to do this entirely by himself, deliberately excluding all other magicians. Every success is tinged by the anxiety that someone else might learn his secrets. Eventually, he does take on one gentleman as a student, Jonathan Strange. Strange manages to elude Gilbert Norrell's paranoia. Norrell has made a deal with "the thistle-haired gentleman", a supernatural swindler who hails from the land of Faerie and beyond. It's a deal that will have consequence for Norrell, Strange and England itself.
While the title characters certainly occupy the center of the narrative, the twists in the heart of Clarke's magical alternate history are her elegant and shrewd faeries. Represented mainly by "the thistle-haired gentleman", Clarke's faeries allow the author to inject a beautifully realized dollop of the surreal into her already unreal story. These faeries aren't winged bathing beauties. They're nasty, sneaky supernatural con-men with powers that become more clearly defined as the narrative progresses and they are revealed to the two protagonists. Reminiscent of those found in the work of the great English writer Arthur Machen, these faeries have their own agenda, and suck several characters into a soul-draining netherworld. But they're incredibly entertaining to read about and fascinating foils for the nascent magicians Norrell and Strange.
Though the novel is quite large, the cast of characters here is admirably restrained. One might expect that a novel which so precisely evokes the feel of Victorian literature would need a page to list the cast of characters, there's none to be found here simply because none it needed. This is not to say that the characters are all enjoyable. Norrell, for all that he's in the title, is particularly annoying. It's a deliberate annoyance on the author's part, so much so that readers might wish the man himself were about so they could slap him and knock some sense into his silly head. Strange is a much more dashing figure, rushing off to war to practice magic in scenes that are quite inventive when Clarke allows them to play out in front of the reader. In the best tradition, a number of secondary characters manage to acquire three dimensions in the pages of this novel.
In a novel this large, where immersion is the name of the game, plot is something of a second-tier literary device. And, as such, it's rather fitful, popping up here for a sequence of war scenes, there for some scenes of supernatural seduction and rushing in at the end with everyone and everything. Readers expecting a series of escalating magical duels with spells substituting for guns will be disappointed. Instead, Clarke allows the more subtle threat of the surreal invasion from the world of Faerie to elude the notice of almost everybody within the narrative. For readers who enjoy being submerged in a world where the boundaries between the real and the unreal have been demolished, it's a great delight.
Clarke allows the scholarship required to create this novel show through in numerous and highly enjoyable pieces of metafictional invention, a sort of prose equivalent to spells that she calls "epitomes", that is small sub-spells that are embedded in a larger spell to make it more potent. That is precisely what she does with her many footnotes and asides. These footnotes are remarkably enjoyable, not only as stories and examples of fairy tales as precursors to the urban legend, but also as glimpses of the wider world behind this novel. They hint at histories untold and stories to be told. They effectively cement the edges of this novel and allow it to be a hermetic whole, unbreeched and unbreechable.
'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is such a large novel, so complex and so powerfully conceived, that it will be years before we can know the final effect. Sure, it may only take a week or two to read, but readers will be unpacking the world Clarke creates within their minds for years to come, and even have a series of handy footnotes to refer to should their memories of the novel start to fail. Frankly, that's quite unlikely. 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is certainly vivid and memorable enough to last the unfortunate span of time that will stretch until Ms. Clarke offers us her next invention.