My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you followed Potter through all the years of his Hogswarts residency and found the idea of a secret magical history of England compelling but were not quite carried away by the novels themselves because they were books for kids featuring a tedious, angsty protagonist, then Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell might be the actual history of magic in England for grown-ups that you’ve been looking for. It also helps if you have some experience reading period pieces like Austin’s novels, but none of that is to say you should consider this something like Jane Austin meets Harry Potter.
What Susanna Clarke has done instead in this massive and layered tome is two independent things, both which would have been impressive on their own. Firstly, she creates a believable history of magic in England, stretching from the Middle Ages and complete with footnotes to imaginary (but believable) sources, historical figures, and anecdotes. Secondly, she uses this history as a backdrop for the novel’s actual narrative, the story of the rebirth of magic in England in the early 1800s. But even more impressively, she does these two things simultaneously. The history is woven into the story, and the story is intimately related to the history.
Clarke gives the old England you believed in as a kid (and probably the England many Americans still believe in): fairy princes, sorcerer-kings, and enchantments. But we only get glimpses of this landscape through snatches of histories or accounts of old books given in passing. When the novel opens, all of this has faded away. England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars is a place where gentlemanly societies of magicians practice “theoretical magic” (discussing the history and nature of magic but not working any actual magic). This begins to change when the two magicians of the book’s title arise independently and set about to restore “practical magic” to England, primarily by putting it to service defending the nation against Napoleon.
The characters and setting are expertly constructed, and much of the novel’s effectiveness comes through the rivalry and friendship of the two primary magicians. Strange is young, ambitious, impulsive, and comes to the practice of magic almost by accident. Norrell is overly cautious, introverted, plodding, and arrived at his power by years of careful reading and study. The central conflict of the novel arises over their different approaches to magic: Norrell wants to reinvent or formalize magic as a scientific discipline and rid it of any traces of wild, fairy magic. Strange, on the other hand, is comfortable dabbling in the less controllable aspects of magic. He uses dark magic when necessary on the battlefield beside Lord Wellington, for instance, and he eventually pursues the essence of madness itself in an effort to summon a fairy servant.
These aspects of magic horrify and disgust Norrell. The irony though is that in order to begin his own path to power, Norrell entered into a bargain with a fairy to raise a young woman from the dead. This single lapse comes to haunt Norrell’s entire career. Eventually Norrell’s attempts to deny or cover this up and to keep Strange from embarking along a similar path lead to his ultimate rift with Strange. At the same time, the door this act opened for a malicious fairy to begin working mischief in England must ultimately be closed, at great cost to both magicians. (As an aside, the way Clarke handles the absolutely alien, whimsical, and chilling nature of fairies in this book is another one of its strengths.)
It would be difficult to summarize the entire, immense work, which begins with Norrell’s attempts to make magic respectable and useful to the government and then the actions of Norrell and Strange and their magic in the Napoleonic Wars. In the background of everything though is the looming question of the history of the Raven King, a boy-king who walked out of the lands of Fairie in the Middle Ages, established a kingdom in northern England, and ruled it for three hundred years before departing and taking a good portion of English magic with him. As the results of their own actions, inactions, and misunderstandings grow, Strange and Norrell come to realize they will need to summon help from this wellspring of English magic itself.
Clarke’s book is intimidating in its size. The particular copy I was reading was a paperback advance reading copy that weighed in at exactly 777 pages. This wasn’t the first time I had attempted to get through it. On this attempt though I had a crutch of sorts (in addition to some time in bed with an illness): the recent BBC miniseries. Watching the six-episode miniseries as I read through the book spurred me along and added a layer of engagement and I tried to figure out what had been done differently in the television adaptation and picked out specific speeches or passages pulled out of the book verbatim.
The main problem of the book is its sheer volume. The plot meanders, and though many of these meanders are pleasant and interesting (even the pages-long footnotes from the history of English magic) about midway through the novel things start to get a bit old. There are dozens of characters, and Clarke can’t introduce one without giving several pages of background history of who they are and where they come from. This lends a thickness and verisimilitude to the work, which again is one of its strengths, but it also becomes at points a bit of a slog. That said, all the various plots are tied together nicely in the novel’s climax, but getting there was helped along by being able to stop every couple hundred pages and sit down and watch the next installment of the television version.
Clarke’s tone in the novel is wry. There were parts where I laughed out loud because she captures so perfectly the stuffiness of Norrell and the British ministers and has them interact in ways that seem incredibly droll and believable. Stylistically, her strongest juxtapositions are between the philosophies of Norrell and Strange. Norrell represents a kind of “scientific magic,” perfectly sanitized and reasonable. Strange, on the other hand, discovers the pathways behind mirrors and tries to learn to read the Raven King’s language, which we learn is like barren trees written on a winter sky. He represents the poetry and wonder of magic. It is this tension—between reason and wonder—that is the central engine at the novel’s core, sputtering and coughing and rifted but ultimately renewed, like magic itself.