JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL
BY SUSANNA CLARKE
ILLUSTRATED BY PORTIA ROSENBERG
Bloomsbury, $27.95, 782 pages, Illus.
REVIEWED BY NICK FREEMAN
This season’s “must-have literary accessory,” is Susanna Clarke’s lavishly hyped “Harry Potter for adults,” “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.” An epic tale of feuding magicians in early 19th century England, it blends fantasy and history in a story that sweeps from talking statues in a Yorkshire church to the Napoleonic battlefields and on to Faerie-land itself. There’s something for almost everyone here, but Bloomsbury’s lavish promotional campaign shouldn’t distract potential readers from the novel’s weaknesses.
In assessing the book, reviewers have been quick to wheel out their usual responses to a “fantasy” novel, trying to situate it somewhere between the standard reference points of Tolkien and Mervyn Peake. The first represents epic quests, stirring heroism, moral polarities, and no sex, the second, creepy gothic effects, quirky character names and grotesque detail.
In this scheme, Jonathan Strange is closer to Peake, but the resemblance is only superficial. Norrell’s servant, Childermass, would be quite at home in Gormenghast castle, but Peake’s characterizations and underlying themes are rather subtler than Ms. Clarke’s. It would be more accurate to say that this novel is what would result from a less psychologically acute Jane Austen trying to retell Peake’s “Titus Groan.” If you can imagine such a thing, then you should appreciate the book’s audacious mixture of Georgian society novel and dark fantasy.
The novel opens in England in a version of 1807. The Prime Minister is still Lord Liverpool, the Napoleonic Wars drag on, and English social niceties are as constrictive as ever, but these nods to fact conceal a “back story” that gives a very different history of the British Isles. In the Middle Ages, Britain was divided into two kingdoms. The familiar monarchs of historical record ruled the south, but the north was in the hands of a magician, John Uskglass, the Raven King. Centuries later, magic is only a fading memory, but Uskglass lingers in the popular imagination, a figure like King Arthur who will, it is said, return to rule the land once more. In the meantime, magic has become the purely academic preserve of a few die-hard scholars. These men (and magic does seem a male preserve throughout) might call themselves magicians, but they are largely antiquarian pedants more interested in book collecting than spell craft.
The exception to this rule is Mr Norrell, a dour obsessive who has the greatest magical library in England. Norrell is however, no mere bookworm. He is also an awesome practical magician, the finest for several hundred years. Demonstrating his skills by animating the statues in York Minster, Norrell forces his rivals to abandon the study of magic so that he can have the field entirely to himself. At first all goes well, but when Norrell moves to London, his life becomes increasingly complicated. He is drawn into a world of self-seeking fops familiar from Austen or Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” but is also haunted by a mysterious prophecy of the Raven King’s return. Worse still, his magic summons a sinister denizen of Faerie-land, “the man with thistle-down hair.” with whom he strikes a dangerous bargain and who will spend the rest of the novel plotting his destruction.
Summarized in this way, the initial 191 pages might seem beguiling, but be warned. The novel spends an awfully long time in low gear, with the first 100 pages especially sluggish. It takes a while to get used to the novel’s arch recreation of an early 19th century work, complete with period spellings (“chuse,” “shewing”), and lengthy pseudo-scholarly footnotes. Portia Rosenberg’s charmless charcoal sketches hardly sweeten the pill, and readers may think that, having struggled home with such a huge book, they deserve a better return on their investment.
The arrival of Jonathan Strange, a dandified young aristocrat, gives the story greater urgency. Despite his affectations of speech and dress, Strange is no idle fop, and his instinctive flair for magic quickly comes to Norrell’s attention. The two magicians commence an uneasy friendship, and before long, the government enlists their magic in the war against Napoleon. Blockading French ports with phantom ships made from rain proves especially successful, and is splendidly described.
Strange is sent to Spain to assist the Duke of Wellington in his battle with the French armies. The magician’s miraculous feats, which include weather magic and even necromancy, tilt the war in England’s favor, winning him considerable prestige. When Strange returns to London, he is no longer willing to be treated as Norrell’s pupil, and with the severing of the alliance between the two, events take an increasingly sinister turn. The mysterious and threatening world of Faerie lurks behind every mirror, with the intrigues of the man with thistle-down hair ever more malign. Meanwhile the ancient prophecy of the Raven King’s return casts its weird shadow over the lives of all.
Ms. Clarke’s pastiche of an early 19th century novel is reminiscent of the type of ventriloquist act popular with Peter Ackroyd, Charles Palliser and Peter Carey. However, whereas they tend to opt for harmony between voice and subject matter, she has audaciously combined the style of one type of fiction with the content of another. She certainly accomplishes a difficult technical feat, but it must be said that a little affected archaism goes a long way, especially when topped off with plentiful footnotes. To judge from comments on Amazon.com, some readers are charmed by this period flavor, but by the time
Lord Byron appeared 550 pages in, this one had long since lost patience with it. Having spent a decade writing the novel, it seems that Ms. Clarke can’t bear to leave anything out, determinedly showing off her knowledge of everything from the publishing industry of the 1800s to British folklore. A more ruthless editor would certainly have pruned this material. Such editing might also have improved the book’s pacing, in that the opening chapters are desperately ponderous, while the closing sections feel far too rushed.
Another serious weakness of the novel is its characterizations, with female characters being especially feebly drawn. Some of the supporting figures, Childermass, for example, or Vinculus the tattooed street magician, are memorable and reasonably diverting, and even the duplicitous hangers-on, Lascelles and Drawlight, eventually achieve a measure of interest, though it’s a long time in coming. The title characters however remain obstinately flat throughout, and despite being described at length, never acquire the psychological depth that aspects of the story require. This is especially true where the relationship between Strange and his colorless wife Arabella is concerned. Throughout the novel, the contrast between the taciturn scholar and his flamboyant counterpart is so obvious that the book might as well be called “Jonathan Chalk and Mr. Cheese.” Worse, while Norrell, a reclusive bibliophile with few redeeming personality traits, seems intentionally dull, Strange, his purportedly interesting opposite, is rarely more engaging. The author succeeds in showing the tedious labor that underpins fantastic feats, and the psychological damage that immersion in such magic might cause, but her magicians rarely quicken the pulse.
Fantasy novels have been quite capable of combining narrative thrills with subtle characterization for decades now. Ms. Clarke however sometimes seems uncertain whether she is writing a “proper” novel, that is, the type that wins English literary prizes, or a novel that readers might actually enjoy. The two need not be mutually exclusive, but it is almost as if the author is suspicious of the very things she does well, such as her genuine flair for fantastic incident in the incursions of Faerie into Regency London. At the same time, her inclinations to formally clever but ultimately arid literariness rob her story of both narrative momentum and emotional appeal. Rather than celebrating her exuberant imagination, she insulates it with layers of pastiche, allusion, and literary in-jokes about Byron and darkness. It is as if she is repudiating her own gifts, hankering for the presumed literary respectability of the postmodern historical novel rather than accepting her successes in a form wrongly regarded as less sophisticated but more commercial. This is a shame, since much of Jonathan Strange is imaginative, original and even witty.
Nick Freeman lectures in English at the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK.