My first pick for the 9 for ‘09 challenge was in the category Long, which had to be a book longer than the books one usually reads, and for that I chose Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. I remember very well reading the review of this in the New York Times and thinking it sounded intriguing–although not for me. My mother-in-law was an avid reader of the Harry Potter series, so when I saw the headline “Hogwarts for Grown-Ups,” I scribbled down the title and resolved to give this to her as a Christmas present, which I did. And I never heard a word about it until she handed it back to me two years later, in a shopping bag full of books she thought I might want to read. Well.
Now, I myself have no basis for comparison, because–brace yourself–I’ve not read any of the Harry Potter books. Yes. It’s true. About eleven people in the Western world have not read the Harry Potter books, and I am one of them. I resisted them at first because they were too popular (Have I talked about that yet–about how I’ll avoid something just because it’s popular?), and now I resist them because my TBR list is already too long and the commitment seems too daunting. And because they’re still popular, and I am stubborn. I’ve seen the movies, but movies aren’t books, so I’m not going to spend any time comparing the two.
Where was I? Oh, the book!
Giving a summary of this tome seems next to impossible, but I’ll try:
The first part of the book is dedicated to the introduction of Mr. Norrell. Some members of a Yorkshire society of theoretical magicians learn of a great library of rare magical books, all kept by Mr. Norrell. The theoretical magicians would like access to the library, but Mr. Norrell is reluctant. He makes a bet with them: if he can perform an act of practical magic–practical magic had disappeared from England hundreds of years before–then they will retire from their studies and cease to call themselves magicians. Mr. Norrell is successful, and all of the magicians save one are forced to retire. Upon Mr. Norrell’s success, he determines he should go to London, and we learn that Mr. Norrell hopes to use magic to curry favor with the government, and also to help them end the war against France.
Upon arriving in London, although Mr. Norrell is welcomed by society (although they find him rather dull and are disappointed that he refuses to perform any tricks), he finds that the government wants no part of what he has to offer–until, that is, he is able to resurrect the fiancee of a powerful man, Sir Walter Pole. The problem: upon resurrecting the future Lady Pole, he calls forth an evil faerie, the man with the thistle down hair, and is forced to make a bargain with him for Lady Pole’s life. Mr. Norrell offers the faerie half of the next seventy-five years of Lady Pole’s life (assuming that Sir Pole will have passed by then, as he’s quite a bit older than Lady Pole). The faerie agrees, but what Mr. Norrell does not know is that the faerie places her under an enchantment to take her nights (as his half), leaving her like the walking dead during the day.
In the meantime, Mr. Norrell has great success helping the British defeat the French, and all of England celebrates him as a hero. Mr. Norrell, however, finds himself with a real conundrum on his hands, because with every successful magic act he performs, the more curious people become about magic itself, including the practice of magic. Nothing frightens Mr. Norrell more than the idea of other people besides himself–with one exception–practicing magic, because he believes people are incapable of controlling the outcome.
The exception, of course, is Jonathan Strange, who, on his way to propose marriage to his beloved, is stopped along his journey by a man named Vinculus (a shadowy street magician cast out of London by Mr. Norrell) who prophesies that Strange will be one of two great magicians in England:
“Two magicians shall appear in England,” he said.
“The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand…”
Vinculus also gives Strange two spells, and that very evening Strange performs one of them, “One Spell to Discover what My Enemy is doing Presently,” which conjures for him an image of Mr. Norrell:
Well, Henry, you can cease frowning at me. If I am a magician, I am a very indifferent one. Other adepts summon up fairy-spirits and long-dead kings. I appear to have conjured the spirit of a banker.
The second part of the book deals with Strange and his wife, Arabella, moving to London so that Strange can study with Mr. Norrell. Strange’s comment about having conjured a banker sets up the difference between these two, because Strange is more charismatic, more curious and eager to perform spells than simply to study them, as Mr. Norrell does. But this section also sets up the relationship, because Mr. Norrell is eager to have someone with whom he can discuss and share magic. Even without all the fundamental texts–Mr. Norrell keeps the choicest selections of his library at his Yorkshire estate, and never lets Strange see it voluntarily–Strange proves to be a better, more adventurous magician, as we learn as he travels with the British army as they work to defeat Napoleon. He becomes more and more independent of Mr. Norrell, and eventually, he decides to part, for they disagree over one fundamental aspect of English magic and its practice, and that is the summoning of the last King of the North (the “human” King of England ruled the South, or the area around London), a Faerie king named John Uskglass, who was said to have control of all the realms of the world, of Faerie, and even of Hell. Strange believes that they can uncover the spells and the origins of magic by this summons, and Mr. Norrell believes it to be too dangerous, which is the crux of the entire book.
The third part of the book is called “John Uskglass,” and it deals primarily with Strange working to call forth John Uskglass as a means to release Arabella from the same faerie enchantment that grips Lady Pole. I’m oversimplifying this part because it contains all the answers, and only as events unfold does it become clear who is performing what magic and why. Of course I cannot give away the ending, but nothing is revealed until the very last few pages, and Clarke does a terrific job of keeping up the pace, of keeping the reader guessing. Many other characters play a part–a large part, even, but they are too numerous to list here, their stories too involved to tell. Clarke also provides generous footnotes to educate us about the “history” of English magic, and these are both necessary and as interesting as the story they support.
This is a terrifically enjoyable book, and I had a great time reading it. The language is wonderful, and the detail is stunning. Some reviewers seemed to think all the detail detracted from the action (Janet Maslin described it as “[both] action packed and unhurried”), and here I have to disagree. I think the “get to the action already” attitude is a modern one. While I assume that Ms. Maslin would make allowances for “old” books, her annoyance stems mainly from the fact that this is a modern author, but she’s not doing a modern author’s “thing.” In other words, she hasn’t written something literary that could be easily adapted into a screenplay, without having to cut too much of the story. I think it would be next to impossible to make this into a film (although apparently they are trying, and perhaps I‘ll stand corrected), but I also think it would be completely unnecessary to do so: something about the way Clarke tells the story makes it completely visible to the mind’s eye. Her descriptions of places and people are so straightforward that they both reveal the scene and allow the mind to dress it up a bit, as it likes.
Also (and here’s where I geek out completely), I loved the tension between Norrell and Strange, because it reminded me of Plato and Aristotle. Plato believed that writing should not be taught, that people could only do more harm than good for themselves by practicing it, that it could lead them morally astray. Aristotle believed writing was a tool, that poetics (drama) and rhetoric were necessary for man to understand and live life. I’ve no idea if Clarke intended this parallel, but it stuck with me throughout the book.
Finally, even though the book deals with magic and some sections are rather dark, only one part really scared the pants off me. It was the very last sentence on the next to the last page: “This is her first novel.” Terrifying. I can’t wait to see what she does with the next one!
Read an interview with Susanna Clarke here.
*book image from powells.com