Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004.
This is my January entry in the 2010 reading challenge Year of the Historical.
On her blog Grammar Tales, the Grammarian has a series of posts titled ‘Great Beginnings’, in which she discusses memorable beginnings of novels. The first page of a novel should be the hook that reels you in, and few do that better than Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Set in an alternate Regency England, the novel begins as follows:
“Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.
They were gentlemen-magicians, which is to say that they had never harmed anyone by magic – nor done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.”
Although Clarke’s world is populated by gentlemen who study magic, it has seemingly not been practiced for centuries until the reclusive Mr. Norrell reveals that he can perform magic and has been doing so for years. Much to the dismay of Mr. Norrell, he is not the only magician remaining in England. The younger, more charming, Jonathan Strange becomes his pupil and the novel cleverly examines the relationship between these very different men, England’s only practicing magicians, as well as the limitations and consequences of using magic which affect them both.
If I hadn’t already been hooked from the beginning, this ardent admirer of English Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger certainly would have been won over by a scene in which prominent politicians of the day (such as George Canning) suggest that the way to win the war against France is to resurrect the late Mr. Pitt, although they quickly think better of it.
“Then the ministers thought how Mr. Pitt had been dead for almost two years, and that, devoted as they had been to Pitt in his life, they really had very little desire to see him in his present condition.” (p. 125).
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is an interesting read even for someone with no interest in history, but the rich detail adds to the novel for those who are. Clarke has done her research and includes historical figures of the day, from politicians to the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron, as minor characters. She also ties in historical events and works from history, suggesting that Lord Byron’s supernaturally-themed poem Manfred was inspired by Jonathan Strange, and mentioning in a footnote the famous duel between Secretary of War Lord Castlereagh and Foreign Secretary George Canning that occurred in 1809. These facts help ground her alternate England in reality.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is not only an intelligent and witty tale of magic, it’s an intelligent and witty historical tale of magic and the setting is a part of the story with dinner parties and mentions of social class and status that are appropriate for the times. Although the presence of magic and fairies could easily make this into a work of pure fantasy, it is grounded by intelligent discussions. For example, when the British government realizes that they have a magician employed in the war against France, there is an argument over how best to put his talents to practical use. Clarke also uses footnotes to create an invented history of English magic that gives her world depth.
At over 1000 pages, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a long read and the pace is sometimes slower than it should be, but the novel is well-written with flawed yet intriguing characters, historical depth, and imaginative scenes of magic. It’s also completely and utterly unique, blending elements of many genres and drawing on works from Austen to the modern fantasy of Phillip Pullman and J.R.R. Tolkien. This is one work of historical fiction that I will re-read again and again.