What a journey! I don’t know what I was thinking waiting this long to read this novel. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for almost 10 months and has been out for over a decade! In the last few months I finally heard enough about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to pick it up and read the tome that it is. (AKA the boyfriend wants to watch the new TV adaptation and I said I couldn’t until I read the book.)
I am most definitely beating myself up for not reading it sooner. Sure I was a bit scared of the length, hello doorstop clocking in at 846 pages, but I was even more concerned with the comparisons to Dickens! How wrong I was; how wrong I was. For some reason I let this one comparison (I still think Dickens needed an editor) blind me from the wondrousness that was this book.
Just read the quote on the front, seriously read it. I’m not sure Time could have written anything more apt to describe my literary tastes with the exception of throwing in some m/m romance or Star Wars reference.
“Ravishing…superb…combines the dark mythology of fantasy with the delicious social comedy of Jane Austen into a masterpiece of the genre that rivals Tolkien.” – Time
Obviously, I LOVE Jane Austen. I wouldn’t necessarily say I love Tolkien, but I can appreciate him and I LOVE what he gave to the world and the hundreds (or thousands) of writers he’s inspired. Now on to the actual book!
Like any Classic, especially a Jane Austen, there are numerous characters and places with names on top of their location so a valuable resource I stumbled across was The Library at Hurtfew, a wiki-page for all things Strange and Norrell related! Clarke did a great job of differentiating everything but sometimes there were just too many names and I got lost. I found this trying to find out if she ever actually named “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.” She didn’t.
This not naming “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair” was one of the major strengths of the novel and played into what Clarke (and George R.R. Martin) does exceedingly well: re-introducing magic into a world that lost it. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions and there is no a-ha moment where magic floods back into the world in either of these authors’ universes. Magic trickles back in and slowly builds to a stream and then with a roar it comes crashing into the world (I’m assuming this will happen in Martin’s next novel).
A little over half-way through you start to see even more signs that this is coming,
“In his weakened state Childermass had been thinking aloud. He had meant to say that if what he had seen were true, then everything that Strange and Norrell had ever done was child’s-play and magic was a much stronger and more terrifying thing than any of them had thought of. Strange and Norrell had been merely throwing paper darts about a parlour, while real magic soared and swooped and twisted on great wings in a limitless sky far, far above them.” (553)
And when it does, oh boy does it! This was such an extraordinary experience it’s hard to describe. I was so caught up in the social drama Clarke created that the magic momentarily took a back seat. Then all of a sudden wham magic is everywhere and the social drama is unfolding at such a rapid pace and you’re desperately trying to read faster to find out what happens. I. LOVED. IT. I was so desperate to read the last 50-100 pages it wasn’t even funny. My friend from my Jane Austen Book Club had a similar thought about Mansfield Park and it sums up a lot of the classics and how they evolve
The other part where Clarke excels is in her descriptions. Whereas Dickens is long-winded and borders on trite, Clarke’s kept expanding in the proper places and compressed when they were less important. She describes the King’s roads, those roads that connect all reflective surfaces through Faerie, on two occasions the first
“I do not have the words to describe it. All that Norrell and I have done is as nothing in comparison! I wish I could give you an idea of its grandeur! Of its size and complexity! Of the great stone halls that lead off in every direction! I tried at first to judge their length and number, but soon gave up. There seemed no end to them. There were canals of still water in stone embankments. The water appeared black in the gloomy light. I saw staircases that rose up so high I could not see the top of them, and others that descended into utter blackness. Then suddenly, I passed under an arch and found myself upon a stone bridge that crossed a dark, empty landscape. The bridge was so vast that I could not see the end of it. Imagine a bridge that joined Islington to Twickenham! Or York to Newcastle! And everywhere in the halls and on the bridge I saw his likeness.” (425-6)
provides such an breath-taking view of this hidden world that I read the passage multiple times imagining the opportunity to get lost there and to randomly appear anywhere in England! The second time she describes them it is in relation to the breadth of English magic before and after Strange & Norrell.
There is so much more to say, but I don’t want to keep going because I honestly think you should read it. I loved all of Clarke’s references to contemporary authors, especially Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen! And I’m already debating if I want to re-read it, but I doubt I will because it’s so long. I can’t wait to see how the BBC has adapted the novel and I really hope the rumors of a sequel (thanks Wikipedia) are true! I mean it did take her a decade to write and publish the last one, so by that reckoning we could expect her next one any time now right?! (In my dreams.) Oh and did I mention that in order to make it seem more real she created an ENTIRE universe including footnotes and authors and references. Yeah, over half of each of these pages is footnotes. Mostly they were sub-stories.
Recommendation: If you can power through an almost 900 page book I say READ IT! It is split into three distinct volumes so if you wanted you could take a break between the volumes. The downside is that this is the only novel Clarke has written, the upside is she has a collection of short stories set in the same universe, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories!
Opening Line: “Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.”
Closing Line: “Then he turned upon his heel and disappeared into the Darkness.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers.)
Additional Quotes from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
“This was such good sense that for a moment the magicians were silent – though this is not to say that the proposal was universally popular – not at all. Several of the magicians (Dr Foxcastle was one) did not care for it. If they asked Norrell to do magic, there was always the danger that he might indeed do some. They did not want to see magic done; they only wished to read about it in books. Others were of the opinion that the York society was making itself very ridiculous by doing even so little as this.” (21)
“I will tell you a little trick, my lord, the more apparatus a magician carries about with him – coloured powders, stuffed cats, magical hats and so forth – the greater the fraud you will eventually discover him to be!” (115)
“It was not that she did not love him; he was quite certain that she did, but sometimes it seemed as if she had fallen in love with him for the sole purpose of quarrelling with him. He was quite at a loss to account for it.” (208)
“In a war one is either living like a prince or a vagabond. I have seen Lord Wellington – his Grace, I should say – sleeping under a tree with only a rock for a pillow. At other times I have seen thieves and beggars snoring upon feather-beds in palace bed-chambers. War is a very topsy-turvy business.” (363)
“It may be laid down as a general rule that if a man begins to sing, no one will take any notice of his song except his fellow human beings. This is true even if his song is surpassingly beautiful. Other men may be in raptures at his skill, but the rest of creation is, by and large, unmoved. Perhaps a cat or a dog may look at him; his horse, if it is an exceptionally intelligent beast, may pause in cropping the grass, but that is the extent of it. But when the fairy sang, the whole world listened to him. Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language that it understands. In the fairy’s song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself.” (506)
“Yet it is true – skin can mean a great deal. Mine means that any man may strike me in a public place and never fear the consequences. It means that my friends do not always like to be seen with me in the street. It means that no matter how many books I read, or languages I master, I will never be any thing but a curiosity – like a talking pig or a mathematical horse.” (568-9)