Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Magic Chuses To Reemerge in Regency England
Reviewed by Luc Reid
27 September 2004
Susanna Clarke's hefty first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, feels a bit like this: You find a seat on a train next to a woman in early 19th-century dress, which at the time doesn't strike you as unusual. Having nothing more interesting to do, you strike up a conversation with her. She converses mainly on the subject of the grand history of English magic, which again doesn't seem out of the ordinary at the time. When you get off at your stop, Weehawken, you are surprised to find that you're not in the England of King George III. You are also surprised to recall that Northern England never really did have a Raven King and that all the little stories the woman on the train made mention of, about people being abducted by fairies and houses left to crumble in order to encourage magic and talking statues, were complete fabrications. And you find the lack disappointing, but you remember the woman always as an entertaining and enjoyable conversationalist, and hope to meet her again.
I say all this because Clarke goes beyond writing about a magical England of the early 1800's: her style suggests that she has spent a good deal of time there, and gotten in the habit of writing and thinking as though it were her home. She sometimes chuses surprizing spellings from the period in order to reinforce this effect.
The story follows two English magicians, the uptight and socially squeamish Mr. Norrell and the more brash and improvisational Jonathan Strange, in an England where magic was once common—in fact, the North of England was once ruled by a magician-king, and has been changed in character because of it—but where magic has for some time not worked. "Magicians" in this time and place are people who read books about historical magic and discuss it, but who are incapable of doing any magic themselves. This changes early in the book, when Mr. Norrell uses an invitation and a challenge from a group of these theoretical magicians to both demonstrate his magical abilities and cut down the number of competitors he has in performing it.
Though this is Clarke's first novel, there are reasons to judge it as a mature work of a writer who has already mastered her craft, even apart from the quality of the writing. First, it occupies a very unusual and perhaps new place in speculative fiction: Regency Fantasy, or If-Jane-Austen-Ate-Mildly-Hallucinogenic-Mushrooms. Somewhere there's surely something that could be considered to be part of the same sub-sub-genre, but the main point here is that Clarke is following her muse into what, unless you read Regency romance, is largely virgin terrain.
The second reason Clarke can't be judged as a neophyte is that she isn't one. She was a non-fiction editor at Simon & Schuster for ten years, and has sold seven short stories, five of which were selected for Datlow-Windling Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies. Not exactly an Asimovian level of output, but enough that we can't and shouldn't consider her a beginner.
By the way, this book is not, as has been suggested elsewhere, "Harry Potter for Adults." (Actually, I'd argue that Harry Potter is Harry Potter for adults.)
Given that the book took about ten years to finish, either Clarke is a dedicated craftsperson who produced remarkable writing on purpose, or she goes through impressive creative bouts but is, as Jonathan Strange suggests on the book's website (www.jonathanstrange.com), terribly indolent. In any case, let's hope she speeds things up a little, as it would be a waste if it took ten years for her to produce another one.
The book itself is generous with wonders and curiosities, and Clarke depicts magical effects in a detailed and engrossing way. Characters travel in and out of fairy countries, bring life to inanimate objects, change geographical features, build ships out of rain, and so on. Magicians travel to the Napoleonic wars and to Italy. Unwise bargains are made with magical creatures. Body parts are shuffled around in beautifully-constructed little boxes.
There are a few strange omissions. For instance, no mention is made of there being native magic in any country other than England, which while consistent with the patriotically British voice of the novel is disappointing and a little difficult to believe. If there is a good reason, Clarke hasn't stated it outright. It also isn't clear why over many years, no one in England seems to have been interested in trying to do magic or wondered why it has stopped working (though the book begins with someone bringing up these exact questions).
But her strange omissions are outnumbered by strange inclusions, which if you don't mind entertaining distractions are a lot of fun. Clarke uses footnotes for, among other things, flash fiction. She writes bits of Magical England folklore as concise, structured little stories that illustrate some point of magical history or elaborate on a particular detail of the story. She also uses footnotes to comment on the proceedings and to reveal things that we might not otherwise know about characters and circumstances—even on occasion to contradict something a character has said. And she allows herself to meander, which would be annoying if the world she had constructed weren't such an interesting and enjoyable place to spend time.
The story escalates nicely, and over time we witness successively greater and more numerous feats of magic as characters are kidnapped, banished, dismissed from service, enchanted, reviled, conscripted, and otherwise made uncomfortable. Several of these subplots are wrapped up satisfactorily, but unfortunately Clarke leaves other threads untied. For example, she makes repeated references to a country on the far side of Hell (which I was eager to see depicted) but does not take us there. She causes a dire spell to affect a major character and leaves the situation unresolved at the end of the book, except that the character seems to have decided to take the curse more or less philosophically. She separates two characters who are very fond of each other, but when one of the two is finally rescued does not reunite them for more than a few minutes. And the explanation for much of what has transpired in the book—especially the loss and return of English magic—is never fully delivered, though Clarke does address the subject to some extent.
But the novel doesn't give the impression of ushering us into a long series. By its conclusion, all enmities are resolved and prisoners rescued, so that while Clarke leaves herself plenty of room for a sequel, none of her characters will be pestering her for it. In fact, one slightly dismaying thing about the end of the book is that the characters could be said to be too satisfied with the way everything turns out. Goals that mattered to them earlier in the story have faded in importance, and we wonder why they cared about them in the first place.
Yet these arguable shortcomings seem insignificant when put beside the marvelous world Clarke evokes and the tangled plot she develops. This may well become the book that you get tired of people asking you if you've read. Yet if you find that you enjoy only stories that are tautly suspenseful and that escalate to a grand, action-filled climax, you'll lose patience with this book or be disappointed by its low-key resolution. On the other hand, if you have time and inclination to linger in a magically historical England you're likely to find yourself well rewarded by Jonathan Strange—and able to cut a long conversation short when people inevitably try to recommend it to you.