The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
Reviewed by Victoria Hoyle
20 November 2006
Undoubtedly, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke was amongst the most enjoyable, and enjoyed, novels of 2004. Fat, stately, and stuffed with footnotes, it came in the last (and, in publishing circles, the hottest) quarter of the year, seductively jacketed in plain black and cream, radiating confidence and possessed of a certain precocious magic. A debut novel, ten years in the writing and vigorously marketed by Bloomsbury—their success with Harry Potter evidently having taught them the lure of magicians—it proved quite the extraordinary charmer. Now, almost exactly two years later, Clarke has published her second book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a collection of eight short stories, complete with spurious academic introduction and punctuated by 22 black and white illustrations by the ever-exemplary Charles Vess.
Our first question is the inevitable one: does it live up to the high standards set by its predecessor? Certainly it outdoes itself with regards to presentation, being a thoroughly beguiling object—the hardback is embossed rather than jacketed, shaded in a discreet grey and black palette with flashes of a lively petunia pink; inside the paper is thick and creamy, the font is bold and each story has its own title page, provided by Vess. It is every bit the artefact of a certain class of late nineteenth-century publishing. But as regards contents, the answer is, quite simply, no, not really. Or, at length: the stories in The Ladies of Grace Adieu are consistently subtle and enchanting, and as charismatic as any reader could wish, but, while the collection has the panache of the novel, it lacks its glorious self-possession. The stories feel a little adrift, a little raw, occasionally too neat; they're not the natural heirs to the magnum opus. But then, how could they be, and why should they be? A short fiction collection is a different beast to a novel, and is bound to work on its readers in entirely different ways.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell dealt in a heady mixture of high politics and high magics, as well as in the moods and methods of men and armies. Yet, peppered with tangential footnotes and asides, it always seemed to be straining into the border-spaces of its own narrative. This was partly because of Clarke's desire to create a full mythology for her magically awakened England, but was also symptomatic of her interest in the marginal and the hidden, in the characters and events obscured by greatness. The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a collection that determinedly centralises these once-liminal narratives. It can't be coincidence, for example, that four of its stories are about women and magic, or that its title story (first published in Patrick Nielsen Hayden's Starlight 1 in 1996) offers a uniquely feminine perspective on the career of Jonathan Strange.
In the sleepy hamlet of Grace Adieu in Gloucestershire (the sharp-eyed will recognise it as the parish of Arabella Strange's brother, Mr. Henry Woodhope) two ladies of good repute, Mrs Field and her ward Miss Cassandra Parbinger, make regular visits to Miss Tobias, a governess to the two orphaned children at Winter's Realm, the village's great house:
It was said that the great-grandfather of these children had studied magic and had left behind him a library. Miss Tobias was often in the library and what she did there no one knew. Of late her two friends, Mrs Field and Miss Parbinger, had also been at the house a great deal. But it was generally supposed that they were visiting the children. For ladies (as everyone knows) do not study magic. Magicians themselves are another matter—ladies (as everyone knows) are wild to see magicians. (p.10)
As it is, of course (and as everyone knows), ladies often do what is not supposed of them. When Captain Winbright, a cousin, arrives at Winter’s Realm with his friend "Fred" and a confused, weary young woman, Miss Tobias is naturally suspicious. Fearing that the woman has been ill-used and that the Captain has murder on his mind, she calls her friends to a conference by candlelight. What follows is, by turns, threatening, dark, and gruesome: the young men are haunted by staring owls, and, the next day, Mrs Field and Miss Parbinger regurgitate bones and fur into their handkerchiefs during afternoon tea.
There is something incredibly precise, clean, and cold about Clarke's portrayal of "women's magic" in this story (and throughout the collection)—it is urgent and desperate, but it is also natural and in the course of things. The children are in danger; the balance of the village is threatened: action is taken. Into this comes Jonathan Strange, "the second wonder of the Age" as Clarke calls him, on a visit to his brother-in-law. Finding out the truth of Captain Winbright's disappearance, and on meeting the three women out on a walk one bright morning, he decides to counsel them on the nature of magic: "Magic, madams, is like wine. If you are not used to it, it will make you drunk." Miss Parbinger retorts with startling disdain:
"Poor man, you cannot even reconcile what you believe in your heart to be true and what you are obliged to write in the quarterly reviews. Can you go back to London and tell this odd tale? For I think you will find that it is full of all kinds of nonsense that Mr Norrell will not like—Raven Kings and the magic of wild creatures and the magic of women. You are no match for us, for we three are quite united, while you, sir, for all your cleverness, are at war, even with yourself." (p. 34)
Thus Clarke's women assert themselves as legitimate channels for magic, denying its more conservative, masculine strain and offering an organic view of England's magical heritage: they are more "in touch" with the forces of otherness that encircle human lives than either Strange or Norell. They're on the margins, but they're "naturals" and they're pro-active.
In a wittily fake introduction to the collection, "James Sutherland," an academic in Sidhe studies, gestures at this intuitive magical power in women—"[they] do seem to have fared somewhat better in these perplexing circumstances [i.e. those to do with Faerie]," while the average gentleman is "appallingly unprepared." (p. 3) The young heroine of "Mrs Mabb” (1998), Venetia Moore, displays a similarly consistent ability to intuit the workings of the world-beyond-the-world. When her fiancé, Captain Fox (again "wholly unprepared") is seduced into the house of Shakespeare's arch-faery Queen Mabb and subsequently abandons their engagement, she undertakes to do everything in her power to get him back. Although this means the loss of her sanity—Clarke plays as beautifully with the stereotype of woman as "hysteric" as she does with women's "intuition"—the endangerment of her life and probably sexual assault (rape is an ever-present threat throughout the collection), she persists.
Dogged persistence, it seems, is the key to human interaction with Faerie—given that the Otherworldly will eventually get bored with you, or move on to other sport or, once in a while, reward your determination. Miranda Sloper, the idiosyncratic and colloquial narrator of "On Lickerish Hill” (1997), the most enjoyable story in the volume by virtue of its sly-wink cleverness, is just about as determined as you can be. Having lived the rags-to-riches dream and bagged the local landowner, she finds herself happily ensconced in a fine house with fine clothes. If her husband is a little melancholy she doesn't let it distract her from enjoying herself immensely—that is, until his erratic behaviour peaks in a demand that she should spin five skeins of flax in one night. Locking her away in an attic room, he threatens her with death if she doesn't immediately, and repeatedly, comply. The story that ensues is, of course, familiar: it is Rumpelstiltskin reworked, with Clarke's finesse, into the dark tapestry of English Faerie. Hilarious in its way (Miranda's problems are triggered when she eats too many "little" pies—"they were curiously small," p.39), the sinister note that sounds throughout the story (and always throughout fairytale itself) is clear: if Miranda hasn't the wit to beat both her captor and her would-be-saviour in their silly game, she will suffer the worst of physical consequences—imprisonment, murder, dismemberment, or sexual slavery. These are just some of the dangers that the liminalised (as well as the plain unlucky) face at the edges of the civilised world of magic that Clarke has envisaged in The Ladies of Grace Adieu: they're the inevitable casualities of her brutal mythos.
Some stories fail to impress so thoroughly or so deeply, however—"The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse” (1999), for example, is a pleasant enough piece of whimsy but runs a little into cliché (of the trite rather than folkloric kind). Written originally for a tribute volume to Neil Gaiman's Stardust, it ends up feeling like a forced, rather than natural, creation. This is similarly the case with the collection's only original story—the remaining seven have all appeared elsewhere over the years, although in places now relatively hard-to-find—"John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner." Clearly composed to compliment Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and "sell" this volume as a sequel, it takes a time-honoured topos as its conceit: the great, all-powerful King and magician (Uskglass, the Raven King) is tricked and humiliated by the lowly peasant (the charcoal burner) in punishment for his (repeatedly) arrogant behaviour. Magical numbers come into it—Uskglass is tormented three times—as do various saints, from Kentigern to Bridget to Oswald, making it a local Northern affair, but there is something lacking in the way of thematic meat. Admittedly fun and well-observed it has none of Clarke's usual imaginative feeling, and looks particularly flaccid next to the sinister narratives that otherwise dominate the book.
Readers coming to The Ladies of Grace Adieu expecting more of the flavour, or characters, of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are bound to be disappointed. Strange and the Raven King make their required cameo appearances, but they're fleeting and relatively insubstantial; the real meat is elsewhere. Rather, we would be best to read these stories as a series of extended footnotes, the kind for which Clarke is famous. They continue to play on the riffs—of Faerie, power, and gender—that were established in her novel, but really, they're something else, a sideline in storytelling and representative of Clarke's much wider interests as a writer of English mythology and folklore. Here she offers the extremes of a disorientating, and disorientated, world, which, both frivolous and dark, exactly reflects the nature of Faerie itself.