“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke


Mythgard Academy is offering a free podcast course on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. In preparation, I read the book and watched the BBC TV miniseries adaptation. Here are my thoughts on the novel:

Neil Gaiman calls Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell  “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years.” Friends of mine, including fellow blogger Katherine Sas, have raved about the novel and have asked Mythgard to cover it for years. Needless to say, my expectations were high…

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is about the return of magic to England. Mr. Gilbert Norrell had studied magic in his library for years, but decides to offer his services to the English government in the war effort. Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange needs to find a job to satisfy his fiancee, Arabella, and decides to pursue magic when he discovers that he has an innate talent for it.

While Norrell focuses on his studies and climbing up London’s social ladder, Strange is deployed to the front lines and uses his powers to defeat the French armies in Spain.

In general, Norrell and Strange are engaging enough characters to compensate for the book’s slow plotting. For all his talk of serving England, Mr. Norrell seems mostly focused on climbing London’s social ladder and on preventing anybody else from learning magic. He goes to absurd lengths to justify is pettiness, although one gets the sense that he genuinely believes what’s best for Norrell is best for England. By contrast, Strange and his wife Arabella are charming. Strange seems happy to learn from Norrell. Later, he actually utilizes his services on the front lines against Napoleon’s army in Spain.

The pair provide a fascinating study in contrasts. Norrell is a bookworm and believes magic is a scholarly profession that requires years of study, whereas Strange takes a more practical approach, inventing new spells as the need arises. Unfortunately, the magicians eventually have a falling out over the “respectable” use of magic. Interestingly, the novel never really explains what’s at stake in their dispute. What is “English” magic? Why is Mr. Norrell so concerned about “respectability”? Norrell consider Strange’s approach to be such a threat that he has the man imprisoned and destroys all of his books! Strange’s magic doesn’t appear to be like the Dark Side of the Force in that it risked corrupting him (“fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate…”). Is it just petty spite or something deeper?

I admit the first time I read the book I found this vagueness frustrating. I found it hard to care about their dispute if I couldn’t understand it. But perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps it shows how quickly people can get into arguments about minutiae. Anybody who has spent time in academia has certainly seen departmental feuds over much less. In fact, the Norrell-Strange feud reminds me of a split within my own field, the social sciences. Some scholars emphasize quantitative methods and formal theory, whereas others insist upon field research and cultural engagement. Although I don’t know of any academicians destroying a competitor’s manuscript, at times the divide became so entrenched professionals within the same field could barely communicate with each other. That said, academic disputes aren’t as fun as watching Norrell and Strange…

I did have a major problem with Clarke’s world-building. Although the book starts off in 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars, it is clearly set in an alternative version of history. Aside from the fact that magic exists—no small change itself—300 years before the start of the book the semi-mythical Raven King ruled northern England and brought magic to the realm. That’s a big change to English history, yet England looks pretty much exactly the same as it did in the real world did in 1807. In fact, the book makes references to real historical figures during the period, including the Duke of Wellington and Prime Minister Pitt. Did the existence of magic and a new king really have no effect on the course of English history?

This might sound like nitpicking, but it actually touches upon one of my biggest pet peeves in world-building and speculative fiction. Good authors realize that introducing fantastical or futuristic elements to the society potentially changes any preexisting cultural, economic, and political equilibrium.* In other words, if magic exists, people in that world would behave as if magic exists. Magic is a big deal; I suspect even the possibility of magic having once existed would have changed much of history. If we knew for a fact that Julius Caesar wielded magic, I guarantee that every ruler who followed would have investigated how to get ahold of that power for him or herself.

* One of the reasons I admire Frank Herbert’s Dune so much is because he clearly thought through the implications of interplanetary space travel and technology on politics.

Likewise, an entire new king in England should have affected English history a bit more. Would the Tudor dynasty still have had sufficient legitimacy to rule given that it didn’t control all of England? Would Henry VIII still have split from the Catholic Church? If so, did subjects formerly under the Raven King become Anglicans or Catholic? When the Raven King left, how were his territories and subjects reincorporated into the English crown? Alternative history is difficult precisely because one has to factor in the ripple effect that even small changes can have on the course of history. Yet, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell doesn’t even attempt this sort of world-building, which undermined my ability to suspend disbelief.

I feel obliged to warn readers that Clarke writes in the style of Victorian authors. Victorian authors were notable for their wordiness and meandering plots. During the late 1800s, readers wanted novels to entertain them for long periods of time (remember, this was before TV and the internet). It’s definitely a stark contrast to modern literature, which usually begins with a hook to draw readers into the story quickly (lest they wander off to watch a reality show). Clarke is extremely skilled in her craft, but the book’s style just isn’t for everyone. In short, if Charles Dickens with a touch of Harry Potter sounds fun, then check out Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.


Next week, I discuss the BBC miniseries adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which aired earlier this year.

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