Saturday, 18 November 2006

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, 2004

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury, London, 2004, 782 pages, paperback, NZ$39.99. ISBN 0-7475-7411-1
[Allen & Unwin NZ]

Rational Thaumatology

This three-part novel is a triple delight: it is superbly told, superbly detailed and superbly presented.

Susanna Clark has used the gentle wit and sharp irony of Jane Austen to create an alternative Regency world, where magic has not been known since Tudor times and has instead become the study of antiquarian gentlemen scholars. Unable to do magic themselves, they argue endlessly over why there is “no more magic done in England.” Suddenly the self-taught Mr Norrell emerges from his labyrinthine library, takes up their challenge and makes the stones of York Minster literally cry out. As the statues speak to them, the members of the Learned Society of York Magicians realise that “magic had returned to England whether the gentlemen magicians wished it or not.”

Clark’s style is always admirable and often inspired. Of the unlovable Mr Norrell, she notes that he was one “who knew there were such things as jokes in the world or people would not write about them in books, but who had never actually been introduced to a joke or shaken its hand.”

Norrell wants to monopolise magic in his own person, with only “one magician in England! One opinion on magic!” and is determined to sweep away all traces of the Raven King as well as all rival magicians. His talented pupil, Jonathan Strange, has other ideas and their dispute expands into a terrifying conflict. The reader (like the two magicians) gradually realises that world of Faerie is powerful indeed, and that the mysterious man-with-thistledown-hair is even more sinister than we can suspect.

Many real people appear in this story, including George III, Walter Scott and Lord Byron, but they always remain in character. George is poignantly mad and Wellington has all his characteristic acerbic bluntness. “Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.” The servants also know their place and see that the social niceties are carefully observed. Sir Walter Pole’s butler, Stephen Black, declines to attend a fairy ball because the presence of a servant might cause distress to other guests.

The minor characters, like the estimable Mr Honeyfoot, are always interesting, although in truth there are no really minor characters in this story. All present play their part in the intricately intertwined plot, several of them in unexpected ways. There are marvellous digressions, anecdotes, dreams and descriptions. Many of the entertaining footnotes are actually superb miniature stories, like the tale of Mr Stubbs who became persuaded that his coachman was a fairy.

During the war with France, Norrell is keen to display the power of magic but his feeble attempts to frighten Napoleon with dreams fail, because of his lack of imagination. In a pleasant nod to some contemporary novelists, Canning suggests that the Government might employ Gothic writers like Beckford, ‘Monk’ Lewis and Mrs Radcliffe “to create dreams of vivid horror,” since they have the flair for purveying the fantastic and mysterious that Norrell lacks. Instead they use the younger magician, Jonathan Strange, whose experiences in Spain introduce the increasingly darker aspects of the story. For example, the passage where he raises 17 Neapolitan soldiers from the dead has all the bitterness of Goya and, indeed, Goya sketches the zombie-like corpses begging to be returned to full life.

Strange and Norrell disagree over the magical legacy of John Uskglass, the Raven King, “who was not a fairy but an Englishman”, who ruled three kingdoms and will ride out again. Byron calls the Raven King “the only magician to defeat death! The magician whom Lucifer himself was forced to treat as an equal.” The world of Faerie poses a threat that is only gradually recognised. Savage finally calls Faerie “Slavery and subjugation to a wild spirit! An ancient prison built as much of cold enchantment as of stone and earth. Wicked! Wicked!” It is Clark’s achievement that we can see both the wickedness and the glamour of Faerie. The terror grows, with acts of madness and murder, but also with the awful logic of those terrifying fairy stories where promises are kept, slights revenged and mortals are punished by being given what they seek.
It is vital to conceal many of the later events because of the exciting and unexpected happenings of the last 200 pages but rest assured that this is one of the most rewarding books of the year. Every element combines perfectly to present an amazingly satisfying whole. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a triumph of storytelling.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on November 20th 2004.

No comments: