Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a novel I’ve been meaning to read for a while now. I was interested in it for three reasons: 1) Its British and I have a thing for British books. 2) The BBC TV series of the same name looked interesting, but I couldn’t watch it without reading the book first….Yeah. I’m one of those people. 3) It has magic and I’ll pretty much read any book that promises me magic. Or dragons. Dragons are always good.
Anyway, this novel was not at all what I anticipated. First of all, I for some reason thought that it was a 300 page novel, but turns out it’s actually somewhere around 750 pages. Yup. And I was expecting the storyline to be two brilliant magicians fighting to restore magic to England and it really wasn’t like that at all. Here, take a look:
In a Napoleonic era England, Mr. Norrell is the only practicing magician in the world. All others are theoretical magicians, scholars who study magic from books, but are unable to actually perform spells. Instead of sharing his skills with the world, the grouchy Mr. Norrell spends his days hidden away in his house, hoarding books of English magic, refusing to see anyone, and never performing magic in public. However, when aggravated by a group of theoretical magicians who question whether or not he really can produce spells, he performs a rather large, public bit of magic.
He is soon propelled into the center of English society and politics, where he is asked to help the army defeat Napoleon’s troops. However, he is more concerned about keeping his books – and his position as the all-important, one and only magician in the world – safe.
When Jonathan Strange appears on stage, a rather amiable young man able to perform magic, he threatens not only Mr. Norrell’s ego, but his books as well, as England expects him to share them with Jonathan. As time goes by, Mr. Norrell begins to warm to his new pupil, though Jonathan is not at all happy to be tied down to a selfish, rather egotistical, mousy man.
Their opposing philosophy’s on English magic soon (or you know, 400 pages into the book), drive them apart and they are forced to face the mystical, treacherous world of magic alone. If it was just their small knowledge of magic that posed a risk, perhaps it would not be so dangerous. But with a powerful, half-sane king of Faerie wishing to thwart their every attempt to restore magic to England, their travels and journeys become more perilous than anything they have ever faced before.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is historical fantasy novel, though it also crosses over into the magic realism genre. Written with a very dry humor and archaic English vocabulary (“shewed” instead of “showed,” “connexion” instead of “connection,” etc), it had a lot going for it. The mythology was extremely advanced, with references to alternate English history involving magic and Faerie, a magical realm that exists next to ours and apparently has a close connection to Northern England.
While my description of this novel only introduced two characters, I’d like to point out that this book has an entire cast of interesting people: Arabella, Jonathan’s sweet, supportive wife; Childermass, Mr. Norrell’s unconventional servant; Lady Pole, a lady brought back to life by Mr. Norrell with disastrous consequences; Stephen Black, a person enchanted to live in England by day and Faerie by night; and many, many others.
The storyline is not linear, but jumps about from character to character. Everything ties back to Jonathan and Mr. Norrell at some point, though often we’ll be taken off on a 20 page romp that seems entirely unconnected to the plot. This leads to the book being about twice as long as it needed to be.
Part of me really enjoyed this novel when I first started, but there was something about it that really bothered me. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it until somebody pointed out to me that Susanna Clarke’s writing style is reminiscent of Dickens. I have never liked Dickens (I know, I’ll probably burn in literary hell for eternity), so that’s probably why I had such a difficult time with this novel.
Another part of this novel that bothered me was the use of footnotes. I’m dead serious when I tell you that it is not uncommon for Clarke to insert a 2 to 3 page footnote into this story. (Which is not what footnotes are for. Footnotes are used to insert small, necessary notes at the bottom of a page, not give an entire history of English magic. If you can’t put fit it in the actual pages, then it probably shouldn’t be in the book at all. It is not appropriate for footnotes to be that long and drove me crazy, just as it is incorrect for me to have been typing in parentheses for this many sentences and may or may not be driving you crazy. Point made.)
That being said, there were many rather brilliant aspects to this book that I did enjoy. Characterization was impressive. You almost always know how a character will react in certain scenes simply because they were so well-developed. All characters were realistically flawed and, if not likable, at least pitiable (the selfish, magic/book-obsessed Mr. Norrell being the most pitiable character). None of them are real heroes, but actually seem like the kind of people you come across in real life, which was a neat dose of realism.
The development of alternate English history was also stellar and just really, really cool. I particularly liked the invention of The Raven King, the great magician who once ruled both England and Faerie. The Raven King is entirely made up by Susanna Clarke, though from the way he is described, he becomes a believable legend right up there with Merlin and King Arthur. In case you were wondering, Mr. Norrell despised The Raven King and Jonathan Strange revered him, which is where their philosophy’s in magic split.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is not at all what one would expect from a fantasy novel. It is written in a somewhat historical fashion and does not entail any magical battles. It makes magic a real and almost disappointingly dull tool while sometimes flipping it around and making it the whimsical, interesting practice that we’re used to seeing in novels. I disliked parts of this book but also fell in love with other parts. In short, Susanna Clarke’s novel is a paper paradox.
It’s the kind of book one reads early in the morning with a cup of tea. If you want action, fast-paced adventures, and inspiring heroes, then look somewhere else. If you are a lover of historical novels, magic realism, slow reads, and a whimsically meandering writing style, then this is definitely worth a look.
Have you read this book? Or maybe you’ve seen the TV series? Leave a comment below and tell me what you thought!
Hannah Heath – bookworm and aspiring author