‘Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years’ says the renowned Neil Gaiman about Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, however, one cannot help but wonder which books Mr Gaiman actually placed into the category of the ‘fantastic’ so that they ended up overtaken by Clarke’s gargantuan novel. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell definitely has its merits, particularly with regards to the style and the in-depth re-imagination of a magical English past, but one must not turn a blind eye to some of its definite shortcomings.
‘It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.’
The above paragraph contains most of the defining features of Clarke’s style: the light, mildly ironic Austenesque tone, the somewhat overdone quaintness, the intrusive, yet not overbearing narrator, and the matter-of-fact reference to the supernatural. Clarke writes magic into the history of England using a style highly reminiscent of the 18th and 19th century masters and complements her plot with a number of encyclopaedic entries in the sometimes lengthy footnotes. Apparently,magic has always been present in England, yet it has fallen into disuse approximately after Renaissance (Did Enlightenment kill the magic in England?) and now it is upon the reclusive magical scholar, Mr Norrell and his talented, gallant, yet whimsical disciple Jonathan Strange, to pull the magic from the margins back into the English mainstream.
The novel is brimming with references to English history intertwined with the in-depth related history of the English magic. Thus the Duke of Wellington manages to defeat Napoleon primarily thanks to Jonathan Strange’s well-wielded magic, King George III’s insanity and blindness render him a likely prey to the equally insane thistle-down haired fairy king, and Lord Byron visits Venice at the same time as Strange, yet does not seem to have much impact on the nerve-wrecked magician. Furthermore, by constantly referring to both the magical and the actual history, Clarke attempts to cast light onto the role of some of the more historically marginalised groups in some of the major historical events. She provides alternative spins to some of the magical myths and legends suggesting that some of the leading roles were actually held by women. Additionally, the novel’s two greatest conflicts revolve around the abduction of the two most prominent female characters and a noble black servant who ends up becoming the King of Faerie.
Clarke’s novel is hugely intriguing and fun to read due to the quaintness of expression and the currently highly appealing topic (Magic has definitely returned to literature. Escapism? Hope for a miraculous salvation? Who knows.); however its gargantuan plot tends to waver and occasionally turn stale. The massive footnotes lend an air of authenticity to the whole work, yet they slow down its pace and in some cases create a rut that needs to be leapt over. The novel’s protagonist seems to be either magic itself or Norrell’s cherished library, or both. Clarke definitely exalts the gloryof the written word, yet characterisation seems to suffer under the weight of all the magic books (theoretical and practical).
The author keeps introducing new characters that end up hanging from the loose treads whereas some of her main characters have not been well-rounded yet. The novel is dangerously void of emotions. The reader has trouble identifying with any of the characters because they lack emotional depth and dimension. Particularly male characters seem to be emotionally eStranged. Both Norrell and Strange are too insubstantial, almost too flat, completely focused on and motivated by their interest in the study and practical application of magic. Probably the greatest emotion that the reader can squeeze out of them is Norrell’s overprotective angst over his library and his hysterical fear of competition. Strange, on the other hand, feels misery only after it was inflicted upon him by the wicked fairy, otherwise, we would not even know that he was doing everything that he possibly could to rescue his wife. Theonly characters that have been a bit more smoothly polished are Childermass, Arabella, Lady Pole, and John Segundus. However, even their ability to engage the reader emotionally seems to be restrained.
All in all, a peculiar, frequently delightful and lovable book that, alas, lacks some depth and dimension. You will read it because you like reading and you have enjoyed works by Jane Austen and J.K. Rowling; nevertheless, its title of the century’s greatest book of the fantastic is quite shaky.
© 2017 Erna G. – All Rights Reserved