I am just now making my way through Susanna Clarke’s delightful Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Why oh why did I wait so long to get to it? It is easily one of the best novels I’ve read in the past year or two. How much happier I should have been had I opened it sooner! How much more fulfilled and excited to be alive!
For those of you who don’t know, Clarke’s novel follows a pair of English magicians in the early 1800s who wish to restore magic to a “respectable” place in society. The premise is ingenious because it mingles fantasy with historical realism, and constrains the characters to use magic in ways that don’t involve outright killing people, a condition neatly summarized in one particularly memorable bit of dialog: “‘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.'”
And yet even respectable magicians cannot resist the allure and utility of Dark magic; and, furthermore, they find that magic is not as compliant as they would wish. (“Magic, which had seemed so familiar just hours before, so English, had suddenly become inhuman, unearthly, otherlandish,” goes one line.) This is such a relevant and interesting theme because it raises poignant questions about our present-day relationship with the Otherworldly. We in the 21st century certainly like the Otherworldly; the soaring success of the fantasy genre in books and high-grossing film is evidence enough of that. But pine as we might for enchanted worlds like Middle Earth or the Seven Kingdoms, we would not, I think, like to live in such a place unless we could mold it according to our modernist expectations. It would need to be a convenient, analyzable world, wholly subservient to our notions of scientific inquiry and control. (For an astute take on this idea, see Mr Norrell and the Modern Moral Order by Alan Jacobs.)
But the premise alone is not what makes the story. Clarke did not just develop a fresh and inventive way to narrate magic. She combines her portrayals of the fantastic with an ornamental style and a dry, brilliant wit that mirrors classics like Pride and Prejudice and The Importance of Being Earnest. And this is one of the chief reasons why in my opinion the book is superior to the television series: the series simply doesn’t do justice to the depth and subtlety of Clarke’s comic tone.
To give you a taste of what I mean, here are a few passages collected from various parts of the book. I don’t know or recall how many of these lines actually made it to the TV series; but neither do I recall the series capturing the same degree and consistency of humor, which pervades every single page.
An Inconvenient Death
“Sir Walter’s bride, Miss Wintertowne, is dead. She died this very afternoon. They were to be married in two days’ time, but, poor thing, she is quite dead. A thousand pounds a year! – Imagine his despair! Had she only contrived to remain alive until the end of the week, what a difference it would have made!” ~Christopher Drawlight
Everyone Makes Excuses
“Upon my word, there is nothing in the world so easy to explain as failure — it is, after all, what everybody does all the time.” ~Christopher Drawlight
The Point of Beauty
“A man as talented and handsome as yourself ought not be a servant!” he said in a shocked tone. “He ought to be the ruler of a vast estate! What is beauty for, I should like to know, if not to stand as a visible sign of one’s superiority to everyone else?” ~The Gentleman with Thistledown Hair
We Could Always Kill Them
“What nobility of feeling!” he cried. “To sacrifice your own pleasure to preserve the comfort of others! Well, it is a thing, I confess, that would never occur to me. […] These guests of mine on whose account you are so scrupulous, they are all my vassals and subjects. There is not one of them who would dare to criticize me or any one I chose to call my friend. And if they did, why! we could always kill them!” ~The Gentleman with Thistledown Hair
On the Deficiency of Red Hair
Some people thought [Mr. Strange] handsome, but this was not by any means the universal opinion. His face had two faults: a long nose and an ironic expression. It is also true that his hair had a reddish tinge and, as everybody knows, no one with red hair can ever truly be said to be handsome. ~Narrator
Oh, Those Troublesome Clergy!
Now that the day had arrived when [Mr. Strange was to see his love interest, Arabella] again he began to have some doubts of his reception. He was glad to think she was with her brother […] But he had some doubts about the friends with whom she was staying. They were a clergyman and his wife. He knew nothing of them, but he had the natural distrust that a young, rich, self-indulgent man feels for members of the clergy. Who could say what notions of extraordinary virtue and unnecessary self-sacrifice they might be daily imparting to her? ~Narrator
A Most Tiresome Uncertainty
Of all the tiresome situations in the world, thought the Prince Regent, the most tiresome was to rise from one’s bed in a state of uncertainty as to whether or not one was the ruler of Great Britain. ~Narrator
Why, Make Them Sprout Wings
Merlin, could not you arrange for the Army to grow wings and fly over the French? Could you do that, do you think?” His lordship was perhaps half-joking, but only half. “It is only a matter of supplying each man with a little pair of wings. Take Captain Macpherson for example,” he said, eyeing an enormous Scotsman. “I have a great fancy to see Macpherson sprout wings and flutter about.”
Black Magic Is Fine So Long as It Is Expedient
“Dear God!” cried Fitzroy Somerset, “What language is that?” “I believe it is one of the dialects of Hell,” said Strange. “Is it indeed?” said Somerset. “Well, that is remarkable.” “They have learnt it very quickly,” said Lord Wellington, “They have only been dead three days.” He approved of people doing things promptly and in a businesslike fashion.
A Grave Matter, Punishable by… Something!
“Now,” said Strange, with a most determined look and another flourish of his letter, “will you let me see the King or will you defy the authority of two Archbishops? That is a very grave matter, punishable by … well, I do not exactly know what, but something rather severe, I should imagine.”
The other wonderful feature of Clarke’s novel is her intricate grasp of human nature. In the literary sense, her characters are flat: they do not undergo considerable personality changes. But they are not flat in the boring, wooden sense—any more than Sherlock Holmes is dull or uninteresting even though he is basically static (he is always the same lovable detective whose biting intellect we can count on to solve the mystery). Clarke has created a memorable cast of bold, competent, vivid individuals—individuals who are also spontaneous, weak, insensitive, and manipulative. Which is to say, they are human.
One striking example of this is when Mr. Norrell’s friends try to convince him that Mr. Strange, his pupil in the study and practice of magic, ought to be allowed to travel away to aid the British army in the war against the French. But no matter how many respectable gentlemen appeal to Mr. Norrell’s noble sense of patriotism, Norrell selfishly refuses to let his pupil go, on the grounds that he is too valuable to put in harm’s way. It is only when Norrell’s more calculating acquaintances tap into his rapacious obsession with acquiring new books of magic—books which he might have to compete to obtain, were his pupil to remain behind—that he is finally given reason to relent.
In some ways, the presence of so many vain, selfish characters, and the absence of any charitable, honorable ones, comes off as bleak and cynical. (There are some characters you would call honorable, but they are not center stage.) Certainly the protagonists aren’t like the virtuous heroes of a Dickens tale, putting the interests of others above their own, or repenting of evil and reforming their ways. But if this is cynicism, it is not the dreary, condescending kind. Clarke’s self-conscious humor and unrelentingly cheerful tone, combined with the fresh and unpredictable manner in which she causes events to unfold, work to counterbalance and even satirize the human corruption that is on full display. The book is long (almost 800 pages), and it is no action thriller; stay far away if that’s what you’re craving. Rather come to it if you’re looking for a story that succeeds perfectly at weaving so many disparate strands together: a fantasy, an alternate English history, a comedy of manners, a pastiche of the Romantic literary form. If those are qualities you enjoy, you will soon forget the size of Clarke’s masterpiece. Indeed it will hardly feel long enough.