Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 1-3

Strange_RedI read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for the first time in 2004 and absolutely fell in love with it. Since then, I’ve probably read it over again half a dozen times more, but it’s been at least five years since I last opened my now rather shabby and dog-eared paperback. Now, though, as the air date for the BBC miniseries based on this most wonderful novel approaches, I feel compelled to reread it again. Over the next several weeks, I will be blogging my reread, with new posts Monday through Friday each week. I plan to cover three to five chapters each day and should be finished just in time for the US air date (June 13) of the miniseries’ first episode.

For those who haven’t read the book before, I think the first thing to know about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is that it’s not a book that is intended for e-readers. Almost from the first page, footnotes play an important role in the story, expanding upon the story mostly by expounding more upon the world that Susanna Clarke has created. These asides and stories simply must be read, and in my opinion they are best read in the places they appear. There aren’t many books that I think really need to be read on paper, but this is one of them. Indeed, I’d say that reading this novel on paper is an essential part of the reading experience. The only downside I’ve found to this so far is that (and perhaps I am just getting old) the type, at least in my 2004 paperback copy, is quite small and the footnotes are in even smaller print. I hope for the sake of new readers that newer print editions use a more reasonably sized font.

The Most Commonplace Question in the World

The book opens with neither of the two titular characters. Instead, we are introduced to the Learned Society of York Magicians, an organization of gentleman magicians who, we quickly learn, don’t actually do magic. Rather, they are simply scholars of magic, the last true English magicians having practiced some two or three centuries before the book’s setting in the early 1800s. I’ve seen Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell compared to any number of 19th century comedies and gothic romances, but these opening chapters, introducing a cast of characters that range from absurdly silly to absurdly wicked-seeming, remind me of nothing more than William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, itself a similarly voluminous work that examined the early 1800s with a satirical eye.

The central concern of these early pages is given voice by John Segundus, a sensible young man of slim means who is new to the venerable Society. Why, he asks, is there no more magic done in England?

Honeyfoot and Segundus

Our Mr. Segundus finds a new friend in one Mr. Honeyfoot, a kindly fellow who takes some pity on the younger man after the other members of the Society reject the idea that magicians must do magic at all, one even suggesting that to actually practice magic would be ungentlemanly. Segundus tells his new acquaintance of an encounter with a London street magician–of the sort widely regarded as charlatans at best–who prophesied that magic would be restored to England by two magicians. Mr. Honeyfoot is of the opinion that there ought to be someone they could consult about the whole matter, and they finally settle upon writing to one Mr. Norrell, a rather reclusive person rumored to have a fabulous library of magical books and quite conveniently located in York, as the winter weather is quite bad for travel.

I absolutely love these early scenes. They’re full of wordplay as clever as anything in Austen, amusing names that would be at home in a Dickens novel, and quick character sketches as incisive as anything in the aforementioned Vanity Fair.

Norrell_Portrait
Mr. Norrell

Rather Disagreeably Mysterious

Soon enough, Segundus and Honeyfoot make their way to Mr. Norrell’s home at Hurtfew Abbey. Mr. Norrell seems unassuming, “small, like his handwriting,” but it quickly becomes clear that he is no mean scholar. His library is even more magnificent than rumored, and he quickly disabuses Segundus and Honeyfoot of the notion that magic is no longer done. He, Mr. Norrell, is “quite a tolerable practical magician” himself. Segundus and Honeyfoot bring this knowledge to the next meeting of the Society of York Magicians, and together the group decides to put Mr. Norrell’s claim to the test.

Mr. Norrell’s Intentions

Mr. Norrell sends a solicitor, Mr. Robinson, to extract from the magicians of York a promise: if Norrell can provide them with proof of his claims, the Society must disband and cease all study of magic and its members must henceforth stop referring to themselves as magicians. All of the men agree to the terms except Mr. Segundus, and they soon gather at the York Cathedral for Norrell’s demonstration. Norrell himself doesn’t appear at the cathedral, sending instead his saturnine servant, Childermass. The demonstration goes off without a hitch, as Norrell casts a spell to awaken the statues of the old church, and the Society obeys their agreement, dissolving immediately and disposing of their shared library with a local bookseller from whom Norrell quickly buys all of the books, much to Segundus’s dismay.

The Last Magician in York

Childermass suggests to Segundus that he submit the story to newspapers in London, and the end of the third chapter sees Norrell himself on his way to London. Segundus is left in York, a magician in name only and unsettled by the recent events.

Final Thoughts on Chapters 1-3

I had forgotten just how much story Susanna Clarke manages to squeeze into each chapter of this book. For such a long novel (my copy is a full thousand pages), however, the prose feels remarkably economical. These opening chapters introduce several important characters (Segundus, Norrell, Childermass), set the stage for the return of magic to England, and immerse the reader in an alternate history that feels very real and lived-in. Rereading this book so far feels just as magical to me as it did over ten years ago when I read it for the first time.

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