Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 4-7

Strange_BlackWhat struck me most upon reading these few chapters for the first time in several years is that Susanna Clarke has a true gift for writing marvelously detailed and engrossing chapters that feel as if they are packed with story, even when only one thing happens in each chapter. It’s a style that may not appeal to everybody, but I find it compulsively readable.

I also continue to stand by my previous assertion that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’s closest literary relative is Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Clarke’s portraits of the people that Norrell meets in London are exactly the sort of delightful caricatures that one finds in that book. Like Vanity Fair, this is also an extremely funny novel, and I found myself laughing more than once in these chapters.

The footnotes in these chapters are also must-reads. In fact, the footnotes in this book are absolutely essential to a full understanding and appreciation of Susanna Clarke’s comedic genius.

The Friends of English Magic

As Mr. Norrell prepares for his move to London, John Segundus prepares London as well as he is able for the arrival of Mr. Norrell. Segundus’s “Appeal to the Friends of English Magic,” with his description of Norrell’s feat at the York Cathedral, is a sensation, but though Segundus attempts to manage expectations by including an account of Norrell’s character, expectations are high by the time Norrell makes his way to the city.

Not in Yorkshire Anymore

Childermass makes himself useful by encouraging Mr. Norrell to accept the first invitation he receives into London society, and Mrs. Godestone’s party is a delightful illustration of the absurdity of Norrell’s situation. He knows no one aside from Childermass, and he lacks the skills to recommend himself to others, thus passing the greater part of the event in obscurity before making his first acquaintance.

Drawlight

Christopher Drawlight is the worst sort of dandy, which makes him my favorite sort of dandy to read about, and he takes it upon himself to introduce Mr. Norrell further into society after first mistaking the much more interesting Childermass for Norrell. They attend parties and teas and dinners and drive in the park for months before Norrell finally becomes frustrated enough with his lack of progress in his goals to suggest to Drawlight that maybe he ought to be trying to make friends in government rather than in drawing rooms. In this, Drawlight is no help, but Norrell finally remembers that he does have some connections of his own.

Mr. Norrell visits with Sir Walter and the Wintertownes.
Mr. Norrell visits with Sir Walter and the Wintertownes.

Magic is Not Serious

And so Norrell arranges a meeting with the politician Sir Walter Pole in the hope of offering his magic in service against the French. The problem, of course, is that Sir Walter doesn’t believe him, and in fact doesn’t see what use magic could possibly be in the war. Sir Walter goes so far as to tell Norrell that magic is simply not respectable and that he would be laughed out of Parliament for even suggesting it.

At this meeting, Norrell also meets Sir Walter’s intended bride, Miss Wintertowne, and her mother. Miss Wintertowne is very ill, but her fortune is the solution to Sir Walter’s financial woes. Mrs. Wintertowne joins Sir Walter in his censure of magic, although Miss Wintertowne argues (feebly, as she is barely able to sit up on her couch) for the importance of magicians, at least as historians. Norrell will find no help for his cause here.

An Opportunity

After being rebuffed by Sir Walter, Norrell sinks into a deep depression that even Drawlight’s passive aggressive antics can’t pierce. A few days later, however, they get the news that Miss Wintertowne has died–and only two days before her impending marriage. This puts Mr. Norrell in the position of making his most momentous choice to date. He might have the knowledge to bring Miss Wintertowne back to life, putting Sir Walter Pole heavily in his debt and being a very public demonstration of his powers, but the manner of achieving this feat is dangerous and of a kind of magic that Mr. Norrell is loathe to use–namely, the summoning of a fairy servant to do the magical heavy lifting.

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