Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 23-25

Strange_BlackBetween the end of Volume One and the first chapter of Volume Two, a period of some fifteen months has elapsed, which allows us to jump straight into the next phase of the story. In these chapters, Jonathan Strange is discovered, introduced to Mr. Norrell, and embarks further on his career as a practical magician.

The Magician’s Garden

Chapter 23 revisits our old friends Honeyfoot and Segundus, who are visiting a very old, very magical property in Wiltshire called the Shadow House. This ruined place was once the home of one Gregory Absalom, court magician to Henry VIII and both Mary and Elizabeth. While Absalom was not fabulously adept at actually performing magic, he was incredibly skilled at getting people to pay for his services, and the he built the Shadow House in the sixteenth century. Honeyfoot and Segundus are visiting it, as it’s meant to be one of the most magical places in England.

13 Shadow House-1Mr. Honeyfoot seems hardly sensible of the strangeness of the place, but Mr. Segundus is more sensitive, it seems, to the odd auras of the ruined garden they explore. Segundus feels so weird about the place that he has to stop and rest, only to have find himself dreaming of a mysterious woman. Just as another man appears in the dream, seeming shocked to see Segundus there, Mr. Honeyfoot shakes his friend awake and the move on to explore the interior of the Shadow House.

Strange Magic

Almost immediately upon entering the ruined building, the two gentleman come upon two other gentleman. Segundus recognizes one of the men straight away–it is Jonathan Strange, who has made a sort of pilgrimage to the Shadow House with his brother-in-law in order to try and summon spirit of Maria, the daughter of Gregory Absalom. At first Strange is simply irate at the spoiling of his spell, but his annoyance quickly turns to excitement at the prospect of meeting a fellow magician.

Finding that they are staying at the same inn, the men have dinner together, where Honeyfoot and Segundus are amazed to find that Jonathan Strange is a practical magician and a little in awe of what Strange has accomplished in less than two years of study. For his part, Strange feels he hasn’t accomplished much at all, and he particularly has struggled to find books from which to learn as Norrell generally buys them all up as quickly as they are available. Most of Jonathan’s magic, then, has been invented by himself, which is even more incredible to Segundus and Honeyfoot, who are used to thinking of magic as a mostly scholarly pursuit. In the throes of their excitement, Honeyfoot and Segundus encourage Strange to seek out Norrell, although Segundus at least has the sense to have some misgivings about this advice later on.

The Education of a Magician

The first meeting between Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange is basically everything one could hope for. Of course the two can’t stand each other, being vastly different in age, experience, opinions, and every other aspect, and their initial interview is awkward in every possible way. Drawlight and Lascelles are no help; anxious as they are to maintain their place in Norrell’s regard, they are eager to disparage Strange, who they see as a rival. For her part, Arabella Strange is encouraging toward her husband, but Jonathan doesn’t see much chance that he and Norrell will get on together at all, and he expresses a desire to be done with the whole idea.

However, Strange and Norrell both turn out to be almost obsessively interested in each other, and it’s not too long before they meet again. Mr. Norrell makes Mr. Strange a present of a book, and Mr. Strange makes a demonstration of magic. He puts the book inside a mirror and replaces the real book with its mirror image. In one of Norrell’s few truly likeable moments, the older magician is not upset at this proof–he’s excited by it, and this is the most animated that we have ever seen Norrell so far. Although Norrell disapproves of Strange’s having married, he insists upon Strange becoming his student, to which Strange agrees, reasoning that there is no other way for him to get access to Norrell’s vast hoard of books.

The student-teacher relationship doesn’t go entirely smoothly in the beginning, as Norrell is picky about what knowledge he’s willing to share and Strange chafes at Norrell’s restrictions, but both men still seem to profit from their acquaintance.  If nothing else, their disagreements over, well, most things magical are a delight to read, and through Mr. Norrell’s lists and book recommendations to his pupil, we get a much better understanding of the history and theory of English magic.

Bad Dreams

While Mr. Strange is not entirely pleased with the progress of his studies with Norrell, he does have success in one area in which Norrell has so far failed. Previously, Norrell had been enjoined to send bad dreams to Napoleon, but Norrell’s lack of imagination made this a fruitless endeavor. Strange’s first act of magic in the service of England is to trouble the dreams of Napoleon’s ally, the Emperor of Russia. By the end of Chapter 25, Emperor Alexander is so unsettled by the portentous dreams Strange plagues him with that he becomes too distracted with trying to interpret them to bother with the business of ruling at all.

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