Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 26-27

Strange_RedChapters 26 and 27 are largely concerned with updating us on the situation with Stephen Black and Lady Pole. Important introductions are made as well, between Jonathan Strange and Sir Walter Pole and–even more significantly–between Arabella Strange and Lady Pole.

The Music Never Varied

It is now nearly two years after Lady Pole and Stephen Black were first enchanted by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. Both Stephen and Lady Pole continue to be whisked away every night for various entertainments–balls, dinners, processions, and so on–in fairy land, and we can see that this takes a great toll on their constitutions.

Throughout this time, the fairy gentleman has lavished all kinds of gifts and attentions on Stephen Black in particular, and in chapter 26, the fairy contrives to gift Stephen with a crown, scepter and orb, which are traditional accouterments of royalty. The gentleman is convinced that the kingdom that Stephen Black is destined to rule is in fact England. Stephen, for his part, wants none of this, but finds himself incapable of communicating his problem to anyone.

Mr. and Mrs. Strange

As the Stranges settle in to London, they find themselves quite popular and well-liked. Jonathan Strange is younger and much more agreeable than Norrell, and Arabella is pretty, intelligent and charming. However, the beginning of Chapter 27 finds Arabella slightly at odds with her husband, who seems to have grown a little distant and slightly inconsiderate of his wife. Although she’s sweet and good and patient, and largely indulgent of her husband’s new profession and friends, it’s clear that Arabella is not entirely comfortable with their situation.

In the winter of 1809-10, Jonathan and Arabella are invited to the home of Sir Walter Pole, where Pole wants Jonathan to discuss the use of magic in the war effort. While the men go to confer, Arabella determines to sit down and read, only to find she’s really not in the mood. Instead she begins to explore the Poles’ home.

What Lady Pole Said

Arabella soon comes to a lovely room filled with paintings of Venice. As she admires the artwork, she almost doesn’t notice Lady Pole, who is relaxing before the fireplace. The ladies introduce themselves, and Arabella comments that she has heard much of the great service Norrell has performed for Lady Pole.

“Mr. Norrell has been no friend to me,” said Lady Pole in a dry, matter-of fact tone. “I had far better be dead than than be as I am.”

Arabella is aghast, being used to thinking that Norrell’s saving of Lady Pole’s life was a miraculous service, although Arabella herself has no reason to love her husband’s tutor. As Lady Pole continues on, Arabella starts to be concerned, and Lady Pole insists that she has some secret to tell. Unfortunately, much like Stephen Black, Lady Pole is simply incapable of speaking about her enchantment, and all that comes from her mouth is mad-sounding stories.

Sir Walter comes to take his wife away, although Lady Pole greatly desires that Arabella should come back and visit.

“I see no one. Or rather, I see whole roomfuls of people, but not, a Christian among them.”

Arabella of course promises to visit. While left alone, Arabella hears a bell, which strikes her as odd, as Sir Walter told them earlier that the bells no longer ring in their part of town. As they leave, Mr. and Mrs. Strange both describe having odd experiences.

A few days later, Drawlight is trying to pump Arabella for information on Lady Pole, but this only confirms Arabella’s low opinion of the man.

The Ladies of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

I love these characters so much. Arabella is an absolute delight, but even Lady Pole is a well-drawn character with a personality of her own. Probably my favorite thing about this last chapter is the look that Lady Pole gives her husband, as observed by Arabella:

There was a sadness in it and pity too and, oddly enough, a little amusement. It was as if she were saying to herself, “Look at us! What a sad pair we make!”

I really appreciate that Lady Pole is not a mere object. She’s not simply a damsel in need of rescue or a mystery for a hero to solve. She’s a person, with opinions and ideas and a sense of humor.

By the same token, Arabella isn’t just Jonathan Strange’s good little wife. While she’s definitely patient with him and willing to put up with his eccentricities and the demands of his new career, she’s no pushover. She’s smart and funny and brave and kind, and she’s a fairly decent judge of human character.

It makes me very happy that in a book that is so concerned with the intertwining lives and stories of two men, the author still makes it a point to dedicate time and space in the story to developing female characters and writing their relationship.

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