Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 30-31

Strange_RedThese two chapters, I think, feel as if there is a ton of stuff going on when, really, only a couple of things happen. There’s some really excellent exposition, though, and it’s great fun to read.

Nan Purvis

Once Jonathan Strange is gone from England, Norrell has time to focus on finding Vinculus’s book, although Childermass is doing most of the actual searching. A break comes when Vinculus’s first wife, Nan Purvis, tells Childermass the story of the time she and her husband met Vinculus’s father.

Apparently, Vinculus despised the man, whose name was Clegg, and Vinculus told Nan Purvis that Clegg was guilty of “the worst crime committed in England in the last hundred years.” When pressed on what exactly the crime was, Nan recalls that Vinculus said that Clegg had stolen a book.

The Book of Magic

After exhausting Nan’s knowledge, Childermass then went to Yorkshire in search of more concrete details about Clegg and the book he stole. Basically all of Yorkshire was once the Raven King’s country, and a family of farmers there, named Findhelm, came into possession of an ancient book some generations ago. The book in question is supposed to have been written by the Raven King himself, and if it could be found and authenticated, it would be the most significant magical discovery in centuries. Even Norrell, who despises the Raven King, is forced to admit the value such a book would hold.

Book Murder

In 1754, Robert Findhelm gave the book to Clegg to be delivered to a man in Derbyshire. However, on his way there Clegg went on a bender, one thing led to another, and he was dared to eat the book, which he did. Several days later, Clegg sobered up, realized what he had done, and simply moved to London where he could disappear. Four years later, he knocks up a waitress who turns out to be Vinculus’s mother.

Norrell insists that this story must be a lie, that Clegg must have stolen the book for his son, but Childermass sensibly points out that Vinculus wasn’t even a twinkle in his father’s eye at the time of the theft. It also turns out that, while Nan said that Clegg had stolen a book, when Clegg was hanged some years later the charge was book murder,  Apparently, willfully destroying a book of magic is punishable under English law the same as if one had murdered a person, although Clegg was the last known person to actually be executed for such a crime.

Childermass was unable to find out anything else about the book, and no one can hazard a guess as to how Vinculus may have gotten it, but they all agree to that it’s unusual.

An Apology and an Explanation

Meanwhile, Stephen Black is visited by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, who apologizes for not taking Stephen to live at Lost-hope forever and explains that it is because he is convinced that Stephen’s destined kingdom is England,so obviously, Stephen can’t just move to fairyland.

While this is all important stuff, my favorite part of this last bit of Chapter 30 is how wonderful an example it is of fairy reasoning. It’s been suggested already in the book that fairies are not entirely sane, and this definitely supports that view. Every time I reread this book, I fall in love with Susanna Clarke’s fairies a little more. They aren’t even particularly evil, just inhumanly inconsiderate and incapable of actually understanding human desires and needs.

Rather a Formidable Person

Jonathan Strange speaks to the dead.
Jonathan Strange speaks to the dead.

Chapter 31 details the rest of Jonathan Strange’s time in military service. It’s a chapter that actually spans over two years of time, and it’s the first chapter I’ve reached in this reread that I didn’t really love. Mostly, I just find it overlong for the amount of important stuff that happens in it–which is basically two things.

  1. Jonathan Strange does something that I think any reasonable person would consider to be black magic when he reanimates the corpses of seventeen Neapolitan soldiers. Worse than just animating them, he does it without knowing how to end the spell, so eventually the animated corpses have to be destroyed because they are so unpleasant.
  2. The war ends, and Jonathan Strange returns to England. These scenes I actually did really like–Strange’s reunions with his wife and with Norrell–and they serve to establish how these relationships have changed over the last several years of book time.

Overall, though, the chapter just sort of dragged for me, until about the last page and a half of it. Even still, while reading all the stories about it gets tedious, the chapter does really hammer home the point that Strange is reckless with magic and often careless of the consequences of his actions.

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