Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 35-38

Strange_RedThese chapters are busy ones, but less with action than with characterization. Peacetime gives Mr. Strange in particular plenty of time to analyze his relationships with the other characters, especially Mr. Norrell.

The Painting

I’ve mostly avoided writing about the footnotes in this book, but Chapter 35 contains an important one regarding a painting that Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell posed for in late 1814. I love the description of how the two men sat for the portrait, with Norrell fidgety, worried that the painter might somehow be stealing magical secrets, and Strange relaxed, indulgent and patient with Norrell’s neuroses. It’s an excellent sketch of their relationship up to this point, and it provides a starting point from which we begin, in these middle chapters of the novel, to see things degrade rather quickly between the two magicians.

Gentleman’s Magazine

While Drawlight and Lascelles attempt to sow discord between Strange and Norrell, chiefly by reminding Strange that he’s still never been allowed in Norrell’s library at Hurtfew Abbey, Norrell irritates Strange by nagging him about writing. In particular, Strange is supposed to write a piece for Gentleman’s Magazine, and Norrell expects him to only write what Norrell would agree with, and Strange chafes at this restriction, although he doesn’t relish the idea of confronting Norrell about it. Instead, he goes home, ostensibly to write, and complains to Arabella about it.

Drawlight’s Business

Arabella Strange has been listening to her husband’s complaints about Norrell for years, and she has her own very decided opinions on Norrell and Norrell’s friends. She wants, instead, to talk to her husband about a Miss Gray that she’s heard of who claims to be paying Jonathan Strange–to the tune of four hundred guineas–for magic lessons. Jonathan, however, dismisses the story and rather ignores his wife’s concern over the matter, even joking about it. It’s a moment of Jonathan Strange actually being kind of a dick, which I appreciate. Susanna Clarke does a good job, I think, of demonstrating that both of the magicians are kind of insufferable in very different ways. Conversely, she also balances this with including endearing and sympathetic qualities in her characters as well, which make them feel real and three-dimensional.

In any case, Strange doesn’t think of Miss Gray again until a few days later, when he’s at a club and is confronted with a pair of farmers who also claim to be receiving magical instruction from him even though they have never met. When finally introduced to Mr. Strange, the two gentleman farmers are quite understandably upset, but it soon comes out that they were paying a middleman who supplied them with instructional materials based on things Strange had said in conversation with Mr. Norrell–and overheard by the ever present Drawlight. To prove to the two defrauded gentleman that he is who he claims to be, Jonathan Strange steps into a mirror and disappears.

Strange surprises Drawlight and Mrs. Bullworth.
Strange surprises Drawlight and Mrs. Bullworth.

Mrs. Bullworth

When Jonathan Strange emerges from the mirror, it’s a different mirror entirely, in a very different place, some five miles from his own home in Soho. He surprises Drawlight at the home of one Mrs. Bullworth, yet another person who has been paying “Jonathan Strange” for magical services. Mrs. Bullworth has been giving Drawlight money to pay Mr. Strange for using black magic against her many enemies, not the least of which is Lascelles, who is the man who seduced and ruined Mrs. Bullworth, promising to marry her and then abandoning her when she was cast off by her husband.

Obviously, if you’ve read this far in the book you’ve known for some time what kind of men Drawlight and Lascelles are, but it’s kind of nice to see Drawlight, at least, get a bit of a comeuppance. By the end of Chapter 37, he’s banished from Norrell’s society (Norrell actually wants to reinstitute some draconian old laws so Drawlight could be hanged for his crimes) and ends up in a debtors prison. Lascelles manages to avoid a similar fate only because he has actually become truly interested in and invested in Norrell and magic–and because he cuts Drawlight out of his life immediately and completely to avoid any punishment by association with him.

The Strange’s  Bargain

Regarding Jonathan Strange’s travelling through mirrors, he finds opposition to his further experimentation with this trick from both Mr. Norrell and Arabella. Although Strange is excited to explore this new power, he eventually promises Arabella that he won’t do it again until she says he may. She, in turn, promises that she will grant her permission as soon as she is convinced of the safety of mirror travelling. I adore their marriage, so much, and this is a lovely compromise.

Lord Portishead’s Book

The final matter of importance that occurs in these chapters is the publication, by Lord Portishead, of a book on modern English magic, to which both Norrell and Strange have contributed. However, when Jonathan Strange reads the published manuscript, he finds himself incredibly disappointed and feeling misrepresented by the final text in spite of his own contributions.

Borrowing a copy of the book from Norrell, Strange goes home and promptly writes the scathing review of it that makes up Chapter 38. It’s the first time that Strange has put himself so directly in opposition to Norrell’s peculiar agenda regarding English magic, and it’s not going to go over well. At all.

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