Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 39-42

Strange_RedThe second half of the book continues to pick up its pace, or at least it feels as if things are moving along faster now, even though I don’t think each chapter actually contains any more events than previous chapters. Definitely, though, it’s starting to feel like we’re getting close to some kind of climax.

A Most Uncomfortable Number

Jonathan Strange expects that Norrell will be infuriated by the review, but when the two magicians finally meet, Norrell is only, for once, honest. Norrell understands Strange, and in a way that perhaps no one else can, and he only ever meant, he says, to prevent Strange from making the same youthful mistakes that he made himself. Norrell apologizes and practically begs Jonathan Strange not to leave him, and it’s probably the most human he’s been in the book so far. Norrell’s pleas are not enough to convince Strange to continue their association, although Strange nearly gives in.

After Strange takes his leave, Lascelles questions Norrell about the magicians’ conversation. Norrell seems crushed by sadness with Strange gone, but Lascelles is quick to use this opportunity to try and poison Norrell against the younger magician:

“…two of anything is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery.”

By the end of Lascelles’ speech, Norrell is persuaded of, well, something. Certainly, he is prepared to leave London with great haste, and within two hours of the breakup with Strange.

For his part, Jonathan Strange is also preparing to leave London. He and Arabella plan to return to their home in Shropshire, but first they must take their leave of their friends the Poles. As they are saying goodbye, Arabella says something that it seems likely she may later regret.

Jonathan Strange animates the mud at Waterloo to pull men from their horses.
Jonathan Strange animates the mud at Waterloo to pull men from their horses.

In Brussels

A quiet life in the country is not to be for Jonathan Strange, unfortunately. When Napoleon escapes his prison, Strange soon finds himself back on the continent, where Lord Wellington is administering a new war effort from Brussels. Once again, Jonathan Strange’s magic is instrumental in England’s success, although he commits acts using magic that he’s not proud of and sees an enormous amount of death. Chapter 40 ends after the Battle of Waterloo, with a dinner for dozens that only three men have survived to attend.

Segundus’s Fortunes

Meanwhile, back in England, John Segundus has finally been forced to look for employment, which he quickly finds tutoring young people in magical theory. Things seem to be looking up for him when he is approached by a wealthy widow who wants him to run an actual school for teaching magic. Before long, though, the planned school attracts the attention of Mr. Norrell, who sends Childermass to shut it down. When Segundus refuses to shut it down willingly, he soon finds that Norrell has managed to arrange things so that the school no longer has any support. Although Segundus writes to Jonathan Strange for relief, Strange doesn’t reply.

The Gentleman’s Plan

This section of the book closes with another meeting between Stephen Black and the gentleman with the thistledown hair. This time, the gentleman whisks Stephen away from Sir Walter’s house to a nearby coffeehouse where they sit down at an absolutely magical sounding feast. Here, the gentleman tells Stephen that Lady Pole is no longer holding the gentleman’s interest as she used to do, that, indeed, another young woman has caught the gentleman’s eye. He has a plan, he says, to bring the young woman to Lost-hope forever, but first he needs to obtain a piece of wood. From a bog.


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