Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 49-50

Strange_BlackI would say that in these chapters the shit hits the fan, but I feel like at this point in the book there’s no way for me to divide up the chapters in a way were I don’t feel that way about every section I read. The last quarter of the book is just absolutely riveting as Susanna Clarke’s juggernaut of a plot continues to pick up speed and gain force.

Wildness and Madness 

While still working on finishing his book, Jonathan Strange is looking for students, although his friends, Sir Walter and Lord Portishead, are a little skeptical when they learn that not all of the prospective students are wealthy gentlemen. Indeed, the most promising of Strange’s first three students is Tom Levy, who is Jewish and a dancing master, but is also the only one of the three to have actually done magic.

While Strange is definitely interested in educating other magicians, what he is mostly consumed with these days is summoning a fairy servant. However, his friends are worried about him. They are certain that Strange is much changed since Arabella’s death, that he is falling into bad habits, and they are positively appalled when Strange suggests that perhaps madness is the way to catch a fairy and proposes going wandering for a while in search.

Sir Walter and Lord Portishead are somewhat mollified when Strange admits that he doesn’t actually intend to go live as a vagrant, but they are still concerned about him. Meanwhile, Mr. Norrell is very upset about, well, everything Jonathan Strange does. Especially upsetting to Norrell is that Strange continues to be commissioned for government work and has even branched out so far as to do some work for the East India Company.

While Strange is definitely more open to teaching new magicians and sharing his knowledge than Norrell ever was, it soon becomes clear that he’s not necessarily any better suited to the task than Norrell was:

…whereas Strange had had Norrell’s evasiveness to contend with, [Strange’s students] were continually thwarted by Strange’s low spirits and restlessness.

By summer of 1816, Strange has determined to go abroad for some time, leaving his students entirely, although with the promise that their studies will continue when he returns.

Strange and Byron

In one of my favorite allusions to actual history in the novel, Strange’s travels through Europe follow basically the same path as did Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley in 1816. Even, better, we get to read some of Jonathan Strange’s letters to his friends in England, in which he complains about what an asshole Byron is, which is a nice bit of comic relief at this point in the book. Because of course these two guys don’t get along well (although they do patch things up later).

The Greysteels

The Greysteels are introduced in Chapter 51. These are an English family that Jonathan Strange meets while traveling, and among their number is Miss Flora Greysteel, a charming young lady who takes a lively interest in Jonathan Strange.

Mr. Norrell’s Rebuttal

Jonathan Strange’s book, The History and Practice of English Magic, is published while he is abroad, and Norrell’s response to it is possibly the most important thing to happen in the whole novel so far.

The day of the book’s publication, copies of The History and Practice of English Magic sell like hotcakes. Then things get weird. People start coming back and buying second and third copies. Then people start complaining that their books are disappearing. The publisher, Murray, is very upset and confused and desperately trying to figure out what is going on when he comes upon John Childermass in a bookstore.

Mr. Norrell is “just buying some books” he informs the publisher, and communicates Norrell’s offer to compensate Murray for the whole printing. However, it’s also made clear that Norrell is prepared to keep magicking away people’s copies of the book if his demands are not met. Murray asks about his profits, to which Childermass responds that he’d have to ask Norrell about it.

In the meantime, Murray learns that even the copies of the book left in the warehouse have had their pages erased. He goes to Strange’s students, who have ideas for how they might combat Norrell’s magic, but this turns out to be in vain. The students just don’t have the skill to do anything.

In the end, Murray refuses Norrell’s money on principle, hoping instead to make Norrell pay in the future for a new edition of the book and the promotion of it. Childermass thinks this is unlikely, but he leaves Murray with the knowledge that the book is not entirely lost:

“I will tell you this,” he said. “The book is not destroyed however it may seem at present. I have dealt my cards and asked them if there are any copies left. It seems that two remain. Strange has one and Norrell the other.”

Norrell’s censorship of Strange’s book leaves him with fewer friends than ever before (Norrell’s allies are now just Lascelles and Childermass) and actually negatively impacts the reputation of magicians in general as people don’t take kindly to having their books stolen from them by magic. With Strange abroad, though, and distracted by Miss Greysteel and his struggle to summon a fairy servant, there is really no one in England capable of doing anything about Mr. Norrell whatsoever. Aside from a new batch of magical schools and shops popping up, of which Norrell deeply disapproves, and some muttering in Parliament about how something ought to be done, Norrell faces no real consequences for his actions.

It’s very clear as we enter the fourth quarter of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that the two magicians are truly each other’s only peers. No matter how many friends they accumulate and no matter how many interesting personages Susanna Clarke manages to populate her novel with, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are always the suns around which everything else revolves. Their relationship is the most important one, and the primary purpose of the book is to explore that.

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