Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 51-54

Strange_RedIn Chapters 51-54, Jonathan Strange spends some time with the Greysteels, but mostly he spends his time obsessing over his quest to summon a fairy servant. He’s become fixated on the idea that fairies are attracted to madness, and so his primary goal at this point is to find a way to become mad himself.

Strange’s Letters

I love epistolary works, and I think a complex pastiche like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell would be incomplete without some homage to that form. Fortunately, we don’t have to do without. Chapter 51 consists, in part, of several letters from Jonathan Strange to his friends in England in which Strange describes his travels. It’s an excellent way to reveal a bit more of Strange’s character, which is where the epistolary form really shines. Through these letters, we get some sense of Jonathan Strange’s feelings about the Greysteels, we see his remarkably philosophical response to Norrell’s response to The History and Practice of English Magic, and we learn how Norrell’s act of censorship leads to Strange’s reconciliation with Lord Byron.

All in all, these short letters make for an amusing read without the author overdoing it. Especially this late in the book, I think it would have been a mistake to do a lengthy epistolary section. This small bit feels just right to me, though.

Summoning

Right at the end of Chapter 51, Jonathan Strange has his first success in summoning a fairy, although he doesn’t know it. The gentleman with the thistledown hair shows up, Stephen Black in tow, only to remain stubbornly invisible to Strange. The gentleman, once so eager to “assist” Norrell, is positively abusive now towards Strange, and absolutely not inclined to work with any magician now.

24 Mrs Delgado and Greysteels
Mrs. Delgado, her cats, and the Greysteels.

The Cat Lady

While Jonathan Strange is consumed with his work, the Greysteels pay a charitable visit to an old woman living in a Jewish neighborhood in Venice. Her name is Mrs. Delgado, and the Greysteels find her entirely alone, unresponsive, and surrounded by a great many cats. Mrs. Delgado seems to barely eat, having more in common with her cats than with any human visitors she may have.

The old woman is quite mad, as Flora Greysteel later communicates to Jonathan Strange. She wants to know if he could cure Mrs. Delgado by magic. Unfortunately, he cannot, but he soon comes up with a new plan on how he might finally ensnare a fairy.

Tincture of Madness

Strange goes to visit Mrs. Delgado, who remains nearly as unresponsive to him as she was to the Greysteels. He wants her to teach him to be mad, and he’s willing to give her something she wants in exchange. Shortly, Mrs. Delgado has been turned into a cat and Jonathan Strange has obtained a dead mouse, which he grinds up and makes into drops which he can take in order to induce insanity.

The Color of Heartache

While his tincture works quite well in giving Strange the experience of madness, it takes a few days before he achieves his end goal. Finally, though, Strange manages to not just summon a fairy, but see and speak to one. Unfortunately, what with the effects of the tincture, he’s not in particularly good shape to deal with the gentleman with the thistledown hair very well.

Strange’s second meeting with the fairy goes somewhat better. The gentleman, for his part, has determined that in order to get the magician to leave him alone he will just make Strange some gift of something that will sate his desire for fairy assistance. Rather than asking for anything material or monetary, however, Strange requests that the fairy bring him something that was gotten in the fairy’s last dealing with an English magician.

What Strange receives, that very evening, is a small box “the color of heartache” (a phrase that I love because it’s both incredibly non-descriptive and amazingly evocative at once) that contains a small, severed finger that the reader knows belongs to Lady Pole but which is baffling to Jonathan Strange:

“I thought that if I had a fairy to explain everything to me, then all the mysteries would become clear. But all that has happened is that I have acquired another mystery!”

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