Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 62-64

Strange_BlackEvery one of these chapters feels like it could be a climax, but none of them really quite manage it. Instead, they continue the enormous build up to the reuniting of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Rereading these chapters, I found myself fascinated by a couple of things that I don’t remember really “getting” during previous readings.

First, there is some really gruesome stuff in this book–like, some really graphic and gory descriptions of violence that I guess maybe I just never caught or that never really stood out to me when I wasn’t paying so much attention.

Second, these late chapters are really where Susanna Clarke does an amazing job of working with the themes of dualities that she’s developed throughout the earlier parts of the book. Strange and Norrell’s reunion isn’t the only one happening late in the novel, and these chapters begin an almost frantic-seeming pairing off of characters and seeing how different relationships resolve before we get to the Strange/Norrell main event.

The Crossroads

Chapter 62 is entirely dedicated to a meeting between Henry Lascelles and Christopher Drawlight, and it’s amazing to see how these two characters have changed since we first met them.

Lascelles began the book as a skeptic and a cynic, but his acquaintance with Norrell has convinced him of the reality of magic as well as created in him a drive to be part of great things. Though Lascelles is not himself a magician, he rather fancies himself a sort of magician kingmaker, and he wants to make Norrell into a sort of Raven King for the modern age–primarily by zealously working to banish the mythology of John Uskglass from respectable society. Lascelles envisions magic as a gentleman’s profession, and John Uskglass and Jonathan Strange are not, in Lascelles’ view, gentlemen.

Drawlight, of course, is not so much profoundly changed by his experiences as he is almost driven mad. He’s a simple man, and his life since meeting Mr. Norrell has become anything but simple. At this point in the novel, Drawlight’s meeting with Jonathan Strange has frightened him nearly to death, and he returns to England basically to throw himself back on Lascelles mercy. Drawlight is at his wit’s end–which is no place to be for a man who has always lived by his wits.

When we met these men early in the book, they came as a pair. If they weren’t friends, exactly, they were probably as close as either of these fairly awful people could manage. It was only when Drawlight’s side business was discovered that there was a break between them. And it was only when Lascelles saw a new use for Drawlight that he bothered to “help” him out of debtor’s prison.

Now, Drawlight has returned to England carrying his three messages, and Lascelles meets him alone at a crossroads in the country. Lascelles extracts Jonathan Strange’s messages from Drawlight and then essentially executes the poor fellow. In one of the most poetically gruesome descriptions I’ve read of death in ages, Drawlight’s body is quickly eaten up by the earth, which seems to have taken on a bizarre new life. Lascelles, of course, doesn’t notice anything amiss because he’s too busy feeling like a badass after murdering his ex-friend.

Mr. Norrell at an inn on the way to Hurtfew Abbey.
Mr. Norrell at an inn on the way to Hurtfew Abbey.

The Road to Hurtfew Abbey

When Lascelles returns to Norrell after murdering Drawlight, he tells the magician that Drawlight never showed up for their meeting, but only left a letter. Of the three messages that Jonathan Strange gave Drawlight, the only one that is conveyed accurately is the message to Norrell that Strange is coming. Though Childermass is suspicious of Lascelles, his concerns must wait to be addressed as they are quickly on their way to Hurtfew Abbey, where it seems most likely that Jonathan Strange will appear.

On the road, Lascelles and Childermass continue their various ongoing disagreements, each trying to undermine the other in Norrell’s eyes. Also on the journey, it becomes even more apparent that magic is returning to England, and one of Lascelles and Childermass’s many arguments is concerning Childermass’s failure to fight a strange man he met while exploring a fairy road. Lascelles, still riding the bloodthirsty high he got from killing Drawlight, insists that Childermass should have dueled the fellow–who was ominously called the Champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart–and that Childermass is a coward for retreating.

By the time the party arrives at Hurtfew Abbey, things are near a breaking point, and the final argument comes while they are waiting for Jonathan Strange to arrive. Childermass has been reading his tarot cards, and he divines that Lascelles has a message for him. Lascelles denies it, and Childermass calls the other man a thief. Lascelles responds to this by attacking Childermass, cutting the servant’s face, and forcing Norrell to choose between the two of them. Norrell, ever class conscious and seemingly incapable of making a right decision, sides with Lascelles, sending Childermass packing.

Fortunately, Childermass did manage to pick Lascelle’s pocket and retrieve the box with Lady Pole’s finger, and when he leaves Hurtfew, he rides off with purpose.

The Servants

As Childermass rides away from Hurtfew, he is the first person to notice that the darkness surrounding the house is not natural–Jonathan Strange has already arrived, although the inhabitants of the place don’t know it. It doesn’t take long before things start getting weird, though, and even as Childermass is riding away all the clocks in the house start to chime.

The servants and Lascelles help Norrell with some final preparations, and the whole group starts going towards the library only to find that Jonathan Strange has changed Norrell’s labyrinth. Norrell quickly becomes lost and confused, and before long he’s been separated from the rest of the group.

In Norrell’s absence, his remaining servants realise that there is nothing else for them to do here and prepare to leave. After protesting the servants’ departure and practically accusing them of thievery, Lascelles decides to leave Hurtfew as well. While the servants are planning to disperse to neighboring farms, Lascelles determines to travel down a fairy road, hoping to find the fight he believes Childermass was a coward for running from.

Lady Pole’s Enchantment

Childermass, in the meantime, has ridden for Starecross to see Lady Pole. When he arrives, he finds John Segundus in a sorry state. Segundus has always been sensitive to magic, and living in constant contact with Lady Pole’s enchantment has caused him to be, not ill exactly, but not well either.

When he’s taken to see Lady Pole, Childermass is even more negatively influenced by the magic that surrounds her, but he is able to learn what has happened. He is even able to discern a remedy, and Childermass and Segundus cast a spell to break Lady Pole’s enchantment once and for all. The relieved Lady Pole is passionately anxious to avenge herself on Norrell and to punish Strange, and she lets slip that Stephen Black and Arabella Strange are likewise enchanted. While she is still expressing her fury, Childermass takes his leave to return to Hurtfew, where he hopes to offer his assistance to the two magicians there in freeing Stephen and Arabella.

Plucked Eye and Heart

Finally, we return to Lascelles, who manages to find the Champion that Childermass refused to fight on the fairy road. Without even listening to what the man has to say, Lascelles initiates a duel which the Champion seems to lose on purpose. Lascelles is still reveling in his victory when another traveler approaches, and Lascelles turns to the new arrival and says, “I am the Champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart…”

It’s a fitting ending for Lascelles, and I really appreciate the symmetry of events here and the way the author has ordered things so that as one character escapes enchantment, another replaces her.

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