For all that the novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is often said to be a slow starter, I feel like the adaptation so far has remained pretty remarkably true to the source material while also moving through it at a pretty good clip. “How is Lady Pole?” covers an enormous amount of story, even more than last week’s episode, and things are getting exciting.
The episode opens with one of my favorite bits of magic from the book: Mr. Norrell’s ships made of rain. They’re gorgeous, but this scene, to me, isn’t quite right. The problem isn’t the ships, which are great. It’s that I don’t feel any passage of time. In the book, Norrell’s illusory ships are a blockade that keep the French fooled for eleven days. The way it’s presented here, it looks like just the work of an afternoon; the French see the ships, break out their spyglasses, then immediately row out to them and learn that they are just made of rain. I suppose this is still a waste of French time, but it’s not as impressive as the eleven days of the book, and it doesn’t seem to warrant the degree of congratulations Norrell receives from the ministers in London. It just all seems a bit much, and I think it wouldn’t have been that difficult to at least hint at some greater passage of time here.
That said, I love the way the show has done Mr. Norrell’s scrying. It looks awesome. It’s nice to see this attention to detail when they could just as easily have sort of ignored the less flashy magic in favor of just focusing on bringing to life big stuff like the rain ships. Speaking of details, I also really appreciated Norrell’s wigs in this episode. He’s got a variety of them, and every one is either ratty-looking, ill-fitting, or both. Because, obviously he can’t be bothered. It’s a lovely little bit of visual characterization that makes me think that the people involved in the production are really committed to making something special.
The show has combined the Shadow House and Starecross into one place, and they’ve moved up Segundus and Honeyfoot looking to open a magician’s school on the property. I’m not thrilled with this change, because I want to see as many great magicians’ houses as possible, but it makes a lot of sense with the way the show is generally just shuffling things around and streamlining events. And, really, it doesn’t matter which house it is; what matters is that Segundus and Honeyfoot are in the right place at the right time to meet Jonathan Strange so they can refer him to Mr. Norrell.
In London, Lady Pole is a wonderful dinner hostess. I love how loud and opinionated she is, which make the rest of what happens to her in this episode extra horrifying. I’m kind of surprised by just how much I love the show’s Lady Pole, to be honest. I adored the character in the book, but seeing her brought to life is even better. She definitely improves in adaptation, and I’m especially pleased that the show seems to be making just as certain as the book ever did that we know that Lady Pole is not actually crazy. Rather, she’s enchanted and spitting angry about it.
This episode introduces Sir Walter’s butler, Stephen Black, who is exactly how I imagined him, if a bit more taciturn than I would have liked. Some of that is because basically all the characters that Stephen interacts with in the book have been cut from the adaptation, so he speaks very little except with the Gentleman, and then it’s mostly utterances of confusion and helpless dismay. In the book, Stephen is a complicated character who doesn’t say much but who does think a lot, only here we don’t have the insight into his private thoughts that the book offers. Additionally, I don’t think it helps that they seem to light most of Stephen’s scenes to flatter the white fairy, which makes Ariyon Bakare’s very dark face hard to read at times simply because he nearly fades into the background.
We do get our first proper look at Faerie in this episode, in flashes in Lady Pole’s dreams and then more thoroughly when the Gentleman takes Stephen there. I absolutely loved the dark forest, the path Stephen follows the Gentleman down, and the outside view of Lost-hope. Once they get inside, though, I was disappointed. Everything is so positively gray, and I would have much preferred to see some color. I’ve always felt like part of the horror of Lost-hope is the dissonance of the place–bright colors and whimsy and dancing, but surrounded by an ancient battlefield and a dark forest and with gloomy tolling bells. There’s too much of a sameness to everything here, and while there is some sparkle, it’s not enough to keep the place from just feeling terribly bleak when I feel like it ought to have instead been disturbing and strange and awful in that way instead.
Probably the most important thing that happens in this episode is the meeting of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and it’s so very like it was described in the book that I felt a little teary. Again, though, the show seems to struggle a little with portraying the passage of time. I love how they show the early days of Strange and Norrell’s partnership (and I laughed out loud at Norrell’s ten year plan written out), but it felt like just a single afternoon and didn’t convey months or even weeks passing before things quickly moved along to other meetings and scenes between character pairs.
This focus on pairs of characters is something else about the book that I’m very glad to see preserved in the adaptation. Indeed, most scenes in the show are between pairs of characters, and this episode in particular either works to pair characters off in significant ways (Strange and Norrell, Stephen Black and the Gentleman, Lady Pole and Arabella) or expands upon our understanding of the relationships between already existing character pairs (Childermass and Norrell, Drawlight and Lascelles, Strange and Arabella, Honeyfoot and Segundus). Like the book, the show is constantly pairing off characters and then switching them around and seeing how they interact in various combinations so that we can see a variety of fascinating contrasts and parallels between them.
In a sequence that is perhaps a little heavyhanded, we get to see two feats of magic at Portsmouth. First, Mr. Norrell finally completes the series of sea beacons that he promised the government. While a good number of people have gathered on the beach to watch him finish the spell, it turns out that there isn’t anything to see. As one might expect, everyone is terribly disappointed.
The next morning, however, they are in for a treat. Probably because of the sea beacons, a ship has run aground on a shoal. Norrell claims to have a headache that prevents him from doing anything about it, but Jonathan Strange comes back out to the beach to see if he can help. After a couple of bad ideas, Strange thinks to use the sand itself to upright the ship, and because the shoal is called Horse Sand, he forms the sand into horses that go out to the ship and set it back up in the water. It’s extremely impressive, perhaps even excessively so, and it’s definitely the coolest piece of magic we’ve seen performed so far. Mostly, though, it establishes Jonathan Strange’s reputation as a powerful magician in his own right, and it plants the idea in the ministers’ heads that maybe they could send a magician to the war after all.
By the end of the episode, this is what indeed happens. Although Norrell was at first very opposed to the idea, knowledge of an imminent book sale (provided by Lascelles and Drawlight) convinces him that perhaps Strange would be better off out of the country for a while after all. I hope that Norrell is getting a lot of new books, since Strange is taking forty or so of Norrell’s books with him to the Peninsula.