Category Archives: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Reminder: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to air on BBC America starting tomorrow night

The great Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell reread is finished, and tomorrow the show starts airing in the US. I will be posting a recap and analysis of each episode the Monday after it airs.

You can get an early start on the series if you’d like, as the first episode is available to stream already at BBC America.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 68-69

Strange_BlackAfter the relative calm of the last three chapters, the penultimate chapter of the book contains another flurry of events described in short vignettes:

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell discuss their shared experience of wanting John Uskglass’s attention and their shared desire to impress their mutual master. To that end, they begin looking for a spell that might do the trick.
  • The gentleman with the thistledown hair approaches Starecross, bent on revenging himself against Lady Pole.
  • Lady Pole is furiously writing letters to expose Norrell’s treatment of her when she sees the gentleman and Stephen Black approaching and runs out to meet them. John Segundus follows her.
  • Back at Hurtfew, Strange and Norrell locate the book they’ve been searching for and begin their spell, targeting the “nameless slave.”
  • Outside Starecross, Stephen Black suddenly finds all the magic of England at his disposal. Quickly working through some of his complicated feelings about England, Stephen Black uses the enormous burst of magic to kill the gentleman with thistledown hair. While the gentleman warns Stephen that he will never know his true name now, Stephen has come to terms with being the nameless slave.
  • At a house in Padua, Arabella Strange steps out of a mirror and into the arms of Flora Greysteel.
  • Stephen wakes up to Lady Pole calling him from far away. He ignores her, “[casting] off the name of [his] captivity,” and walks further into Faerie, where he finds himself at Lost-hope. There, he is welcomed by the inhabitants as their new king, fulfilling his part of Vinculus’s prophecy.
  • Once more at Hurtfew, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell finally feel as if they’ve gotten the attention of John Uskglass, and they find it rather disturbing. Norrell locates Lady Pole (in Yorkshire) and Arabella (in Italy), but Strange doesn’t seem particularly interested in the news.

The final chapter of the book does two things.

To start with, it mirrors the first chapter of the book by focusing on a meeting of Yorkshire magicians. This one is every bit as raucous and argumentative as the first one, especially when they learn the reason for their having been called together. Childermass is there, and he’s come to tell them that their previous agreement with Norrell is null and void, that anyone can practice magic now however they like. When they complain of their lack of books, Childermass brings forth Vinculus, whose tattoos have been rewritten entirely.

Finally, the book ends in Padua, where Arabella Strange has been recuperating with the Greysteels. She and Flora have become fast friends, and they are getting ready to return to England when a spot of darkness appears, heralding the arrival of Jonathan Strange. Arabella goes to meet her husband, but this last reunion of the novel is bittersweet.

This, I think is my favorite part of the whole book, and I will love Arabella Strange forever for not going into the Darkness with her husband. It makes for an ending that is heartbreakingly sad, but also beautiful and just and completely perfect for the story. Because, ultimately, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell deserve each other.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 65-67

Strange_RedThese chapters continue to examine pairs of characters: Stephen Black and the gentleman with thistledown hair; Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; and Childermass and Vinculus. Then last line of Chapter 67 is also what I would call the proper climax of the book, the final revelation before the denouement in the last couple of short chapters.

These three chapters are each rather short, and after the sort of frantic pace of happenings in the last few chapters, these chapters are comparably calm.

Stephen Black’s Name

Chapter 65 is half taken up with the story of how the gentleman with the thistledown hair found out Stephen Black’s true name. It’s a fascinating story, although we don’t actually find out Stephen’s name.

Primarily, this chapter contains three events. The gentleman finds out that Jonathan Strange is back in England, and then he learns that Lady Pole has been released from her enchantment. Sandwiched between these two revelations, Stephen Black and the gentleman encounter Vinculus. In a fit of malicious caprice, the gentleman hangs Vinculus from a nearby tree before Stephen Black can even protest, and then they are off again. The gentleman intends to cast a spell on Lady Pole so that she won’t live long now that she’s free of him.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell together again.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell together again.

“Let you and me do something extraordinary.”

In Chapter 66, Norrell finally makes it to his library, where he finds a disheveled Jonathan Strange poring over the books. I love every single thing about this reunion. I love that it’s Jonathan Strange’s totally normal noise-making that emboldens Norrell to enter the room, and I love that the two men so quickly revert to something like their normal interactions. I love that Norrell is so easily seduced by Strange’s enticements–because no matter how repressed Norrell has been, he loves magic, and all he has wanted to do is magic, and the scary shit that Jonathan Strange is up to is exactly what Norrell has always wanted to do. I love that they find themselves stuck in Eternal Darkness together–because of course the are.

Aside from the reunion of the two magicians and all the feelings that generates, the only thing to really happen in this chapter is their attempt to summon John Uskglass. While he doesn’t show up in the room with them, Strange and Norrell are able to use a locating spell that places him in Yorkshire, and close.

John Uskglass’s Spell

Chapter 67 contains another reunion, this time between John Childermass and Vinculus, who is lately dead. Childermass comes upon Vinculus’s hanging corpse as he makes his way back towards Hurtfew Abbey, and this distracts Childermass from his stated mission to help Strange and Norrell. Instead of continuing his journey, Childermass stops to try and figure out a way to preserve the precious writing that covers Vinculus’s body.

As Childermass tries to figure out what to do, a mysterious man in black shows up. It’s obvious to the reader that this is the Raven King himself, but Childermass is unable to recognize him, probably because of magic. The Raven King resurrects Vinculus and disappears.

Vinculus awakes and Childermass thinks now that Vinculus was only unconscious. Vinculus tells Childermass some more about the prophecies that he’s told. Childermass expresses his loyalty to John Uskglass, but states that the restoration of English magic is the work of Strange and Norrell, not the Raven King. At this, Vinculus laughs outright:

“Their work!” Vinculus scoffed. “Theirs? Do you still not understand? They are the spell John Uskglass is doing. That is all they have ever been. And he is doing it now!”

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.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 59-61

Strange_RedThings just get better and better. For the reader, that is. Maybe not so much for the characters in the book, for most of whom things are just getting scary.

These are the chapters where I would say Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell becomes an epic fantasy in a characteristic other than page count. While Norrell has done quite a bit of magic around England, most of it has happened off-page, and though Strange has done some impressive magic, especially in the war, it still feels inconsequential in comparison to the things going on now.

Rumors

In Venice, Dr. Greysteel receives a visitor: the newly-freed-from-debtor’s-prison Mr. Drawlight, who is as odious as ever. Drawlight has already been flittering about all over Venice in order to find out rumors, malicious and otherwise, about Jonathan Strange in addition to spreading some of his own (namely, the rumor that Jonathan Strange murdered his wife). Finally, Drawlight makes his way to see Dr. Greysteel, hoping to pump the man for information about Strange. To Drawlight’s disappointment, Dr. Greysteel is a sensible man and a loyal friend; even Greysteel’s servants are incorruptible.

Unfortunately, Drawlight doesn’t truly need Greysteel’s help to blacken Strange’s name all over town, and soon “Jonathan Strange murdered his wife” is added to the list of things that “everyone” knows. When Drawlight tries to bribe Greysteel’s servant, Frank, he finds himself pushed unceremoniously into a canal that uncannily whisks him into the dark part of town that surrounds Jonathan Strange.

Drawlight discovers Jonathan Strange outside a church in Venice.
Drawlight discovers Jonathan Strange outside a church in Venice.

Three Messages

Drawlight is terrified by the darkness he finds himself in and is wandering around trying to find his way out when he finds Jonathan Strange. It takes a moment, but Strange recognizes Drawlight and tells him he has three messages Drawlight must deliver.

First Strange tells Drawlight about Lady Pole’s enchantment and that it’s Norrell’s doing. He gives Drawlight the box with Lady Pole’s finger in it and tells him to give the box to John Childermass and tell Childermass what Norrell has done. Next, Strange gives Drawlight a cryptic message for all the magicians in England:

“Tell them this… Tree speaks to stone; stone speaks to water. It is not so hard as we supposed. Tell them to read what is written in the sky. Tell them to ask the rain! All of John Uskglass’s old alliances are still in place. I am sending messengers to remind the stones and the sky and the rain of their ancient promises.”

When Strange is done, Drawlight reminds him that he never gave the third message. Strange seems very caught up in a moment of madness, but finally he spits out the last message:

“Tell Norrell I am coming!”

Back in England, Stephen Black is visited by the man with the thistledown hair, who is frightened and angry. He knows what Jonathan Strange is doing, and he doesn’t like it.

Aunt Greysteel
Aunt Greysteel

Flora Greysteel

I’m so happy that Flora kind of gets her own chapter here, and it’s a good one.

After being sent away from Venice, she and her aunt have taken lodging in Padua where Flora can rest and deal with her disappointment over her separation from Jonathan Strange. Before Flora can really move on, though, she has one last meeting with Strange, under bizarre circumstances.

We find out that the purpose of this meeting was so Flora could persuade Jonathan Strange to give up the madness, and he has even given her the bottle of tincture he made so she can dispose of it. Flora is sad about the loss of Strange, but she is determined to be a good friend to him and insists that she convinced him to leave off the madness because she believed it was what Arabella would want. When Flora pours the remainder of Strange’s madness tincture into the sea, I feel like she really is going to be okay.

The Magic of England

In England again, Norrell and Lascelles are very concerned about how things are going. While they have managed to largely discredit Jonathan Strange, this has also worked against their own interests, and Norrell is no longer receiving any commissions from the government and has become rather generally disliked and distrusted.

Perhaps the first sign of change is when Childermass informs Norrell that magic is being done in England. While there has been talk for years of magic, this is the first time that it seems to be legit claim, and Childermass seems alarmed. Lascelles is disdainful of the idea, though, and directs Norrell’s attention to a summons from the Ministers in the hope that it will be a new commission at last.

When Norrell and Lascelles meet with the Ministers, it turns out that it is a commission, but it’s not what either of them expected. Childermass was correct in his assertion that people were doing magic in England again, and the Ministers have numerous confirmed stories of their own. When Norrell denies any knowledge of or responsibility for any of this, it becomes obvious that Jonathan Strange has done something to bring back the magic.

Norrell’s new commission, therefore, is to prevent Jonathan Strange from returning to England. Norrell knows that there’s really no way he can prevent it–he can only prepare for it. Childermass suggests that Strange will go to Hurtfew Abbey–presumably for Norrell’s library–so that will be the place to meet him.

Also, Drawlight is back.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 55-58

Strange_BlackSomething great about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is that there’s not really any singular point at which things go off the rails for our characters. There’s no one moment where I read it and am like, “shit just got real.” In fact, because of the way the story is presented–as if it is a slightly scholarly history book, looking back on the events of the novel from some time later–there are remarkably few actual surprises for the reader.

And so, in these chapters, although there are big reveals for several of our main characters, the surprises for the reader are much smaller scale and sandwiched into the quieter moments between major events.

Arabella

Jonathan Strange dances with a fairy woman at Lost Hope.
Jonathan Strange dances with a fairy woman at Lost Hope.

The biggest major event of this section of the book is Jonathan Strange learning that his wife, Arabella, is not dead at all, but has actually been imprisoned in Faerie all this time. The stand-out characters in these scenes, however, are the women–a fairy woman Jonathan Strange speaks with, Lady Pole, and Arabella herself.

Before seeing his wife alive, Strange’s first conversation at the Lost Hope party is with a fairy woman whose conversation seems to indicate that maybe the two English magicians ought to have paid better attention to Vinculus’s prophecy. Strange and Norrell must fail, she says, but Strange is unwilling or unable to understand–it’s too late for them to fail, he thinks.

After parting from the fairy woman, Strange runs into Arabella and Lady Pole. Arabella thinks he must have come to rescue them, but Lady Pole thinks (correctly) not. Lady Pole steals the scene here with her general disdain for the powers of men to do anything to help their situation. Jonathan Strange manages to look like a huge asshole throughout this whole party, to be honest, and it’s no different here.

Meanwhile, Stephen Black is trying unsuccessfully to persuade an irate gentleman with thistle-down hair that it would be best to release Lady Pole and Arabella from their enchantment to avoid angering the magician. However, the fairy gentleman has another plan entirely. To Stephen Black’s dismay, the gentleman expels Jonathan Strange from Lost Hope and places a powerful curse upon the magician.

Darkness, Misery, and Solitude

Sent forcibly back to Venice and reeling from the shock of seeing Arabella, Jonathan Strange goes immediately to tell Dr. Greysteel the news and warn him to send Flora Greysteel away. The doctor, who is a sensible man, is appalled at Strange’s seeming madness, but he can’t deny that things are getting weird. This is confirmed the next day when a huge dark tower has sprung up and looms over the city and the parish where Strange has been living is cloaked in a sort of permanent night.

Various luminaries of the city come to Dr. Greysteel to beg him to intercede with his friend the magician, but when Greysteel arrives to speak with Strange, the magician has not even been aware of the unusual darkness that surrounds him. Instead, Strange has been feverishly working magic and writing letters, primarily to Arabella’s brother, Henry Woodhope, asking him to come immediately.

While it’s not terribly important, there is, at the end of Chapter 56, an excellent encounter between Dr. Greysteel and Lord Byron, who discuss Strange’s madness. It’s a thematically interesting conversation between two characters who seem like they should never be in a room together, and it might be my favorite part of this section of the book.

Back in England, Henry Woodhope visits Mr. Norrell rather than going to Strange in Venice. Norrell denies any knowledge of what Strange’s letters might mean, and Norrell and Lascelles dissuade Henry from visiting his brother in law at all. Even the news that Arabella’s corpse had been replaced with a black log is explained away, and Strange’s letters to Henry are practically confiscated–only to turn up later, published in a misleadingly altered form in order to imply that Jonathan Strange murdered his wife with magic.

As the chapter ends, Lascelles is paying off someone’s debts–presumably the someone that he and Norrell are sending to retrieve Jonathan Strange since they don’t trust Childermass. Elsewhere in London, various ministers and the Duke of Wellington are gathered to discuss the Strange situation themselves.

 

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!”