Category Archives: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 30-31

Strange_RedThese two chapters, I think, feel as if there is a ton of stuff going on when, really, only a couple of things happen. There’s some really excellent exposition, though, and it’s great fun to read.

Nan Purvis

Once Jonathan Strange is gone from England, Norrell has time to focus on finding Vinculus’s book, although Childermass is doing most of the actual searching. A break comes when Vinculus’s first wife, Nan Purvis, tells Childermass the story of the time she and her husband met Vinculus’s father.

Apparently, Vinculus despised the man, whose name was Clegg, and Vinculus told Nan Purvis that Clegg was guilty of “the worst crime committed in England in the last hundred years.” When pressed on what exactly the crime was, Nan recalls that Vinculus said that Clegg had stolen a book.

The Book of Magic

After exhausting Nan’s knowledge, Childermass then went to Yorkshire in search of more concrete details about Clegg and the book he stole. Basically all of Yorkshire was once the Raven King’s country, and a family of farmers there, named Findhelm, came into possession of an ancient book some generations ago. The book in question is supposed to have been written by the Raven King himself, and if it could be found and authenticated, it would be the most significant magical discovery in centuries. Even Norrell, who despises the Raven King, is forced to admit the value such a book would hold.

Book Murder

In 1754, Robert Findhelm gave the book to Clegg to be delivered to a man in Derbyshire. However, on his way there Clegg went on a bender, one thing led to another, and he was dared to eat the book, which he did. Several days later, Clegg sobered up, realized what he had done, and simply moved to London where he could disappear. Four years later, he knocks up a waitress who turns out to be Vinculus’s mother.

Norrell insists that this story must be a lie, that Clegg must have stolen the book for his son, but Childermass sensibly points out that Vinculus wasn’t even a twinkle in his father’s eye at the time of the theft. It also turns out that, while Nan said that Clegg had stolen a book, when Clegg was hanged some years later the charge was book murder,  Apparently, willfully destroying a book of magic is punishable under English law the same as if one had murdered a person, although Clegg was the last known person to actually be executed for such a crime.

Childermass was unable to find out anything else about the book, and no one can hazard a guess as to how Vinculus may have gotten it, but they all agree to that it’s unusual.

An Apology and an Explanation

Meanwhile, Stephen Black is visited by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, who apologizes for not taking Stephen to live at Lost-hope forever and explains that it is because he is convinced that Stephen’s destined kingdom is England,so obviously, Stephen can’t just move to fairyland.

While this is all important stuff, my favorite part of this last bit of Chapter 30 is how wonderful an example it is of fairy reasoning. It’s been suggested already in the book that fairies are not entirely sane, and this definitely supports that view. Every time I reread this book, I fall in love with Susanna Clarke’s fairies a little more. They aren’t even particularly evil, just inhumanly inconsiderate and incapable of actually understanding human desires and needs.

Rather a Formidable Person

Jonathan Strange speaks to the dead.
Jonathan Strange speaks to the dead.

Chapter 31 details the rest of Jonathan Strange’s time in military service. It’s a chapter that actually spans over two years of time, and it’s the first chapter I’ve reached in this reread that I didn’t really love. Mostly, I just find it overlong for the amount of important stuff that happens in it–which is basically two things.

  1. Jonathan Strange does something that I think any reasonable person would consider to be black magic when he reanimates the corpses of seventeen Neapolitan soldiers. Worse than just animating them, he does it without knowing how to end the spell, so eventually the animated corpses have to be destroyed because they are so unpleasant.
  2. The war ends, and Jonathan Strange returns to England. These scenes I actually did really like–Strange’s reunions with his wife and with Norrell–and they serve to establish how these relationships have changed over the last several years of book time.

Overall, though, the chapter just sort of dragged for me, until about the last page and a half of it. Even still, while reading all the stories about it gets tedious, the chapter does really hammer home the point that Strange is reckless with magic and often careless of the consequences of his actions.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 28-29

Strange_BlackAfter checking in with Lady Pole, we’re back again to focusing on Strange and Norrell and the ways in which they can participate in the War. These chapters have some of the most impressive acts of magic in the books so far, as well as just generally being more action-oriented than the previous third of the book.

The End of 1810

By the end of 1810, basically everything is terrible.

A princess has died, the king has gone mad, the war is a quagmire, and no amount of spells cast by Strange and Norrell seems to make things better. Everything is a mess, and people are becoming decidedly disenchanted with magic.

Horse Sand

When a ship runs aground near Portsmouth, it’s an opportunity for magic to save the day again, and Jonathan Strange gets a moment to really shine. Most of his magic so far has been done in tandem with Norrell since arriving in London, but here Strange is alone and forced to rely on his own more creative sort of magic.

Taking inspiration from the name of the spit of land where the ship has run aground, Strange creates dozens of horses out of sand and sea water, with the idea that the horses should be hitched to the ship to pull it back into the water. Between the displaced sand and what little help the horses turn out to be, the ship is rescued, and it’s all very impressive. While it’s debatable just how useful the spell was, it does serve to get people excited about magic again, and the idea occurs to the ministers that, while they could never send Norrell abroad to help with the war, perhaps Strange would be just the man for the job.


At first, Norrell is vehemently against the idea of his student being sent to the continent, and he’s even more upset when Jonathan Strange brings up the matter of the books he will need to take with him on his journey. Knowing that all the magic books in England are Norrell’s, Strange even manages to broach the topic of books in such a way that Norrell is obliged to agree to loan them.

It’s only when Norrell learns of a likely book sale that he becomes anxious to get Strange out of England. Norrell may miss the forty or so books that Strange intends to borrow for the trip, but Norrell is glad to remove Strange from having the opportunity to bid against him at auction. Even still, Norrell must bid against Arabella Strange, although it turns out that Norrell is able to outbid her every time.

Jonathan Strange reports for duty.

In the Lines

From pretty much the moment he lands in Portugal, Jonathan Strange finds himself a little out of his depth. When he finally makes the acquaintance of Lord Wellington, Strange is told outright that a magician is no use on the front and that the “help” he and Norrell have provided thus far has actually been no such thing. Dejected, Strange goes away, but he is still determined to contribute somehow or other.

Over several weeks, Strange submits proposal after proposal to Wellington, but all are refused. The chaplain is some help in encouraging Strange to find a way to make himself useful, but it’s only after he starts getting to know the soldiers that Strange starts having good ideas. Finally, he settles upon the idea of making roads for the troops to march down more easily. Wellington is thrilled with this idea, and the chapter ends with two happy images: Jonathan Strange riding down his magically-created road at Wellington’s right hand and enemy troops refusing to use perfectly ordinary roads for fear that they are magicked.


Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 26-27

Strange_RedChapters 26 and 27 are largely concerned with updating us on the situation with Stephen Black and Lady Pole. Important introductions are made as well, between Jonathan Strange and Sir Walter Pole and–even more significantly–between Arabella Strange and Lady Pole.

The Music Never Varied

It is now nearly two years after Lady Pole and Stephen Black were first enchanted by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. Both Stephen and Lady Pole continue to be whisked away every night for various entertainments–balls, dinners, processions, and so on–in fairy land, and we can see that this takes a great toll on their constitutions.

Throughout this time, the fairy gentleman has lavished all kinds of gifts and attentions on Stephen Black in particular, and in chapter 26, the fairy contrives to gift Stephen with a crown, scepter and orb, which are traditional accouterments of royalty. The gentleman is convinced that the kingdom that Stephen Black is destined to rule is in fact England. Stephen, for his part, wants none of this, but finds himself incapable of communicating his problem to anyone.

Mr. and Mrs. Strange

As the Stranges settle in to London, they find themselves quite popular and well-liked. Jonathan Strange is younger and much more agreeable than Norrell, and Arabella is pretty, intelligent and charming. However, the beginning of Chapter 27 finds Arabella slightly at odds with her husband, who seems to have grown a little distant and slightly inconsiderate of his wife. Although she’s sweet and good and patient, and largely indulgent of her husband’s new profession and friends, it’s clear that Arabella is not entirely comfortable with their situation.

In the winter of 1809-10, Jonathan and Arabella are invited to the home of Sir Walter Pole, where Pole wants Jonathan to discuss the use of magic in the war effort. While the men go to confer, Arabella determines to sit down and read, only to find she’s really not in the mood. Instead she begins to explore the Poles’ home.

What Lady Pole Said

Arabella soon comes to a lovely room filled with paintings of Venice. As she admires the artwork, she almost doesn’t notice Lady Pole, who is relaxing before the fireplace. The ladies introduce themselves, and Arabella comments that she has heard much of the great service Norrell has performed for Lady Pole.

“Mr. Norrell has been no friend to me,” said Lady Pole in a dry, matter-of fact tone. “I had far better be dead than than be as I am.”

Arabella is aghast, being used to thinking that Norrell’s saving of Lady Pole’s life was a miraculous service, although Arabella herself has no reason to love her husband’s tutor. As Lady Pole continues on, Arabella starts to be concerned, and Lady Pole insists that she has some secret to tell. Unfortunately, much like Stephen Black, Lady Pole is simply incapable of speaking about her enchantment, and all that comes from her mouth is mad-sounding stories.

Sir Walter comes to take his wife away, although Lady Pole greatly desires that Arabella should come back and visit.

“I see no one. Or rather, I see whole roomfuls of people, but not, a Christian among them.”

Arabella of course promises to visit. While left alone, Arabella hears a bell, which strikes her as odd, as Sir Walter told them earlier that the bells no longer ring in their part of town. As they leave, Mr. and Mrs. Strange both describe having odd experiences.

A few days later, Drawlight is trying to pump Arabella for information on Lady Pole, but this only confirms Arabella’s low opinion of the man.

The Ladies of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

I love these characters so much. Arabella is an absolute delight, but even Lady Pole is a well-drawn character with a personality of her own. Probably my favorite thing about this last chapter is the look that Lady Pole gives her husband, as observed by Arabella:

There was a sadness in it and pity too and, oddly enough, a little amusement. It was as if she were saying to herself, “Look at us! What a sad pair we make!”

I really appreciate that Lady Pole is not a mere object. She’s not simply a damsel in need of rescue or a mystery for a hero to solve. She’s a person, with opinions and ideas and a sense of humor.

By the same token, Arabella isn’t just Jonathan Strange’s good little wife. While she’s definitely patient with him and willing to put up with his eccentricities and the demands of his new career, she’s no pushover. She’s smart and funny and brave and kind, and she’s a fairly decent judge of human character.

It makes me very happy that in a book that is so concerned with the intertwining lives and stories of two men, the author still makes it a point to dedicate time and space in the story to developing female characters and writing their relationship.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 23-25

Strange_BlackBetween the end of Volume One and the first chapter of Volume Two, a period of some fifteen months has elapsed, which allows us to jump straight into the next phase of the story. In these chapters, Jonathan Strange is discovered, introduced to Mr. Norrell, and embarks further on his career as a practical magician.

The Magician’s Garden

Chapter 23 revisits our old friends Honeyfoot and Segundus, who are visiting a very old, very magical property in Wiltshire called the Shadow House. This ruined place was once the home of one Gregory Absalom, court magician to Henry VIII and both Mary and Elizabeth. While Absalom was not fabulously adept at actually performing magic, he was incredibly skilled at getting people to pay for his services, and the he built the Shadow House in the sixteenth century. Honeyfoot and Segundus are visiting it, as it’s meant to be one of the most magical places in England.

13 Shadow House-1Mr. Honeyfoot seems hardly sensible of the strangeness of the place, but Mr. Segundus is more sensitive, it seems, to the odd auras of the ruined garden they explore. Segundus feels so weird about the place that he has to stop and rest, only to have find himself dreaming of a mysterious woman. Just as another man appears in the dream, seeming shocked to see Segundus there, Mr. Honeyfoot shakes his friend awake and the move on to explore the interior of the Shadow House.

Strange Magic

Almost immediately upon entering the ruined building, the two gentleman come upon two other gentleman. Segundus recognizes one of the men straight away–it is Jonathan Strange, who has made a sort of pilgrimage to the Shadow House with his brother-in-law in order to try and summon spirit of Maria, the daughter of Gregory Absalom. At first Strange is simply irate at the spoiling of his spell, but his annoyance quickly turns to excitement at the prospect of meeting a fellow magician.

Finding that they are staying at the same inn, the men have dinner together, where Honeyfoot and Segundus are amazed to find that Jonathan Strange is a practical magician and a little in awe of what Strange has accomplished in less than two years of study. For his part, Strange feels he hasn’t accomplished much at all, and he particularly has struggled to find books from which to learn as Norrell generally buys them all up as quickly as they are available. Most of Jonathan’s magic, then, has been invented by himself, which is even more incredible to Segundus and Honeyfoot, who are used to thinking of magic as a mostly scholarly pursuit. In the throes of their excitement, Honeyfoot and Segundus encourage Strange to seek out Norrell, although Segundus at least has the sense to have some misgivings about this advice later on.

The Education of a Magician

The first meeting between Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange is basically everything one could hope for. Of course the two can’t stand each other, being vastly different in age, experience, opinions, and every other aspect, and their initial interview is awkward in every possible way. Drawlight and Lascelles are no help; anxious as they are to maintain their place in Norrell’s regard, they are eager to disparage Strange, who they see as a rival. For her part, Arabella Strange is encouraging toward her husband, but Jonathan doesn’t see much chance that he and Norrell will get on together at all, and he expresses a desire to be done with the whole idea.

However, Strange and Norrell both turn out to be almost obsessively interested in each other, and it’s not too long before they meet again. Mr. Norrell makes Mr. Strange a present of a book, and Mr. Strange makes a demonstration of magic. He puts the book inside a mirror and replaces the real book with its mirror image. In one of Norrell’s few truly likeable moments, the older magician is not upset at this proof–he’s excited by it, and this is the most animated that we have ever seen Norrell so far. Although Norrell disapproves of Strange’s having married, he insists upon Strange becoming his student, to which Strange agrees, reasoning that there is no other way for him to get access to Norrell’s vast hoard of books.

The student-teacher relationship doesn’t go entirely smoothly in the beginning, as Norrell is picky about what knowledge he’s willing to share and Strange chafes at Norrell’s restrictions, but both men still seem to profit from their acquaintance.  If nothing else, their disagreements over, well, most things magical are a delight to read, and through Mr. Norrell’s lists and book recommendations to his pupil, we get a much better understanding of the history and theory of English magic.

Bad Dreams

While Mr. Strange is not entirely pleased with the progress of his studies with Norrell, he does have success in one area in which Norrell has so far failed. Previously, Norrell had been enjoined to send bad dreams to Napoleon, but Norrell’s lack of imagination made this a fruitless endeavor. Strange’s first act of magic in the service of England is to trouble the dreams of Napoleon’s ally, the Emperor of Russia. By the end of Chapter 25, Emperor Alexander is so unsettled by the portentous dreams Strange plagues him with that he becomes too distracted with trying to interpret them to bother with the business of ruling at all.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapter 22

Strange_RedIn Chapter 22, we finally meet Jonathan Strange for real. It’s a great ending to Volume One of the book, and by the end of the chapter we’ve met all of the most important characters and all the pieces are moved into place for the rest of the story. 260 pages is a very long first part, and I have a feeling that some readers may dislike the lack of action so far, but this is definitely where it starts to get really, really good.

12 Jonathan Strange -1
Jonathan Strange

Jonathan Strange

After his father’s death, Jonathan Strange proves himself to be quite a different sort of man than Laurence Strange. However, while free of his father’s vices, Jonathan isn’t particularly virtuous, either. Rather, he’s only a decent sort of man, well-liked by fashionable people, but without any strikingly good traits. Red-haired and long-nosed, Jonathan isn’t even particularly handsome, although he is tall and fit. The author describes him as having a face with “an ironic expression,” which I love, as it’s a description that is very indicative of Jonathan Strange’s personality.

Arabella Woodhope

Arabella is the woman that Jonathan wants to marry, having only been prevented from doing so thus far by his father’s disapproval of Arabella’s relative poverty. With his father out of the way, Jonathan hopes to soon wed. The problem now, of course, is that Arabella disapproves of Jonathan’s idle lifestyle, and although he has spent the last year fully intending to pick up one profession or another, he hasn’t quite gotten to the point just yet. Even so, with his father’s death, Jonathan intends to propose immediately (reasoning that Arabella “would never be more full of anxious tenderness than she was at this moment and he would never be richer”) so he rides to meet Arabella at the home of some of her friends in Gloucestershire.

The Man Under the Hedge

On his way to propose, Jonathan comes to an empty town. When he finds the townspeople, they are all in a furor over a passing vagabond who has been bothering the village for several days and whom they plan to send on his way. When the man extracts himself from the thorn bushes he’s been sleeping under, he introduces himself as Vinculus.

Vinculus immediately recognizes Jonathan Strange as the second magician of his prophecy, which he recites again now. Jonathan is unimpressed by such dreary pronouncements, and is ready to ride off when Vinculus stops him. Vinculus pulls out the spells that Norrell had written down for Childermass to use against the street magician, and offers to sell them to Jonathan, who pays for them, if only to stop Vinculus from talking to him any longer.

11 strange & arabella-1
Jonathan Strange, Arabella Woodhope, and Mrs. Redmond

The Spirit of a Banker

When Jonathan Strange finally arrives at the home of Arabella’s friends, the Redmonds, he isn’t prepared to answer Mrs. Redmond’s questions about what he intends to do now that his father is gone. Finally, he declares his intention to study magic and produces the spells that he bought from Vinculus. Only one of the spells seems practical to do, “A Spell to Discover What My Enemy is Doing Presently,” but Jonathan manages easily to perform it. They are all disappointed, however, to see only a man fitting Mr. Norrell’s description and just sitting in his library working at a desk.

“If I am a magician, I am a very indifferent one. Other adepts summon up fairy-spirits and long-dead kings. I appear to have conjured the spirit of a banker!” says Jonathan Strange, laughing, at the close of the chapter.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 20-21

Strange_BlackThis section of the book contains perhaps my favorite encounter in the novel, one between Childermass and Vinculus. These are two of the most interesting characters in the book so far, and their meeting is everything I could ever want to read when two characters I love cross paths for the first time.

Setbacks and Disappointments

Chapters 20 and 21 see the end of Mr. Norrell’s honeymoon period as the only magician in England, and he quickly starts trying to secure his position in other ways. While the cabinet ministers are bemoaning the lack of other magicians, convinced as they are that if only they had more magic at their disposal they could win the war, Norrell is more concerned with eliminating all other magicians to preserve his own primacy.

The Street Magicians

Street magicians have already been mentioned many times in the book, and seldom in flattering terms. By and large, they are charlatans, essentially performance artists looking to make a quick penny off of whatever credulous marks they can find. Norrell, as one might expect, has a special loathing for these frauds, and he manages to mobilize the government to ban and expel them.

Vinculus’s Booth

Eventually, only one street magician is left in London, the famous Vinculus who we’ve already met. Although threatened with arrest and fines and time in the stocks, Vinculus refuses to go, and his popularity with the people of London is such as to make physically removing him a dodgy prospect. The authorities are concerned it could set off a riot.

Finally, when it seems clear that Vinculus will not be rousted by other means, Norrell sends his own man, Childermass to deal with him. Childermass goes to Vinculus in the guise of a milliner, but Vinculus quickly sees through the ruse and the two repair to an ale-house to discuss things.

Vinculus and Childermass at the Pineapple
Vinculus and Childermass at the Pineapple

At the Pineapple

At a corner table, Childermass gets right into it, pointing out that with a real magician in London, there will be no more demand for Vinculus’s tricks, so why should Vinculus insist on sticking around? Vinculus in turn mocks Norrell as being no better, really, than himself:

“The magician of Hanover Square! All the great men in London sit telling one another that they never saw a man so honest. But I know magicians and I know magic, and I say this: all magicians lie and this one more than most.”

Childermass can’t or won’t deny this charge, and Vinculus goes on to start reciting again the prophecy that he pronounced to Mr. Norrell. When Childermass asks, Vinculus says the prophecy is from a book–one which Vinculus has possession of and that Norrell can never have.  If you’re reading along, pay close attention to the words Vinculus uses when he talks about the book.

The Cards of Marseilles

After drinking in silence for some time after Vinculus’s statement about the book, Childermass offers to read Vinculus’s fortune. He lays out the cards with Vinculus’s consent, and begins flipping them over. Interestingly, it turns out that Vinculus is already planning to go wandering, and Childermass laughs when he realizes that his efforts to convince the other man to leave were unnecessary.  Vinculus then runs the cards for Childermass’s own fortune, and Childermass confirms its’ accuracy, although Vinculus doesn’t have the education to actually read them himself. As Childermass says:

“You are a strange creature–the very reverse of all the magicians of the last centuries. The were full of learning but had no talent. You have talent but no knowledge.”

The Emperors

Vinculus then states his intention to tell Norrell’s fortune as well. While Childermass doesn’t see the point, he doesn’t stop Vinculus from laying out the cards. As the begin to turn the cards over, however, every single one of them is L’Emperor, only this emperor looks much more like the Raven King–Norrell’s past, present, and future.  Even without knowing much about Tarot, this should stand out to the reader, but a quick glance through the list of meanings this card can hold will give one a much greater appreciation for the author’s sense of drama in this scene.

Five Wives

A disturbed Childermass returns home and tells Norrell about his meeting with Vinculus. After upbraiding Childermass for his use of cards, Norrell quickly fixates on the book Vinculus claimed to own–namely, on obtaining it for himself as there is very little that upsets Norrell more than knowing a book exists and not being able to read it. To that end, Childermass investigates Vinculus, hoping to find where the book is hidden. He only manages to find that Vinculus has five wives, none of whom know anything about any book. Even Mr. Norrell’s magic cannot uncover the thing, and Chapter 21 ends with Childermass reading his cards again, hoping to find the book himself, but finally concluding that it must be in some unknown language.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 18-19

Strange_RedAfter the lovely introduction to fairy land we got in the last couple of chapters, with all of Susanna Clarke’s gorgeous descriptive language, this pair of chapters follow with a gut punch. Apparently, dancing all night with fairies is not very conducive to one’s health and happiness.

Lady Pole’s Illness

Just a few weeks after Lady Pole’s scintillating societal debut, we find her sunk into a exhausted, depressed, and irritable, unable to endure music, positively abhorrent of dancing, and not desirous of any company whatsoever. Poor Sir Walter is highly alarmed by the change in his bright young wife, and he quickly calls a doctor to see to her. Of course, there is nothing physically wrong with the lady, and the doctor suggests that perhaps there is some marital disagreement that needs to be resolved. There is no disagreement that Sir Walter knows of, so he turns to his fellow cabinet Ministers for help. At their suggestion, Sir Walter calls Mr. Norrell to find out what is the matter with Lady Pole.

Norrell’s Diagnosis

When Mr. Norrell is told of Lady Pole’s symptoms and the strange happenings at the house, he knows exactly what is going on. However, he doesn’t tell Sir Walter this. Instead, Norrell simply tells Sir Walter that he cannot help and returns to his own home where he confronts the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. The gentleman, for his part, denies that he broke any faith with Norrell, which is technically true. Norrell is left wringing his hands, and Lady Pole is left to sink further into darkness and cold, to be quickly forgotten by society.

Stephen Black’s Symptoms

Meanwhile, Stephen Black is suffering from the same symptoms as Lady Pole, although Stephen’s malady goes unnoticed. The butler, you see, doesn’t have the luxury of sitting around doing nothing all day, but must continue with his work. Like Mr. Norrell, Stephen is also visited by the fairy gentleman, who ignores Stephen’s concerns and pleas and instead explains that he intends to make Stephen a king. The chapter ends with the fairy speculating on which fairy kingdom might be best suited to his new friend.


These two chapters are, I think, a masterful example of Susanna Clarke’s running fascination with the exploration of various dualities throughout Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I love the symmetry here, and while some of Clarke’s parallels may seem obvious or heavy-handed I think this style works remarkably well in this book. The juxtaposition of Lady Pole’s and Stephen’s illnesses and the contrast between Stephen’s and Mr. Norrell’s encounters with the fairy would, in my opinion, be much less fun to read if they were written in a more obfuscatory way. I love symbols and allusions and foreshadowing as much as the next person, but I don’t want to think too hard about it, and Clarke does a wonderful job of gradually revealing her intentions without beating the reader over the head with them.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 15-17

Strange_BlackIn these chapters, we get an update on Lady Pole’s condition following her resurrection; we meet a new character, Stephen Black; and we get our first idea of the price that is to be paid for Mr. Norrell’s spell. These chapters stand out as a delightful fusion of comedy of manners, upstairs/downstairs drama, and a Gothic ghost story–only minus the ghosts and with fairies added.

How is Lady Pole?

It turns out that Lady Pole is remarkably well. In fact, she’s the talk of the town, and everyone is excited for her debut as one of fashionable society’s most prominent hostesses. This young person is as full of opinions as she is of vivacious energy, and her husband, Sir Walter, is thrilled to have secured such a wife. Chapter 15 opens with the planning of Lady Pole’s first dinner as the wife of a politician.

The Servants’ War

While Sir and Lady Pole are brushing shoulders with other people of high station in London and enjoying being newly wed, their connubial bliss doesn’t extend to the people employed in their household. Half their servants have been transplanted from Lady Pole’s country estate, the other half have been newly hired in town, and these two factions, divided by accent and education, necessarily come into conflict with each other. When the country servants come to Lady Pole to complain about the merciless pranks played upon them by the London servants, she is unsure how to address the situation and goes to her husband for help. Sir Walter advises her to leave matters in the hands of his butler, Stephen Black.

Stephen Black

Stephen Black has run Sir Walter’s house for some years, and is unusual for being a black man in such a position. His name, fittingly, means “crown,” and the other servants like to speculate that Stephen Black is no ordinary man at all, but a prince of Africa who is only moonlighting as a butler until he comes into his inheritance. The symbol of a crown is associated with Stephen Black throughout the book, and it begins with our first introduction to him. We learn that Stephen is handsome, capable, and evenhanded in his style of household management, but even he struggles to reconcile the downstairs factions of the Pole house.

The Important Evening

When Lady Pole’s dinner finally occurs, she shows herself to great advantage as both a charming hostess and a woman who is unafraid to speak her mind, especially on the topic of magic. Mr. Norrell is in attendance, and when Norrell is questioned about whether he plans to find and train more magicians, Lady Pole professes to be a strong proponent of the idea–to Mr. Norrell’s vexation.

The Haunted House

And so, Lady Pole’s first major event as a hostess is a great success, but no thanks to the footmen, who we find Stephen Black excoriating as Chapter 15 draws to a close. All three of the men report seeing or hearing strange things throughout the evening. The first saw a mysterious (albeit not to the reader) green coated and white-haired figure standing behind Lady Pole’s seat; the second reports hearing strange, sad music; and the third claims to have heard the branches of a forest rasping at the windows, even though there are no trees nearby.

In the next chapter, the seeming hauntings continue, and these unusual occurrences finally succeed where Stephen’s efforts have so far failed. The servants of the Pole house are united, or at least all so unsettled by the recent strangeness that they are too distracted to torment each other, although their fearful speculations about what horrid spirits might be haunting the place are tiresome to the butler.

Stephen Black meets the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.
Stephen Black meets the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.


A couple of weeks after Lady Pole’s dinner, Stephen is summoned to a room in the house that shouldn’t exist where he waits upon a man with voluminous silver-white hair that the reader should recognize right away. This gentleman flatters Stephen, insisting that Stephen must be destined to be a king, and then whisks him away to a ball where Stephen dances the night away with beautiful people wearing clothing of the most wonderful colors. Susanna Clarke’s descriptions continue to be fascinatingly evocative–I want a dress the color of storms, shadows and rain (and a wig of beetles–which I devoutly hope we get to see in the BBC adaptation, because it sounds marvelous).

Mrs. Brandy

In Chapter 17, we meet Mrs. Brandy, a friend of Stephen Black’s who owns the grocery that supplies Sir Walter’s house. She has recently come into the inexplicable possession of a large sum of money and has no idea from whence it may have come, so she sends for Stephen Black to advise her on what to do with it. He finds the money situation as strange as she does and advises her to hire a lawyer to try and find the money’s owner then goes on his way. Stephen Black, of course, is dealing with his own inexplicable problem–he’s exhausted and sore as if he’d danced all night, but he doesn’t remember attending any ball.

An Oak Tree in Piccadilly

As Stephen starts making his way home, he bumps into a stranger and has a moment of panic as the other man looks ready to accuse Stephen of stealing. Then, though, the man is replaced with a tree right before Stephen’s eyes. “Unusual,” Stephen thinks, but only momentarily as the rest of the town begins to transform as well until Stephen is walking not along a street but along a wooded path. At the end of the path, he finds himself at a glamorous party with new acquaintances welcoming him as he arrives.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 13-14

Strange_RedYesterday’s chapters were light on story and focused more on showing us more about Mr. Norrell. Today’s chapters are also light on story, but they prepare us for the introduction of Jonathan Strange and include a great bit of prophecy that gives an idea of what to expect from the rest of the book.

The Magician of Threadneedle Street

In Chapter 13, we finally get to meet the famous Vinculus. He’s a somewhat minor character, but his shadow looms large throughout the entire book. It was Vinculus who first prophesied to John Segundus the coming of two magicians to restore magic to England, and when Mr. Norrell arrives in London, other characters often encourage him to meet the street magician. Of course Mr. Norrell, who despises all other magicians, has refused, and so Vinculus finally takes it upon himself to visit Norrell in December of 1807.

Vinculus has come, he says, to tell Mr. Norrell his destiny, and he has broken into Norrell’s house to corner him alone. I love Susanna Clarke’s description of Vinculus:

…a thin, shabby, ragged hawk of a man. His face was the colour of three-day-old milk; his hair was the colour of a coal-smoke-and-ashes  London sky; and his clothes were the colour of the Thames at dirty Wapping.

Throughout the book, Clarke’s use of color descriptions is rich and evocative without becoming precious or turning into purple prose. The bird metaphor here is symbolically important–the greatest magician in history was the Raven King, after all–as well as an excellent visual descriptor. The colors, though, really steal the show for me. This description of Vinculus suggests that he is an outcast from ordinary society as well as a sort of intrinsic part of the London landscape–as much as the sky or the river. It’s a truly masterful and economical way of establishing the importance of this character if the reader hasn’t already picked up on it from the repeated mentions of him that have peppered the book so far.

Vinculus tells Mr. Norrell's destiny.
Vinculus tells Mr. Norrell’s destiny.

Mr. Norrell’s Destiny

Amid Norrell’s objections and condemnation, Vinculus begins to rattle off his prophecy, which concerns the Raven King and the fates of two unnamed magicians. Already, the canny reader can begin to understand Vinculus’s pronouncements even if Norrell refuses to hear them. There is just enough here to be tantalizing, to whet the reader’s appetite for the story to come. I am not generally a fan of prophecy in fantasy–too often  it’s just spoilers–but it’s done very well in this book, and I think Clarke does an excellent job of providing only enough to be memorable and interesting. She also delivers on the promise of the prophecy later on, and cleverly.

Finally, Norrell manages to have Vinculus removed from his home, but it takes some doing for Childermass to convince his master that Vinculus isn’t a rival to Norrell’s own growing power and influence. After Vinculus is taken away, Norrell tries to find solace in reading, but The Language of Birds (extending the bird metaphor here) only reminds Norrell of Vinculus’s words. Chapter 13 ends with Norrell enjoining Lord Portishead to write a condemnation of the offending book’s author.


Finally, fourteen chapters and over one hundred fifty pages into the novel, we are introduced to Strange. However, while we do learn that Jonathan Strange was born (by this time in the story he should be a man of about thirty) and that he was raised largely by his mother’s wealthy family (and is a bit spoiled because of it), this chapter is largely concerned with Laurence Strange, his father.

Laurence Strange, it turns out, was rich and greedy and basically a terrible guy, who never liked his own son enough to want to be bothered with raising him (indeed, he actually considered that he saved money by foisting young Jonathan off on his wife’s relations). Chapter 14 tells the story of how Laurence Strange kills himself in his efforts to punish (to death!) a servant that he dislikes, and it’s just the sort of darkly hilarious stuff I love best about this book. There’s very little that tickles my fancy more than reading about rich, wicked people who get what’s coming to them, and there is a delightful sort of justice in Laurence Strange’s fate. As a way of introducing the novel’s other titular character, this chapter is both informative regarding Jonathan’s origins and great fun to read.