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.

Strange

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.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 10-12

Strange_BlackThese few chapters aren’t at all action-packed. Instead, they are heavy on character development. We learn that while Mr. Norrell is, ostensibly, a cautious man, he might better described as much given to ambivalence, procrastination, and general indecision in nearly all matters.

The Subject of Magic

Although Sir Walter Pole anticipates a battle in the cabinet, he finds that the other Ministers are eager to make use of Norrell in the war with France. Unfortunately, they just don’t quite know how, and Norrell himself isn’t particularly helpful in guiding them towards a solution. Instead, he seems far more adept at pointing out obstacles to the Ministers’ plans, and he refuses to raise anyone else from the dead. Fortunately, he is able to dissuade the Ministers from requesting further resurrections by pointing out that bodies who have been dead for some years would be very unpleasant company. This back and forth continues for some weeks in the fall of 1807.

7 Fleet of RainshipsShips of Rain

Finally, Norrell and the Ministers agree on a course of action. We learn this, however, not from the point of view of any of our English friends, but in a chapter told from the point of view of their French opponents. This is a very clever decision on the part of Susanna Clarke, and it’s a welcome diversion at this point in the book.

At the port of Brest in Brittany, a squadron of French ships is preparing to leave on a mission to harry the English when they find themselves trapped in the bay by a fleet of English ships that don’t seem to do any of the things that normal ships do. For eleven days, the French wait for the English to remove this blockade, only to see the ships melting as Norrell’s spell wears off.

The Hero of the French Blockade

After the success of his rain ships, Norrell finds himself in high demand, and he is able to summon visions of English ships in a basin of water–not to much real use, but much to the gratification of the military men he is now spending time with constantly. His next major feat of magic is to animate the mermaid figurehead on a captured French ship, and she is soon persuaded to give as much intelligence to the English as she is capable of. The story of the mermaid is funny, and I’m really hoping that it isn’t considered too insignificant to be included in the BBC adaption of the book. I will be very disappointed if I don’t get to see a very cantankerous, very French mermaid in the show.

Norrell’s Two Friends

As Norrell’s popularity increases, Drawlight and Lascelles take it upon themselves to manage his numerous engagements. With the intention of enhancing their own situations, they make themselves indispensable to Norrell, and they begin encouraging him to write for publication. Since Norrell is the only real magician in England, they reason, the public will be very eager to learn his opinions on all things magical.

Lord Portishead

Though Norrell finds himself unequal to the task of actually completing any piece of writing himself, he is soon introduced to one Lord Portishead, an ex-magician himself of the theoretical persuasion who has abandoned his own studies upon learning that Norrell disapproves of theoretical magicians. Under Norrell’s meticulous guidance and overseen by Lascelles, Lord Portishead publishes the periodical The Friends of English Magic, primarily filled with Norrell’s attacks upon, well, all magicians who are not Mr. Norrell.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 8-9

Strange_Red

These two chapters introduce a significant character and reintroduce us to one of my favorite characters in the book, Lady Pole (née Wintertowne). Norrell makes, well, not his first mistake, but perhaps his first truly disastrous one.

No One There

The association of a sort of mysterious absence with Miss Wintertowne continues when Mr. Norrell arrives at her deathbed, a motif that will continue throughout the book. I’m never quite certain if I find this motif to be more hilarious or more unsettling, but it certainly adds a Gothic flavor to all of our interactions with the young lady.

Poor Drawlight

Having finally persuaded Mr. Norrell to do some actual magic, Drawlight finds himself barred from the room where all the interesting things are happening. However, he and Lascelles both hang around insufferably (albeit humorously) awful. I always find myself reassured by their presence, much the way I feel about Mr. Collins when I reread Pride and Prejudice. Some characters just have an unholy knack for saying and doing absurdly terrible/stupid things, and I never get tired of reading about them.

The gentleman with thistle-down hair sees Miss Wintertowne.
The gentleman with thistle-down hair.

The Gentleman With Thistle-down Hair

To raise a person from the dead is not the sort of magic Norrell would like to do. Indeed, it is not a human sort of magic at all, so he, reluctantly, and with reservations, summons a fairy to do his bidding.

The gentleman that he summons wears a coat “of the brightest green imaginable,” an enormous amount of white hair, and a penchant for hard bargaining. This gentleman offers to help and aid Mr. Norrell in all things magical, but on the condition that Norrell credits him with the greater parts of all Norrell’s future achievements, and somehow I only just now realized that this stipulation is what Norrell finds off-putting enough to refuse the fairy’s offer. For all Mr. Norrell’s professed distaste for fairies and his tut-tutting about the dangers they present, I’m now quite certain that it’s not Norrell’s scruples, but his pride which makes a fairy servant so abhorrent to him.

The Other One

Thus refused, the gentleman asks Norrell where “the other one” is, meaning the other magician, Norrell’s “dearest friend,” with “red hair and a long nose” and “very conceited.” Norrell, of course, knows no other magician aside from himself, but this sets him to frantically considering all the men of his acquaintance who might fit this description. None do, so a bewildered Norrell instead turns back to bargaining with the fairy.

Half a Life

Reasoning that fairies are not to be trusted, and so he must be very careful in his negotiations, Norrell requests that Miss Wintertowne be given another seventy-five years to live, half of which to be spent with the gentleman–“half a life is better than none,” after all. To seal the deal, the gentleman requires a token of the lady’s, and so Miss Wintertowne is miraculously returned to life–less only the little finger of her left hand.

Miss Wintertowne’s Hand

With her daughter returned, Mrs. Wintertowne is keen that the marriage to Sir Walter Pole should continue as planned. Sir Walter, for his part, barely knows what to do with his young bride, who seems not only returned to life, but returned to a kind of vigorous health and brightness that she’s never experienced before. Fortunately for Sir Walter, Miss Wintertowne is still amenable to the marriage, and she very shortly becomes Lady Pole. On the wedding day, however, the person everyone most wants to see is Mr. Norrell.

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