The last two chapters of Volume II find Mr. and Mrs. Strange finally getting a chance to settle back into life at their home in Shropshire. Then something goes terribly wrong.
Jonathan Strange is interrupted from his work one day when his neighbor, Mr. Hyde, stops by to tell him that he saw Mrs. Strange wandering around outside in a black dress. It’s the dead of winter, though, and snowing, and Mrs. Strange has been safely inside the house all this time.
This is somewhat quickly forgotten when Arabella’s brother, Henry Woodhope, comes to visit. After several years in London, Arabella is saddened to learn that she no longer has much in common with Henry, who is a country clergyman. For his part, Henry finds much to criticize in the Stranges, who are not at all what he thinks a good country family should be like. Even the house is viewed by Henry with a critical eye.
The descriptions of Jonathan Strange’s house, Ashfair, are wonderful. While they are somewhat reminiscent of the descriptions of Norrell’s Hurtfew Abbey, this is only because the two places are similarly weird. However, they are also as different as their owners. By far my favorite line about the house, though, is that it’s “an old-fashioned house–the sort of house in fact, as Strange expressed it, which a lady in a novel might like to be persecuted in.” It’s a really lovely idea that works as a bit of characterization for Strange–so wry, so witty–and as a piece of rather funny meta-commentary in a book that is so clearly a pastiche of several genres of literature, including the Gothic novels that were so popular in the early 19th century.
One thing I will say about rereading this book in my thirties is that I appreciate this sort of thing much more now than I did in my early twenties. It’s definitely a style of book that is much better enjoyed the more one has read of other English literature. This is definitely a book that benefits from rereading, and I’m now very much looking forward to reading it again ten years from now.
Who was lost and what was found
Volume II ends with a heartbreak and a mystery that will define the last third of the novel.
One night, Jonathan Strange is awoken and sees Arabella, dressed, at the foot of the bed. Thinking that he’s only dreaming, he goes back to sleep and no one notices anything amiss until after breakfast, when Mr. Hyde arrives again to say that he saw Mrs. Strange only an hour before, wandering in the nearby hills. Jonathan Strange at first dismisses this again, but becomes alarmed when one of the household servants informs him that Arabella actually is not in the house, has actually been gone all morning.
Jonathan Strange immediately begins using magic to search for her, although Henry Woodhope doesn’t understand the purpose of this, thinking they should just go out and look themselves. This, in the end, is what they end up doing, as Jonathan Strange’s scrying is ineffectual–Arabella isn’t in England, Scotland, Wales, or France, which is confusing to Jonathan but not to the reader.
When Arabella is finally found, she’s wearing a black dress, covered in black mossy water, and saying weird stuff that sounds much more like the ramblings of a traumatized piece of wood than anything a real woman would say. Probably because this is not actually Arabella, but the piece of wood that Stephen Black and the fairy gentleman dug up several chapters ago.
On the third day after her “return” Arabella dies, and this is one part of the book that I wish I could read for the first time again. I know that a careful reader should know exactly what is going on here, as everything has been explained to the reader pretty thoroughly through our views of other characters. However, just the line, “On the third day she died,” is marvelous. It’s a shocking end of a chapter, and it’s a shocking end to the second volume of the book.
It’s an amazing cliffhanger, and a perfect use of it. Even though the reader should have a pretty good idea of what’s going on here, this ending still manages to shock, and I think it is very difficult to not keep reading after this just to see how the characters react.
Prologue to The History and Practice of English Magic
Possibly the best thing Susanna Clarke could have followed this cliffhanger with is the thing she actually follows the cliffhanger with. It’s not, however, the reactions of Jonathan Strange or Henry Woodhope to Arabella’s death. It’s not a scene confirming that Arabella is in fairy land. Nope. It’s the prologue to Jonathan Strange’s book.
In this prologue, we learn more of the history of the Raven King, John Uskglass, and how he came to England in the first place. We also learn a little more of fairies. Mostly, though, we learn about Jonathan Strange’s opinions on John Uskglass and fairies.
All Magicians Lie
When we return to the actual story in Chapter 46, it’s still not to see how Jonathan Strange is getting along. Instead, this chapter is centered around Childermass’s point of view.
In Mr. Norrell’s library, Childermass is writing letters of business when he starts feeling very weird and slipping into a sort of dreamy trance where he sees strange and disturbing visions that the reader may recognize as connected to the book’s larger themes of the Raven King and fairies and the magic of England–and especially reminiscent of Vinculus’s prophecies.
Childermass quickly recognizes these visions as magical, and he tries to figure out whose magic it is. When he finds out that Norrell is not at home, Childermass becomes consumed with tracking down his master, and he reaches Norrell just in time to save him from being shot by Lady Pole, who is distraught over Mrs. Strange and holds Norrell responsible.
As Norrell, acting much put upon and aggrieved, discusses these events with Childermass, the chapter ends with Childermass recalling Vinculus’s words about Norrell:
Well, only one kind of horrible thing happened in this episode, and no one got raped (or even attempted raped), which is nice. Lots of story happens, but it didn’t feel nearly as rushed as last week’s episode, which chewed through probably a thousand pages of source material in an hour and didn’t do 95% of it justice. This week’s episode moves at a much more reasonable pace and is probably the strongest episode of the season so far (for what it’s worth, which isn’t much in this turd of a season).
In Meereen, Tyrion gets a proper interview with Daenerys, who isn’t entirely sure what to do with him. Jorah, on the other hand, she tells to shut up, so he just stands around looking sad. Tyrion tells Daenerys the story of her own life, as he’s observed it, and says he thought it was at least worth meeting her. Why is he worth meeting, though, she wants to know. He offers himself as an adviser, telling Daenerys that she can’t hope to make a better world all by herself.
The first piece of advice she wants is what Tyrion thinks she ought to do with Jorah. Tyrion gives a touching speech about Jorah’s devotion to Daenerys, but he can’t or won’t advise Daenerys to keep Jorah around. I’m not entirely sure if Tyrion is maneuvering here, to secure his own position with Daenerys, or if he sincerely believes his advice to her, and I’m also not sure if he is being kind or cruel to Jorah. However, I really did enjoy the scene. After the mess that has been the Tyrion and Jorah show the last couple of episodes, it’s nice to see it pay off.
This also gives Emilia Clarke some time to shine in her role as Daenerys. I’ve always felt her portrayal tended to be a bit wooden and soulless, but she was excellent here, and I thought she did a wonderful job of conveying her conflicted feelings of anger and pain and love and hatred about Jorah. Additionally, she’s so far managed not to say anything embarrassingly horrible to Tyrion, which gives me some hope that the writers are moving away from obnoxiously self-righteous and possibly insane Dany and towards a more sympathetic and sensible characterization of her.
Ser Jorah is escorted from the city, though he doesn’t complain or struggle. He just looks back sadly, then checks to make sure his greyscale is still there (it is) and then goes on his way.
In King’s Landing, Cersei’s fortunes have taken a decided turn for the worse. She’s in a cell that is even darker and danker then Margaery’s, and her only visitor so far is a tall, grumpy-looking septa who alternates between telling Cersei to confess and beating Cersei for saying anything that’s not a confession. To be fair, the things Cersei has to say seem to be requests to see her son and threats against the septa’s life, so I can kind of see why the septa may not take very kindly to her.
Meanwhile, in Braavos, Arya has become “Lanna,” a girl who sells oysters near the dock. Jaqen H’Ghar instructs her to start taking a different path than what she usually takes and to watch the docks and report back with her observations. In her rounds, she observes an insurance salesman–a “gambler” Jaqen explains–who has, apparently, refused to pay the family of a man who died. This man, “the thin man” as Jaqen calls him, is to be Arya’s first assignment as a servant of the Many-faced God. As Arya leaves, smiling, the waif approaches Jaqen to object–Arya isn’t ready, she says–but Jaqen just replies that, even so, “it’s all the same to the Many-faced God,” whatever that means.
This is the first time Arya’s storyline hasn’t bored me this season, and it’s especially nice to see some more of Braavos, even if it is just the harbor areas that we’ve already seen before. I love the new costume, and it’s nice to see Maisie William’s face when it’s not covered in dirt or obscured by gloom. I think we also get to see her smile more in this episode than we have since the first episode of season one, and it makes me happy to see one of the Starks having even a fleeting moment of happiness at this point.
Back in King’s Landing, Qyburn comes to visit Cersei, and we finally get to hear the list of charges against her: fornication, treason, incest, and the murder of King Robert. “All lies,” Cersei says, and Qyburn doesn’t disagree–he may be Cersei’s only true ally in the world.
Otherwise, however, things couldn’t be much worse for Cersei. Qyburn’s concern is that the Faith’s standard of proof is very different than the Crown’s–his line, ”belief is so often the death of reason,” is no doubt going to turn Qyburn into a New Atheist icon, which is great. There’s seldom another group of people on whom irony is so often completely wasted. There has been no word of Jaime, Tommen has withdrawn to his chambers and isn’t eating, her uncle Kevan Lannister has taken over as Hand of the King, and no one else is coming to see Cersei before her trial.
Qyburn actually advises Cersei to confess, but she rejects this idea vehemently. There’s no way she will confess to the High Sparrow. When the septa–I’m going to say it’s Septa Unella from the books–returns, Qyburn takes his leave of Cersei. “The work continues” are his parting words, in case anyone has forgotten that he’s basically Frankenstein. I really, really love Qyburn on the show. He’s the most sinister kindly old grandpa sort of guy imaginable, and every one of his lines is delivered in a weirdly nice-sounding voice. There aren’t many things that I’d say the show has done perfectly, but I think the way they’ve cast and written Qyburn is one of them.
Up at Winterfell, Sansa is pretty murderously furious at Theon after last week’s betrayal. I hate that Sansa being impotently angry and menacing Theon is apparently what passes for female empowerment on this show now, but it’s nice to see her looking a bit more put together. In any case, she manages to berate Theon until he lets it slip that he never killed her little brothers, Bran and Rickon, although he flees the room before she can make him tell her anything else.
Elsewhere in the castle, the Boltons are discussing battle plans, which might explain why Sansa‘s looking somewhat better. Ramsay is too busy planning some colossally stupid act of military jackassery to rape and beat her. His father, Roose Bolton, is of the opinion that they’d best just sit tight in Winterfell, where they have provisions for six months and they can just watch from the walls while Stannis’s army dies in the snow. Ramsay wants to lead some kind of no doubt terribly conceived (and, knowing this show, terribly anticlimactic) attack that he says he only needs twenty men for.
Back in Meereen, Tyrion and Daenerys are having a meal together, although it looks like it’s mostly wine. This long discussion is possibly the greatest highlight of the season so far, and again Emilia Clarke is at her best. Stiff and self-righteous and slightly mad-seeming works here Daenerys lets Tyrion in on her plan, such as it is. After Tyrion tells more of his story (although he demurs on the subject of why he killed his father), commiserates with Daenerys over being the terrible child of a terrible man, considers what is the “right kind of terrible,” and extolls the virtues of Varys, he points out that Daenerys would have a hell of a time taking Westeros with just the support of the common people–if she could even get that support. The Tyrells might be swayed to her cause, but they wouldn’t be enough. Daenerys replies with the “wheel” speech we heard in early trailers for the season. While I like it, and it sounds good, it’s not exactly a real plan if you think about it for more than a couple of seconds. That said, of all the many self-righteously tone-deaf motivational speeches that have come out of Daenerys’s mouth, this one is the best.
Outside the city, Jorah has decided to go back to the guy who bought him last week. Because, somehow, he has decided that the way to get back to Daenerys is by participating in the fighting pits that she reopened much against her will. Right. A+ thinking there, Jorah. I have a feeling it’ll be too much to hope that he ends up dragon food, though.
Once more in Cersei’s cell, Septa Unella has returned again with water and the command to confess. Cersei starts with bargaining but quickly turns to threats, which leads to the Septa dumping a ladle of water on the floor and walking out. Lips cracked and bleeding and seemingly starting to be a little delirious, our last image of Cersei this week is her lapping water off a filthy stone floor.
The front half of the episode ends at Castle Black. Gilly is tending to Sam’s wounds from the beating he received last week when Olly pops in to bring Sam some food and ask a question. The boy wants to know why Jon Snow would want to save the Wildlings, so we’re treated to another iteration of the “Wildlings are people, too” speech. There’s not a lot of new ground being covered here, although Sam might have just pre-absolved Olly of (attempted?) murdering Jon Snow later on if things go down on the show like the do at the end of A Dance With Dragons.
I’ve been saying that I might be done with the show after this season, but I’m starting to think that if anything can bring me back it’s the thought of seeing all the doubters and assholes at the Wall facing down ice zombies. Jon Snow is one of my least favorite characters in the books, but he’s one hundred percent right on the issue of the Wildlings and the zombies.
Speaking of Wildlings and zombies, the back half of the episode is all Hardhome. It’s a really enjoyable bit of horror action, but it’s nonsensical once you look past the spectacle of it.
First up are some long shots of Jon Snow and company sailing into the small harbor that are a little too reminiscent of Washington crossing the Delaware for me to take entirely seriously. There’s really only so much of Jon Snow’s glorious hair blowing in the breeze that I can deal with, and this goes over my limit.
As Jon, Tormund, and company stride into Hardhome, they are surprisingly not killed on sight, but the first person they meet is Rattleshirt, who has some of the most badass armor in the series. Rattleshirt calls Tormund a traitor, tosses in a homophobic accusation about Tormund’s relationship with Jon Snow, and quickly gets his head beaten in by Tormund. This felt like a small anticlimax to me. Rattleshirt was a minor character in the books, but I’ve always felt like his presence loomed large. It’s kind of a bummer to see him go down so easily and quickly here.
It’s on to a sort or council of Wildling elders, though, for some talking. It’s here that we’re introduced to a new character, whose name I don’t think is mentioned in the episode, but she’s credited as Karsi. She’s the chieftain of one of the Wildling clans, and it’s nice to see the show finally recognize that Ygritte isn’t the only Wildling woman ever, even if it’s only for one episode. Karsi is a voice of reason in Jon Snow’s discussion with the Wildlings, and it’s largely to her that we owe the eventual decision for at least some of the Free Folk to move south of the Wall. Notably, a Thenn leader disagrees, and some others also seem to side with him.
As Free Folk are being loaded onto boats to be ferried to larger ships offshore, Jon Snow frets that they are leaving too many behind. Tormund philosophically reminds him that, though it took Mance years to unite the Free Folk, they’ll soon change their mind when they realize they’re running out of food.
Meanwhile, Karsi is saying goodbye to her daughters, who she is putting on a boat to leave while she stays behind to help organize the exodus. I love this character, but I hate how heavy-handedly the show telegraphs what is going to happen to her in just a few minutes.
Back in the building where the elders were talking, Dolorous Edd is marveling at the giant, Wun Wun, and I’m so pleased they subtitled Wun Wun speaking in the old language. The moment is interrupted, though, when the dogs outside start barking.
The snow outside starts to thicken, there are some weird noises, and then people start screaming outside the walls of the village. The young Thenn leader who didn’t want to follow Jon Snow yells for the gates to be closed, which locks hundreds of people (at least) outside. For a little while, people are still yelling and beating at the gates, but there’s more snow and more swirling noises and then just dead (get it?!) silence. When the Thenn peeks through the gate, all he can see is some vague shadows moving in the snow, and then a skeletal hand shoots through the wood and almost gets him in the face.
Because everyone outside is now zombies. And they still want in.
Next up is twenty minutes of chaos with most people desperately trying to get to the boats, some people running to fight, and just zombies and white walkers everywhere. It’s honestly incredible to watch, and it’s one of the best-filmed fantasy fight scenes I’ve ever seen.
What I liked about it:
Wun Wun. I love the way the show does its giants. They look amazing, and it’s really awesome to see one in action like this.
The reveal that Valyrian steel will also kill the white walkers. Very nicely done.
The look of the zombies. I know they aren’t really zombies, and it doesn’t make a ton of sense how many of them come back as basically skeletons, but it looks cool as shit.
The white walkers up on the cliff on horseback, looking like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Kind of cheesy, almost too on the nose, but this actually worked for me.
The Night’s King standing on the dock at the end, just staring right at Jon Snow while raising up a whole new army of the dead.
The overall frantic pace of it. It sure didn’t feel like twenty minutes had gone by, and when the credits started rolling I felt like I could have watched another twenty minutes like this.
I have a few problems with it, though:
It didn’t look or sound like the people outside got killed by zombies. It looked like they just got covered in snow, went silent, and then came back as murderous undead.
If people can be made into zombies like this, why would a gate stop the magic?
Especially with several white walkers and the Night’s King himself up on the cliff above the town. Couldn’t they just zombiefy everyone from up there?
Too many bows and arrows. This is another thing that looks really cool, but anyone who’s ever played Dungeons & Dragons knows that you use bludgeoning damage against undead.
Not enough fire. These people burn their bodies to avoid becoming zombies. They know that fire will hurt them. Why is literally no one using fire until Wun Wun picks up that flaming log right at the end?
On the note of fire, that white walker that Jon fights seems awful comfortable for a guy made out of ice who is inside a burning building.
The Worst Thing
Why did they have to kill Karsi? And why did they have to kill her the way they did?
First off, in the books the Free Folk are fairly egalitarian. While not entirely free of sexism, they definitely treat women a lot better than in most places in the rest of the world. However, the show has failed over and over again to communicate this to viewers, and to this point the only wildling women we’ve seen have been Ygritte and Craster’s wives (including Gilly). Finally, the show includes a wildling woman as a leader of her people, and she gets less than half an hour of screen time before dying.
And Karsi is really wonderful. She’s funny and smart and a warrior, but she’s also a mother of two daughters and a responsible leader who is instrumental in making Jon Snow’s plan work to the degree that it does at all. All of this adds up to the makings of a really great character, but then she gets killed off.
And the way Karsi is killed is bullshit. People are fighting zombies everywhere. She herself is chopping them down left and right. Until she sees a bunch of little kid zombies. And she’s not even scared, exactly. Rather, she just looks heartbroken, and then she just stands there while the little kid zombies run over and kill her.
The thing is, I feel like this could just be a totally human reaction to seeing a bunch of children turned into evil zombies. I get it. It’s traumatizing. But they make so much of Karsi being a mother herself, they really play up her goodbye to her daughters, and then this is the thing that makes her lose her will to live so she can get back to her own children? And of course there are no men being similarly disarmed by the child zombies. Just Karsi. Because of course a woman would die like this.
Who wants to bet on whether we ever see her daughters again or if the show writers consider them just as disposable as their mothers?
The Three-Body Problem was first published in Chinese several years ago, and this is the first time it’s been available in English. Translated by Ken Liu (author of The Grace of Kings), it’s highly readable and I honestly hope that this is only the beginning of a huge influx of Chinese SF if this is the sort of wonderful stuff we are missing. Lack of translated works is a problem in general, but it’s especially notable with genre fiction, which is too bad, because literally every culture has its own traditions of speculative fiction and, goodness knows, we could use as many perspectives as we can get.
This book begins during the Cultural Revolution, of which I was sadly ignorant before I read this book. White middle class Mid-Western girls weren’t taught much Asian history to speak of back in the 1990s. Fortunately, there is enough explanation in the book, between the text itself and some very useful footnotes, to help historically illiterate Americans muddle through, although I would suggest reading at least a few Wikipedia articles if you’re as clueless as I was about this part of history. I actually expected to spend a lot more time Googling historical and cultural references than I did, and I probably would have spent a lot less time on it if I didn’t have a tendency to get sucked into Wikipedia for hours at a time. So if the intention of the author and translator was to make the book easily accessible to US readers, I think the footnotes, which were smartly chosen and concisely written, were well done and didn’t distract too much from the story.
The story itself takes some time to unfold, and it’s only towards the end of the book that I felt a real sense of urgency and momentum in the plot–only to find myself waiting for the next book in the trilogy. This would annoy me a lot more if the second book wasn’t coming out so soon (The Dark Forest – July 7, 2015), but as it is I’m just eaten up with anticipation for it.
The characters in The Three-Body Problem were interesting, and I loved Ye Wenjie in particular. Wang Miao was much less fascinating, but was a perfectly serviceable protagonist. The supporting characters were excellent, and I would go learn Chinese immediately if I learned there were any books about the adventures of Shi Qiang.
Something that is maybe not that big a deal in China but that I really appreciated was the overall gender parity. Women are present throughout the book and fill a variety of roles without being reduced to any recognizable stereotypes or boring sci-fi tropes. They felt real, and didn’t seem to be marginalized on account of their gender at all. My only quibble with the treatment of women in the book is that I would have liked to learn a little more about Wang Miao’s wife, who seemed to be completely forgotten about when she wasn’t literally in the room with Wang.
Most SF is as much, or more, about ideas than it is about just telling stories, and The Three-Body Problem is definitely heavy on ideas, but it never feels preachy. It examines a rather ugly part of Chinese history, it talks about environmentalism, and it considers the role of scientific thought in culture.
Ultimately, though, it’s a book about what would happen if we really did make contact with extraterrestrial life, but there’s no happy Star Trek vision of the future here. Humanity can be nasty, and there’s no guarantee that aliens would be any better than we are. I can’t wait to find out how humanity comes to terms with this knowledge in the rest of this series.
The second half of the book continues to pick up its pace, or at least it feels as if things are moving along faster now, even though I don’t think each chapter actually contains any more events than previous chapters. Definitely, though, it’s starting to feel like we’re getting close to some kind of climax.
A Most Uncomfortable Number
Jonathan Strange expects that Norrell will be infuriated by the review, but when the two magicians finally meet, Norrell is only, for once, honest. Norrell understands Strange, and in a way that perhaps no one else can, and he only ever meant, he says, to prevent Strange from making the same youthful mistakes that he made himself. Norrell apologizes and practically begs Jonathan Strange not to leave him, and it’s probably the most human he’s been in the book so far. Norrell’s pleas are not enough to convince Strange to continue their association, although Strange nearly gives in.
After Strange takes his leave, Lascelles questions Norrell about the magicians’ conversation. Norrell seems crushed by sadness with Strange gone, but Lascelles is quick to use this opportunity to try and poison Norrell against the younger magician:
“…two of anything is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery.”
By the end of Lascelles’ speech, Norrell is persuaded of, well, something. Certainly, he is prepared to leave London with great haste, and within two hours of the breakup with Strange.
For his part, Jonathan Strange is also preparing to leave London. He and Arabella plan to return to their home in Shropshire, but first they must take their leave of their friends the Poles. As they are saying goodbye, Arabella says something that it seems likely she may later regret.
A quiet life in the country is not to be for Jonathan Strange, unfortunately. When Napoleon escapes his prison, Strange soon finds himself back on the continent, where Lord Wellington is administering a new war effort from Brussels. Once again, Jonathan Strange’s magic is instrumental in England’s success, although he commits acts using magic that he’s not proud of and sees an enormous amount of death. Chapter 40 ends after the Battle of Waterloo, with a dinner for dozens that only three men have survived to attend.
Meanwhile, back in England, John Segundus has finally been forced to look for employment, which he quickly finds tutoring young people in magical theory. Things seem to be looking up for him when he is approached by a wealthy widow who wants him to run an actual school for teaching magic. Before long, though, the planned school attracts the attention of Mr. Norrell, who sends Childermass to shut it down. When Segundus refuses to shut it down willingly, he soon finds that Norrell has managed to arrange things so that the school no longer has any support. Although Segundus writes to Jonathan Strange for relief, Strange doesn’t reply.
The Gentleman’s Plan
This section of the book closes with another meeting between Stephen Black and the gentleman with the thistledown hair. This time, the gentleman whisks Stephen away from Sir Walter’s house to a nearby coffeehouse where they sit down at an absolutely magical sounding feast. Here, the gentleman tells Stephen that Lady Pole is no longer holding the gentleman’s interest as she used to do, that, indeed, another young woman has caught the gentleman’s eye. He has a plan, he says, to bring the young woman to Lost-hope forever, but first he needs to obtain a piece of wood. From a bog.
I’m not sure I’d say I’m excited about Sense8, mostly because I’m still not sure I understand what it’s about, but I will be watching it when it hits Netflix on June 5. While I’m not quite clear on the plot yet–how exactly do eight strangers with a psychic link threaten the world?–I guess these trailers give us a bit of an idea of who these eight strangers are.
These chapters are busy ones, but less with action than with characterization. Peacetime gives Mr. Strange in particular plenty of time to analyze his relationships with the other characters, especially Mr. Norrell.
I’ve mostly avoided writing about the footnotes in this book, but Chapter 35 contains an important one regarding a painting that Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell posed for in late 1814. I love the description of how the two men sat for the portrait, with Norrell fidgety, worried that the painter might somehow be stealing magical secrets, and Strange relaxed, indulgent and patient with Norrell’s neuroses. It’s an excellent sketch of their relationship up to this point, and it provides a starting point from which we begin, in these middle chapters of the novel, to see things degrade rather quickly between the two magicians.
While Drawlight and Lascelles attempt to sow discord between Strange and Norrell, chiefly by reminding Strange that he’s still never been allowed in Norrell’s library at Hurtfew Abbey, Norrell irritates Strange by nagging him about writing. In particular, Strange is supposed to write a piece for Gentleman’s Magazine, and Norrell expects him to only write what Norrell would agree with, and Strange chafes at this restriction, although he doesn’t relish the idea of confronting Norrell about it. Instead, he goes home, ostensibly to write, and complains to Arabella about it.
Arabella Strange has been listening to her husband’s complaints about Norrell for years, and she has her own very decided opinions on Norrell and Norrell’s friends. She wants, instead, to talk to her husband about a Miss Gray that she’s heard of who claims to be paying Jonathan Strange–to the tune of four hundred guineas–for magic lessons. Jonathan, however, dismisses the story and rather ignores his wife’s concern over the matter, even joking about it. It’s a moment of Jonathan Strange actually being kind of a dick, which I appreciate. Susanna Clarke does a good job, I think, of demonstrating that both of the magicians are kind of insufferable in very different ways. Conversely, she also balances this with including endearing and sympathetic qualities in her characters as well, which make them feel real and three-dimensional.
In any case, Strange doesn’t think of Miss Gray again until a few days later, when he’s at a club and is confronted with a pair of farmers who also claim to be receiving magical instruction from him even though they have never met. When finally introduced to Mr. Strange, the two gentleman farmers are quite understandably upset, but it soon comes out that they were paying a middleman who supplied them with instructional materials based on things Strange had said in conversation with Mr. Norrell–and overheard by the ever present Drawlight. To prove to the two defrauded gentleman that he is who he claims to be, Jonathan Strange steps into a mirror and disappears.
When Jonathan Strange emerges from the mirror, it’s a different mirror entirely, in a very different place, some five miles from his own home in Soho. He surprises Drawlight at the home of one Mrs. Bullworth, yet another person who has been paying “Jonathan Strange” for magical services. Mrs. Bullworth has been giving Drawlight money to pay Mr. Strange for using black magic against her many enemies, not the least of which is Lascelles, who is the man who seduced and ruined Mrs. Bullworth, promising to marry her and then abandoning her when she was cast off by her husband.
Obviously, if you’ve read this far in the book you’ve known for some time what kind of men Drawlight and Lascelles are, but it’s kind of nice to see Drawlight, at least, get a bit of a comeuppance. By the end of Chapter 37, he’s banished from Norrell’s society (Norrell actually wants to reinstitute some draconian old laws so Drawlight could be hanged for his crimes) and ends up in a debtors prison. Lascelles manages to avoid a similar fate only because he has actually become truly interested in and invested in Norrell and magic–and because he cuts Drawlight out of his life immediately and completely to avoid any punishment by association with him.
The Strange’s Bargain
Regarding Jonathan Strange’s travelling through mirrors, he finds opposition to his further experimentation with this trick from both Mr. Norrell and Arabella. Although Strange is excited to explore this new power, he eventually promises Arabella that he won’t do it again until she says he may. She, in turn, promises that she will grant her permission as soon as she is convinced of the safety of mirror travelling. I adore their marriage, so much, and this is a lovely compromise.
Lord Portishead’s Book
The final matter of importance that occurs in these chapters is the publication, by Lord Portishead, of a book on modern English magic, to which both Norrell and Strange have contributed. However, when Jonathan Strange reads the published manuscript, he finds himself incredibly disappointed and feeling misrepresented by the final text in spite of his own contributions.
Borrowing a copy of the book from Norrell, Strange goes home and promptly writes the scathing review of it that makes up Chapter 38. It’s the first time that Strange has put himself so directly in opposition to Norrell’s peculiar agenda regarding English magic, and it’s not going to go over well. At all.