Tag Archives: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

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.

Lost-Hope

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.

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.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 4-7

Strange_BlackWhat struck me most upon reading these few chapters for the first time in several years is that Susanna Clarke has a true gift for writing marvelously detailed and engrossing chapters that feel as if they are packed with story, even when only one thing happens in each chapter. It’s a style that may not appeal to everybody, but I find it compulsively readable.

I also continue to stand by my previous assertion that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’s closest literary relative is Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Clarke’s portraits of the people that Norrell meets in London are exactly the sort of delightful caricatures that one finds in that book. Like Vanity Fair, this is also an extremely funny novel, and I found myself laughing more than once in these chapters.

The footnotes in these chapters are also must-reads. In fact, the footnotes in this book are absolutely essential to a full understanding and appreciation of Susanna Clarke’s comedic genius.

The Friends of English Magic

As Mr. Norrell prepares for his move to London, John Segundus prepares London as well as he is able for the arrival of Mr. Norrell. Segundus’s “Appeal to the Friends of English Magic,” with his description of Norrell’s feat at the York Cathedral, is a sensation, but though Segundus attempts to manage expectations by including an account of Norrell’s character, expectations are high by the time Norrell makes his way to the city.

Not in Yorkshire Anymore

Childermass makes himself useful by encouraging Mr. Norrell to accept the first invitation he receives into London society, and Mrs. Godestone’s party is a delightful illustration of the absurdity of Norrell’s situation. He knows no one aside from Childermass, and he lacks the skills to recommend himself to others, thus passing the greater part of the event in obscurity before making his first acquaintance.

Drawlight

Christopher Drawlight is the worst sort of dandy, which makes him my favorite sort of dandy to read about, and he takes it upon himself to introduce Mr. Norrell further into society after first mistaking the much more interesting Childermass for Norrell. They attend parties and teas and dinners and drive in the park for months before Norrell finally becomes frustrated enough with his lack of progress in his goals to suggest to Drawlight that maybe he ought to be trying to make friends in government rather than in drawing rooms. In this, Drawlight is no help, but Norrell finally remembers that he does have some connections of his own.

Mr. Norrell visits with Sir Walter and the Wintertownes.
Mr. Norrell visits with Sir Walter and the Wintertownes.

Magic is Not Serious

And so Norrell arranges a meeting with the politician Sir Walter Pole in the hope of offering his magic in service against the French. The problem, of course, is that Sir Walter doesn’t believe him, and in fact doesn’t see what use magic could possibly be in the war. Sir Walter goes so far as to tell Norrell that magic is simply not respectable and that he would be laughed out of Parliament for even suggesting it.

At this meeting, Norrell also meets Sir Walter’s intended bride, Miss Wintertowne, and her mother. Miss Wintertowne is very ill, but her fortune is the solution to Sir Walter’s financial woes. Mrs. Wintertowne joins Sir Walter in his censure of magic, although Miss Wintertowne argues (feebly, as she is barely able to sit up on her couch) for the importance of magicians, at least as historians. Norrell will find no help for his cause here.

An Opportunity

After being rebuffed by Sir Walter, Norrell sinks into a deep depression that even Drawlight’s passive aggressive antics can’t pierce. A few days later, however, they get the news that Miss Wintertowne has died–and only two days before her impending marriage. This puts Mr. Norrell in the position of making his most momentous choice to date. He might have the knowledge to bring Miss Wintertowne back to life, putting Sir Walter Pole heavily in his debt and being a very public demonstration of his powers, but the manner of achieving this feat is dangerous and of a kind of magic that Mr. Norrell is loathe to use–namely, the summoning of a fairy servant to do the magical heavy lifting.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 1-3

Strange_RedI read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for the first time in 2004 and absolutely fell in love with it. Since then, I’ve probably read it over again half a dozen times more, but it’s been at least five years since I last opened my now rather shabby and dog-eared paperback. Now, though, as the air date for the BBC miniseries based on this most wonderful novel approaches, I feel compelled to reread it again. Over the next several weeks, I will be blogging my reread, with new posts Monday through Friday each week. I plan to cover three to five chapters each day and should be finished just in time for the US air date (June 13) of the miniseries’ first episode.

For those who haven’t read the book before, I think the first thing to know about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is that it’s not a book that is intended for e-readers. Almost from the first page, footnotes play an important role in the story, expanding upon the story mostly by expounding more upon the world that Susanna Clarke has created. These asides and stories simply must be read, and in my opinion they are best read in the places they appear. There aren’t many books that I think really need to be read on paper, but this is one of them. Indeed, I’d say that reading this novel on paper is an essential part of the reading experience. The only downside I’ve found to this so far is that (and perhaps I am just getting old) the type, at least in my 2004 paperback copy, is quite small and the footnotes are in even smaller print. I hope for the sake of new readers that newer print editions use a more reasonably sized font.

The Most Commonplace Question in the World

The book opens with neither of the two titular characters. Instead, we are introduced to the Learned Society of York Magicians, an organization of gentleman magicians who, we quickly learn, don’t actually do magic. Rather, they are simply scholars of magic, the last true English magicians having practiced some two or three centuries before the book’s setting in the early 1800s. I’ve seen Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell compared to any number of 19th century comedies and gothic romances, but these opening chapters, introducing a cast of characters that range from absurdly silly to absurdly wicked-seeming, remind me of nothing more than William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, itself a similarly voluminous work that examined the early 1800s with a satirical eye.

The central concern of these early pages is given voice by John Segundus, a sensible young man of slim means who is new to the venerable Society. Why, he asks, is there no more magic done in England?

Honeyfoot and Segundus

Our Mr. Segundus finds a new friend in one Mr. Honeyfoot, a kindly fellow who takes some pity on the younger man after the other members of the Society reject the idea that magicians must do magic at all, one even suggesting that to actually practice magic would be ungentlemanly. Segundus tells his new acquaintance of an encounter with a London street magician–of the sort widely regarded as charlatans at best–who prophesied that magic would be restored to England by two magicians. Mr. Honeyfoot is of the opinion that there ought to be someone they could consult about the whole matter, and they finally settle upon writing to one Mr. Norrell, a rather reclusive person rumored to have a fabulous library of magical books and quite conveniently located in York, as the winter weather is quite bad for travel.

I absolutely love these early scenes. They’re full of wordplay as clever as anything in Austen, amusing names that would be at home in a Dickens novel, and quick character sketches as incisive as anything in the aforementioned Vanity Fair.

Norrell_Portrait
Mr. Norrell

Rather Disagreeably Mysterious

Soon enough, Segundus and Honeyfoot make their way to Mr. Norrell’s home at Hurtfew Abbey. Mr. Norrell seems unassuming, “small, like his handwriting,” but it quickly becomes clear that he is no mean scholar. His library is even more magnificent than rumored, and he quickly disabuses Segundus and Honeyfoot of the notion that magic is no longer done. He, Mr. Norrell, is “quite a tolerable practical magician” himself. Segundus and Honeyfoot bring this knowledge to the next meeting of the Society of York Magicians, and together the group decides to put Mr. Norrell’s claim to the test.

Mr. Norrell’s Intentions

Mr. Norrell sends a solicitor, Mr. Robinson, to extract from the magicians of York a promise: if Norrell can provide them with proof of his claims, the Society must disband and cease all study of magic and its members must henceforth stop referring to themselves as magicians. All of the men agree to the terms except Mr. Segundus, and they soon gather at the York Cathedral for Norrell’s demonstration. Norrell himself doesn’t appear at the cathedral, sending instead his saturnine servant, Childermass. The demonstration goes off without a hitch, as Norrell casts a spell to awaken the statues of the old church, and the Society obeys their agreement, dissolving immediately and disposing of their shared library with a local bookseller from whom Norrell quickly buys all of the books, much to Segundus’s dismay.

The Last Magician in York

Childermass suggests to Segundus that he submit the story to newspapers in London, and the end of the third chapter sees Norrell himself on his way to London. Segundus is left in York, a magician in name only and unsettled by the recent events.

Final Thoughts on Chapters 1-3

I had forgotten just how much story Susanna Clarke manages to squeeze into each chapter of this book. For such a long novel (my copy is a full thousand pages), however, the prose feels remarkably economical. These opening chapters introduce several important characters (Segundus, Norrell, Childermass), set the stage for the return of magic to England, and immerse the reader in an alternate history that feels very real and lived-in. Rereading this book so far feels just as magical to me as it did over ten years ago when I read it for the first time.