Reviewed by Jane Carter
I have a very clear memory of visiting a bookshop, a good few years ago. I had a birthday book token, and I wasn’t too sure what I might buy. I saw a display of thick hardback books, some with black covers and some with white covers. I was intrigued by the title, and when I picked one of those copies to see what it was all about I was smitten.
That was how my first copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell came home.
It was quite a few years before I read the book and I had quite a few false starts before I read it all the way through. It wasn’t that I didn’t love it – I loved it from the start – but it was such a big book, I so wanted to linger, and I kept getting distracted, by life and by other books.
I finally read the whole book last year, when I realised that I could count three volumes as three novels; and that I didn’t need to dawdle, because if I loved the book as much as I thought I would I’d be going back to read it again and again.
I did love it that much; and maybe more.
What did I love?
I loved that though this very big book, divided into three volumes, looks so much like a take on a Victorian novel, it is set somewhat earlier, during the Napoleonic Wars. And while I have seen it suggested that the style echoes some wonderful authors – Austen, Trollope and Dickens are the names I have seen most often – and while I can see all of those influences, none of them dominate. The style suits the period, suits the story, and it is the style of a storyteller with a keen eye, a gentle wit, and perfect control of her material.
The story began in an England where magic had died after the disappearance of its greatest magician, The Raven King, who had come out of the Land of Faerie to reign in the north. Magic was a dry academic subject, not a practical art.
One man asked why that was, and events that the Raven King had prophesised began to unfold:
Two magicians shall appear in England.
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand.
The first shall pass his life alone; he shall be his own gaoler;
The second shall tread lonely roads, the storm above his head, seeking a dark tower upon a high hillside.
I sit upon a black throne in the shadows but they shall not see me.
The rain shall make a door for me and I shall pass through it;
The stones shall make a throne for me and I shall sit upon it.
The nameless slave shall wear a silver crown,
The nameless slave shall be a king in a strange country.
I love that the world of this book is so very alive, that it is a very real England, overlaid with the history and presence of magic. The detail is wonderful, and the love that Susanna Clarke, the architect of that world has for it shines from the pages.
I loved that the prophecy played out in the story, and that even though I had ideas about what was going to happen I never really knew, and that what did happen was exactly right.
I loved that such a wonderful array of characters from that world were presented to me, and that they were so very well drawn with just a few simple strokes. Each and every one had a part to play, and there is no one I won’t be glad to see come to the fore.
It’s difficult to pick favourites, but I was always pleased to see Mr Segundus, who asked that important question; I was fascinated, and moved, by what happened to Emma, Lady Pole; I was intrigued by the mysterious Mr Childermas, Mr Norrell’s man of business …. that reminds me that I am very taken with the names, which are distinctive without being gimmicky, and fitting without ever feeling contrived.
I particularly loved the characters and the relationship of Mr Norrell and Mr Strange, and that even thought their differing natures and view about the history and restoration of magic in England drove them apart, their love of magic pulled them together.
I loved the magic, that has been so beautifully woven into real history and that is so nicely understated. The set pieces are wonderful. There’s a wonderful early scene in York Minster that might be one of my favourite scenes in any book, ever. And I was so impressed with the part that Jonathan Strange had to play in the Napoleonic War, alongside the Duke of Wellington, that I found myself wishing he would appear when I was reading a certain classic with interminable scenes set during that same conflict.
I was delighted that nearly all of the magic drew on the natural world. It would have been easy to overplay the magic, but that didn’t happen. This was always a human story set in a real world where magic just happened to have a part to play.
I loved that end of the story echoed the beginning, and that the seeds of that ending were sown very quietly, and very early in the story. And I loved that though the ending was an ending, it might also be the start of something else.
Most of all, I loved that even though the book wasn’t quite perfect, that there were one or two sequences that dragged, it didn’t matter, that I still loved the book as a whole. Because the idea was so wonderful, because its execution was so clever, and because everything came together and worked quite perfectly.
I didn’t want to leave that world, I wanted to know what was happening around the stories when interesting characters were offstage, I wanted to know what had happened before, what would happen afterward, and I so wanted to be part of it all.
I found a book that spoke to both my childish love of a magical world and my grown up love of period fiction.
I do hope that the BBC series does justice to such wonderful material. The images and the trailers that I’ve seen look very promising.
I’ll be watching, and I suspect that I’ll be reading the book again very soon.
Jane Carter lives on the Cornish coast, where she continues to look for magic in books. She blogs at Beyond Eden Rock.
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. (Bloomsbury: London, 2015). 978-1408856888, 1024 pp., paperback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)