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Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

A long, complex tale that rewards your attention with a dazzling and satisfying read.

In the Beginning

Back in 2004, when Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was first released, I knew it was a book I had to read. Susanna Clarke’s tale of two magicians in 19th-century England was a book tailor-made for my tastes. A historical fantasy set in a real-world Earth, a long, complex tale that quickly achieved critical acclaim and eventually was long listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the 2005 Hugo Award for the best novel. I couldn’t wait to read it.

I love the strong simplicity of the cover. And, of course, the raven.

But soon after beginning it, I was dismayed. It was, to put it politely, a slog. Slow and ponderous, with nothing much of interest happening for pages and pages and pages. I made it to around 200 pages of the 1000-page tome and finally gave up. I just didn’t get it.

But my failure niggled at me. I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t clicked for me. I resolved that “one day” I would go back and give it another try. In 2015  BBC made a mini-series of the book. This was good news, as I thought it would likely strip out all the “boring” bits and just give me the essentials. A Coles Note version, if you will.

But this was a shaming thought for a writer who loves deep, complex books. I resolved to read it before I watched the show, as that is what I prefer to do with movie/TV adaptations. But I just couldn’t muster up the mojo to attempt it again. It wasn’t until last year, when I saw some glowing reviews for Susanna Clarke’s new novel, Piranesi (her first since Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), that I finally tackled her first book again. I wanted to read Piranesi, but knowing that it also was a book that some struggled to “get”, I thought I should go back and try her first book one more time, hoping it would prepare me for whatever Piranesi will bring. Plus, a reviewer I trusted told me that the book got better just after the two-hundred page mark, which is where I gave up the first time. So, armed with that knowledge, I dove in.

All this may seem like a strange introduction to a book I am now going to rave about, one that has been the best book I’ve read this year and by far the best fantasy book I’ve read for a long, long time. But I wanted to start with this history, because I know that many might pick up the book based on my recommendation and have the same reaction I did at first. This is all to say, courage, dear heart, as Lewis writes in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Persevere. You’ll be glad you did. I certainly am.

The Disappearance of Magic, and a Prophecy

The book begins with an introduction to Mr. Norrell. Practical magic (the working of spells that accomplish something) has all but disappeared from England. In its place are the theoretical magicians, those whose life’s work is the study of the history of magic and its application, but who do no magic themselves. The long tradition of magic in England, brought to its zenith a century previous under the three hundred year reign in the North of the Raven King, John Uskglass, has disappeared with the Raven King’s own mysterious disappearance. There are rumours he will return, but in the meantime, magic has gone quiet.

He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands. – Susanna Clarke, Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Until Mr. Gilbert Norrell comes along. A fussy, pedantic, secretive and miserly man who lives in an estate in Yorkshire, he claims to be a practical magician, one who can actually cast spells. He agrees to demonstrate his ability only under the condition that the Learned Society of York Magicians, made up of the most learned theoretical magicians, must summarily disband if his demonstration is successful. After he makes all the stone statues in York Cathedral speak, the society, gentlemen all, lives up to their end of the deal, leaving Mr. Norrell as the only magician in England. And there are not likely to be any others. He has bought up all the ancient books on magic and hoards them in his library, not permitting anyone to see them.

But there is a prophecy afoot, spoken by the strange street magician Vinculus, who confronts Norwell when the magician goes to London to do his magic for the benefit of Queen and country, aiding England in her war against Napoleon and ingratiating Mr. Norrell into high society. The prophecy speaks of the nameless slave who will become king and the return of two magicians to England. Mr. Norrell, who has no time for street magicians and even less for rambling prophecies, promptly dismisses Vinculus without another thought.

Vinculus goes to Jonathan Strange, a young man who has recently inherited his father’s estate, and speaks the same prophecy. Strange takes hardly any more notice of the prophecy than Norrell did, except that the odd prophecy sparks an interest in magic and he takes up the study of magic himself, as every other attempt at a profession has failed him.

Around the same time, Norrell, in attempting to further show his usefulness to England’s government, has summoned a fairy, “the gentleman with the thistle down hair” (his only name in the book), in order to raise a Cabinet Minister’s fiancee from the dead.

A Thoroughly English Novel

The ramifications of all these events spin out into the book into a dazzling, mysterious, horrific and fascinating tale I won’t stop thinking about for a long time. There are many layers to this book and it asks some profound questions along the way; about society, love, obsession, friendship, and greed. The centering relationship between Norrell and Strange evolves and changes throughout the book as the characters themselves evolve and change over the eleven years (1806-1817) that the book covers. The novel is divided into three sections: the first covering Mr. Norrell, the second, Mr. Strange, and the third, John Uskglass, the Raven King. But all of their stories interweave throughout the book, even though Strange himself only shows up in a footnote in the first two hundred-odd pages (more about the footnotes later).

Mr. Robinson was a polished sort of person. He was so clean and healthy and pleased about everything that he positively shone – which is only to be expected in a fairy or an angel, but is somewhat disconcerting in an attorney. – Susanna Clarke, Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

One of the many things I love about this book is that it is thoroughly English. From the setting to the Austen-like writing style to the ferociously dry, dry wit that permeates every page, Clarke gives us a book that author Neil Gaiman said was “the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years”. The “English” in that sentence was deliberate, I am sure. The haunting atmosphere of the bleak moors and sparse population of England’s north, the dazzling drawing rooms and power-hungry greed and unconscious self-satisfied superiority of England’s nobility, and the class struggle that underpinned it all are all brought to life in this unblinking examination of 19th-century England. The myths of England, of course, are at the heart of the book. The fairies and their interaction with humans, the burghs of the fairy homes, the Otherland, the Fairy Host and the connection of magic with England’s geography all feature in this novel. It is all very familiar, but also very new, as this novel presents a history of England where magic and fairies existed in the past, even though both were long gone and out of sight at the novel’s opening.

An Alternate History, With Footnotes!

There are reviewers who complain that this book reads like a history tome, which I can understand. Clarke sprinkles her book with footnotes to imaginary histories of English magic such as “A Complete Description of Dr. Pale’s fairy servants, their Names, Histories, Characters and the Services they performed for Him by John Segundus, pub. by Thomas Burnham, bookseller, Northampton, 1799.” She also includes poems and other “fairy stories” – encounters between humans and fairies in the past – as part of her footnotes. Sometimes these footnotes take up a whole page of text, almost crowding out the “actual” story. They serve to ground the reader into this world and bring authenticity to the story. But if the footnotes bother you, you don’t have to read them, although they give some clues to events in the book.

But let me just say this. This book invites you into a world that is so minutely crafted that the author has created a whole library of imaginary books and legends that supports the world she presents to you. Rather than being irritated by the footnotes, embrace them and the dazzling feat of imagination that Clarke brings you. This book combines history, fantasy, horror and a great deal of humour, sometimes in one paragraph. I honestly am in awe of her writing chops, especially since this was her first published novel. I can’t get over it.

Slow Down and Settle In

I think this was the key for my great enjoyment of this book this time around and the reason I couldn’t stand it the first time. This is a book that demands some patience and perseverence, and you are up to the task or you aren’t. If you prefer shorter books with lots of action and a traditional story arc with relatable heroes and plenty of overt magic that takes you along for a wild ride, this book is not for you. And that’s ok. I cast no judgement on people’s reading tastes. I’m just happy if people are reading! But if you are willing to step into a slow burn of a story that will reward your patience with a long ramble into an alternate world, culminating with a breathtaking climax, dive in!

When I opened the book for the first time in 2005, amid parenting young children and busy with a fulfilling life, I just couldn’t bring myself to slow down and settle in. But in 2022, with two years of pandemic behind me and at the beginning of a new European war, I was very happy to escape this world and spend some time in England’s North with Jonathan Strange, Mr. Norrell, and the gentleman with the thistle down hair. Although not too much time with the latter, thank you very much.

Susanna Clarke took ten years to write this book. I can understand why. I’m so glad she persevered. It is a treasure that I will return to again and again. A loud “Hurrah!” and five glistening, golden stars to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell from me.