Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

This is a review of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, originally posted by me on the Crooked Timber ( website.

I?ve just finished Susanna Clarke?s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and can?t recommend it highly enough.

It?s being marketed as Harry Potter for grown-ups; the comparison is a little misleading (among children?s writers, Clarke is much closer to Dianna Wynne-Jones than to Rowling), but it captures the novel?s likely appeal to people who don?t usually read fantasy. JSAMN lacks most of the usual apparatus of the genre (dragons, rings and what-have-you), but still has something of its flavour. It?s a sly, funny, intelligent novel, and in its own way, quite subversive.

JSAMN depicts the return of magic to an England where history was quite different (magic once worked), but has resulted in an early nineteenth century very like our own. In Clarke?s England, magic stopped working some three centuries before JSAMN, as a result of the disappearance of John Uskglass, the Raven King, a magician who had carved out a separate kingdom for himself in the North of the country. As the novel opens, magic is of interest only to provincial antiquarian societies. This changes as two new magicians emerge – first, the quasi-recluse and pedant, Mr. Norrell, and then his pupil and rival, Jonathan Strange, an altogether more attractive and Byronic figure. They have very different views of what magic is and how it should be treated. Norrell wishes to sanitize and deracinate it, while Strange wants to give it free rein, to discover who the Raven King was, and perhaps to bring him back. This conflict drives the main part of the novel, although it eventually becomes clear that their disagreement is only the prelude to a much deeper set of changes. In the closing chapters, the reader realizes that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are more done upon than doers.

Clarke?s writing is a delight. Her prose has the rhythms of nineteenth century language, but there?s no fustiness; it?s lively and compelling. An example:

In the end is it not futile to try and follow the course of a quarrel between husband and wife? Such a conversation is sure to meander more than any other. It draws in tributary arguments and grievances from years before – all quite incomprehensible to any but the two people they concern most nearly. Neither party is ever proved to be right or wrong in such a case, or, if they are, what does it signify?

Writing of this quality (and there are other gems like this passage scattered through the text) is a joy to read. The observations are sharp and acute, and there?s a sureness of tone that is extraordinary in a first novel – note the implicit metaphor of a river that organizes the passage without ever being stated directly. Still, there is the question of whether or not the prose style conducts well with the underlying theme. John Clute?s review of Jonathan Strange suggests otherwise:

the crystalline civility of the Austenesque voice begins to baulk its author?s clear need to begin to convey something of the smell of worlds beyond the fields we know as the novel (whose story we?re almost ready to hint at) begins to pry the gates open. In the end, in other words, that civility of language works as an engine to maintain the world, not to change it, an effect only intensified by Clarke?s great skill at deploying Austen; in the end, it is a civil language, wedded to the thinning it depicts.

Clute?s review is very perceptive, but on this point he?s only half-right. As he suggests, the civilty of the tone surely reflects the comfortable assumptions of the nineteenth century English upper classes. However, both this voice, and the deviations from it that increase in frequency towards the end of the novel, strike me as a conscious choice on the part of the author, and a quite successful choice at that. She uses it to convey the overall impression of a self-assured social order that is beginning gradually to fragment as history returns to England. The main course of the novel obliquely comments upon the problematic foundations of the English social hierarchy through the lived experience of the black servant, Stephen, the refugee engravers Minervois and Forcalquier, and Mr. Norrell?s dogsbody, the enigmatic Childermass (perhaps the most interesting character in the novel). On those rare occasions where Clarke (or her unseen narrator) speak directly to the implied codes and rankings of gentle society, her judgements are no less savage for their understatement.

Hadley-Bright and Purfois were well-born English gentlemen, while Tom was an ex-dancing-master whose forefathers had all been Hebrew. Happily, Hadley-Bright and Purfois took very little notice of such distinctions of rank and ancestry. Knowing Tom to be the most talented amongst them, they generally deferred to him in all matters of magical scholarship, and, apart from calling him by his given name (while he addressed them as Mr Purfois and Mr Hadley-Bright) and expecting him to pick up books they left behind them, they were very much inclined to treat him as an equal.

It is just this set of assumptions, and the social order that it supports, which is beginning to give way as the book finishes. There are rumours of unrest from the fringes of the kingdom, as craftsmen and skilled labourers riot and break up the machines that are replacing them. John Uskglass (who is both protagonist and myth) starts to become a sort of Captain Swing or Ned Ludd to whom the insurrectionaries swear allegiance. The return of magic in Clarke?s book gains much of its metaphoric power from its consonance with the social unrest of our own nineteenth century; magic, as it escapes the control of Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange (both of whom have become agents of the state) begins to assume a distinctly radical tinge. One of the most important conversations in the book takes place between the unpleasant Mr. Lascelles (a type of the less radical Whig) and a domestic servant.

Lucas glanced up at him. He said, ?We have been discussing what to do, sir. We shall leave within the half hour. We can do Mr Norrell no good by staying here and may do ourselves some harm. That is our intention, sir, but if you have another opinion I shall be glad to hear it.?

?My opinion!? exclaimed Lascelles. He looked all amazement, and only part of it was feigned. ?This is the first time I was ever asked my opinion by a footman. Thank you, but I believe I shall decline my share of this ?? He thought for a moment, before settling upon the most offensive word in his vocabulary. ?? democracy.?

Lascelle and his class are on the losing side of history; he finishes very badly.1 As Faerie and magic irrupt into England, it becomes increasingly clear that there will be no room for gentleman-magicians like Strange and Norrell – the winds of history are blowing through doors that have been re-opened, and everything is about to change. Clarke?s language in the closing sections of the book reflects this, as the assured diction of the early nineteenth century novel increasingly gives way to something starker, wilder, stranger. She plans two more books in the series – it?s a safe bet that they will show us a very different England than the rather complacent country seen at the beginning of JSAMN. If they live up to the standard set by this first volume, it will be a quite extraordinary achievement.

1 After demonstrating his contempt for Mr. Norrell?s servant Childermass, , Lascelle finds himself trapped in Faerie as a direct result of his snobbery and perverted sense of noblesse oblige. The more pragmatic and flexible Childermass has already avoided the same trap.

Update: for more discussion of the Susanna Clarke/J.K. Rowling question (as well as some ill-tempered and ill-informed claims about Steven Brust and Emma Bull?s spiffy novel of Chartism, Freedom and Necessity), see this lengthy discussion thread at Electrolite.

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