I am behind on my reading, and only picked up Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell last month on vacation. In the year since it’s been published, it’s been widely praised, won a bunch of awards, and sold a bunch of copies, all deservedly so. My compliments at this point are somewhat superfluous, but, well, that’s never stopped me before.
JS&MN‘s subject is nothing less than the restoration of English magic, and despite its bulk and oft-leisurely pace, I would not call it an unfocused book, as its characters and incidents are all relevant to its subject. Its narrative style also works thematically: an important part of the book is the way that language is (or isn’t) able to describe or illuminate reality, especially where magic and the numinous are concerned. An omniscient narrator is a good match to this theme, and allows the book to have a slightly historical perspective and tone, which I also find suits it well. Plus, then you can have those infamous footnotes, which are sometimes amusing (see below, because it’s quite long), sometimes impressive (Clarke has created an entire mythology that sounds entirely authentic but which, apparently, is original), and sometimes even an indirect method of conveying story information.
I found the language and the world a most agreeable place to be immersed in, and the characters interesting company to keep. JS&MN strikes me as, well, a kind story, for lack of any better term. There are bleak moments, but it’s not a bleak book; and a couple of characters had sympathetic moments well past the time I would have thought that possible. This is not to say that it’s cloying or spoon-fed or formulaic; magic is genuinely magical and mysterious, conclusions are in-character and unforced, and ends are left loose where appropriate.
I very much enjoyed this book, and stayed up much too late on the last night of my vacation to finish it. I also have the unabridged audiobook, which has been receiving good reviews, with the caveat that the lengthy footnotes make it unsuited to be the first way one experiences the story. I look forward to immersing myself back in the book at some point the future.
A note on short stories: Clarke has a story in each of the three Starlight anthologies. The first, “The Ladies of Grace Adieu,” is explicitly in this world, as it features Jonathan Strange; it’s the story referenced in chapter 43, footnote 2. I think it gives rather an unfavorable view of Strange, so if one reads it first, keep in mind that it’s not the entire picture. The second, “Mrs Mabb,” might or might not be in the same world; I saw nothing explicit either way. The third, “Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby,” is almost certainly not in the same world to my reading, though it has much the same flavor.
And in conclusion, a long quote that amused me, to give a flavor of the prose and humor.
In the early summer of 1813 Strange again performed a sort of magic the like of which had not been done since the days of the Raven King: he moved a river. It happened like this. The war that summer was going well and everything Lord Wellington did was crowned with success. However it so happened that one particular morning in June the French found themselves in a more advantageous position than had been the case for some time. His lordship and the other generals immediately gathered together to discuss what could be done to correct this highly undesirable situation. Strange was summoned to join them in Lord Wellington’s tent. He found them gathered round a table upon which was spread a large map.
His lordship was in really excellent spirits that summer and he greeted Strange almost affectionately. “Ah, Merlin! There you are! Here is our problem! We are on this side of the river and the French are on the other side, and it would suit me much better if the positions were reversed.”
. . .
. . . Strange went back to Lord Wellington and said it would take too long for every man in the army to sprout wings, but it would take no time at all to move the river and would that do? “At the moment,” said Strange, “the river flows south here and then twists northward here. If upon the other hand it flowed north instead of south and twisted southwards here, then, you see, we would be on the north bank and the French on the south.”
“Oh!” said his lordship. “Very well.”
The new position of the river so baffled the French that several French companies, when ordered to march north, went in entirely the wrong direction, so convinced were they that the direction away from the river must be north. These particular companies were never seen again and so it was widely supposed that they had been killed by Spanish guerrilleros.
. . .
Meanwhile the Spanish Regency Council in Cadiz became rather alarmed at this development and began to wonder whether, when they finally regained their country from the French, they would recognize it. They complained to the Foreign Secretary (which many people thought ungrateful). The Foreign Secretary persuaded Strange to write the Regency Council a letter promising that after the war he would replace the river in its original position and also ” . . . any thing else which Lord Wellington requires to be moved during the prosecution of the war.” Among the many things which Strange moved were: a wood of olive trees and pines in Navarra;6 the city of Pamplona;7 and two churches in the town of St Jean de Luz in France.8
6 Colonel Vickery had reconnoitred the wood and discovered it to be full of French soldiers waiting to shoot at the British Army. His officers were just discussing what to do about it when Lord Wellington rode up. “We could go round it, I suppose,” said Wellington, “but that will take some time and I am in a hurry. Where is the magician?”
Someone went and fetched Strange.
“Mr Strange!” said Lord Wellington. “I can scarcely belive that it will be much trouble to you to move these trees! A great deal less, I am sure, than to make four thousand men walk seven miles out of their way. Move the wood, if you please.”
So Strange did as he was asked and moved the wood to the opposite side of the valley. The French soldiers were left cowering on a barren hillside and very quickly surrendered to the British.
7 Owing to a mistake in Wellington’s maps of Spain the city of Pamplona was not exactly where the British had supposed it to be. Wellington was deeply disappointed when, after the Army had marched twenty miles in one day, they did not reach Pamplona which was discvered to be ten miles further north. After swift discussion of the problem it was found to be more convenient to have Mr Strange move the city, rather than change all the maps.
8 The churches in St Jean de Luz were something of an embarrassment. There was no reason whatsoever to move them. The fact of the matter was that one Sunday morning Strange was drinking brandy for breakfast at a hotel in St Jean de Luz with three Captains and two lieutenants of the 16th Light Dragoons. He was explaining to these gentlemen the theory behind the magical transportation of various objects. It was an entirely futile undertaking: they would not have understood him very well had they been sober and neither they nor Strange had been entirely sober for two days. By way of an illustration Strange swapped the positions of the two churches with the congregations still inside them. He fully intended to change them round again before the people came out, but shortly afterwards he was called away to a game of billiards and never thought of it again. Indeed despite Strange’s many assurances he never found the time or inclination to replace river, wood, city, or indeed any thing at all in its original position.