Clarke, Susanna: (01.5) The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories is a collection mostly or entirely [*] set in the same world as her brilliant novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. If you liked the novel, you should certainly read this collection. If you haven’t read the novel and are intimidated by its length, I think that using the collection as a sampler is an excellent idea. The prose style and the topics are the same, and even Jonathan Strange appears in the title story. I won’t promise that you’ll like the novel if you like this collection, because the novel is a lot more ambitious; but I think the odds are very good.

[*] I say “mostly or entirely” because the fictional introduction treats them all as illuminating that same world, but one of the stories is explicitly set in the world of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’s Stardust, which may or may not fully overlap JS&MN‘s world; and back when I read JS&NM, I thought the story “Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby” wasn’t consistent with it. (I couldn’t defend that conclusion now without a re-read.)

A few notes on individual stories:

  • Not even for Susanna Clarke can I read a story told in dialect, which rules out “On Lickerish Hill.”
  • “Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower” is the longest of the new-to-me stories. It has an enjoyably-unreliable narrator and a fairy household that isn’t as creepy as that of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, but has somewhat of its flavor.
  • “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” is just lovely, a folk-tale like those that appear in JS&MN‘s footnotes.

    The Charcoal Burner went down to Furness Abbey again. “That wicked man came back and ate my toasted cheese!” he told the Almoner.

    The Almoner shook his head sadly at the sinfulness of the world. “Have some more cheese,” he offered. “And perhaps some bread to go with it?”

    “Which saint is it that looks after cheeses?” demanded the Charcoal Burner.

    The Almoner thought for a moment. “That would be Saint Bridget,” he said.

    “And where will I find her ladyship?” asked the Charcoal Burner, eagerly.

    “She has a church at Beckermet,” replied the Almoner, and he pointed the way the Charcoal Burner ought to take.

    So the Charcoal Burner walked to Beckermet and when he got to the church he banged the altar plates together and roared and made a great deal of noise until Saint Bridget looked anxiously out of Heaven and asked if there was any thing she could do for him.

Also, the physical book is a pleasure, with Charles Vess illustrations and a decorated cloth cover with no dust jacket.


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  1. I noticed upon my first inspection that there was some sort of pretend-academic Introduction/”Professor of Fairie Studies” type deals, which mostly gives me hives when it’s done in sf. Might still pick it up, though.

  2. You can perfectly well skip the introduction, so don’t let that stop you.

  3. (Here via Librarything)
    I’ve just read the book and mostly concur with what you’ve said.
    That’s interesting that you consider “On Lickerish Hill” to be written in dialect. I suppose if the past is a foreign country, then it is. I liked this one, partly because Miranda is so endearingly calculating, but partly because I’m a fan of John Aubrey, whose writing Clarke is channelling here.
    I enjoyed “Mr Simonelli”, although it is a reworking of a folktale I’d read before. But it’s a clever reworking – particularly as the fairy reality that only fairies can see is grubby and nasty, not wonderful and amazing as in the version I’d read (which was told from the point of view of the child’s nurse).
    The charcoal-burner story also reminded me of something, but I’ve yet to identify it!

  4. Oh, and now I see you have athenais on your LJ friends list. So do I – I’m kicking_k.

  5. K: doesn’t Clarke explicitly say somewhere that it’s written in dialect? At any rate, I read by word recognition not phonetically, so extensive non-standard spelling is very difficult for me.
    (And I got very confused for a moment until I realized your John Aubrey was a historical figure, not Patrick O’Brian’s character Jack Aubrey!)
    Which folktale, by the way?

  6. There’s an endnote in which (if I’ve got this right – I haven’t the book to hand, but I only read it yesterday) she acknowledges a debt to someone else’s dialect version.
    I’d say the folktale in “Lickerish Hill” is Rumpelstiltskin – though I’ve heard the nimmy-nimmy-not doggerel somewhere else (I have a feeling it’s a Joan Aiken book, maybe Black Hearts in Battersea).
    And the one in “Mr Simonelli” is called, I think, just “The Fairy Widower” – it’s collected in a children’s book called “The Cat King’s Daughter and other Stories”, which has various folktales, mostly from the Celtic fringe. This one had a Cornish setting and the heroine’s name, as I recall, was Cherry Trewethy (she’s not a wet-nurse, though – the child is older). It’s quite different, but there are many common elements – particularly the girl being unable to return to her family for a set time, and being unable to see what the fairies see until liquid is applied to her eyes.
    I did hear a suggestion that they’re all reworked folktales, but if so, I can’t identify the source for all of them.
    My sister reads that way, too – it should have occurred to me that funny spelling would cause problems for some people. Sorry. I work in archives, so archaic spelling (and handwriting) is almost normal for me…
    I’ve been really enjoying browsing through your reviews, by the way.

  7. Hello everyone, I’m currently doing a translation of “John Uskglass and Cumbrian charcoal burner” into Russian. Just curious, if someone has any ideas on why Blakeman, the pig, bears a somewhat human name? =) Or it’s just my illusion as a non-native speaker of English :/
    I would appreciate your opinions and associations with the word “Blakeman” in the context. Just cannot decide whether to look for an adequate equivalent for Blakeman in Russian or not. Thanks in advance.

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