A Book About Magic

I was browsing Netflix one fine autumn evening, when there appeared, “recommended for you,” a miniseries by the name of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.  I read the synopsis, and while I was skeptjonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverical of the screen cap, I decided to give the miniseries a shot upon discovering it was created by the BBC, which produces content of some quality more often than not.  I finished all seven episodes within the week, and I thoroughly recommend them.  However, this article will concern Susanna Clarke’s novel of the same name upon which the series was based, a 2004 New York Times bestseller and 2005 Hugo Award winner for Best Novel.  Both the book and its adaption are nearly identical in overall plot, with a few minor alterations.  Of course, the novel has a depth of content and a winning style that cannot quite be captured on screen, although the series makes a valiant and very nearly successful effort.

Beginning her first chapter in 1806, Clarke presents what may be considered an alternate history of England.  In her world, England was once renowned for its magic, magic that has all but vanished from the land following the departure, nearly 300 years ago, of the mythical Raven King, who once held court in the North.  Enter Mr. Norrell, an extremely reclusive, pedantic gentleman of Yorkshire, who, as it turns out, is neither a “theoretical magician” nor a charlatan, but is actually capable of producing the magic he studies.

Mr. Norrell takes it upon himself to reestablish England as a beacon of magic –  using it to aid his country in the Napoleonic wars, among other services – but of a particular sort of magic: modern, respectable stuff, as admirable a field of study as the law or the Church, magic that is certainly not the wild sort employed by the Raven King and his kind.  Enter Jonathan Strange, a young man whose temperament is nearly the opposite of Mr. Norrell’s, but whose talent for magic is quite equal.  Mr. Strange is not as adverse to that ancient, uncivilized magic as Mr. Norrell would like him to be, and it is the relationship between these two magicians that forms the heart of the novel.

Yet, for all Mr. Norrell’s obsession with reinventing English magic as “respectable,” and the great trouble and turmoil this causes throughout the novel, it is a lapse in Mr. Norrell’s prized judgement that is ultimately revealed to have set the plot in motion.  For, early in the story, whilst still establishing his reputation as a practical magician, Mr. Norrell swallows his scruples and performs a bit of magic that requires aid from a fairy.  And, as those of you who are familiar with the old tales know, fairies are not to be trusted.

Spanning a thousand pages or more (depending on which edition you’re reading), Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a rather complex novel, to put it mildly.  But however thick a tome it may be and however many footnotes it may contain,1 I would not describe it as a “dense” read.  This is due, I believe, to Clarke’s superb sense of literary style.

How best to describe the tone of the writing?  I believe I read somewhere a parallel to the style of Jane Austen, herself of the Regency era, and I agree with this comparison.  The novel, though a serious work, has a quite a bit of Austen’s sardonic wit, revealed in such quotes as:  “It was an old fashioned house – the sort of house in fact, as Strange expressed it, which a lady in a novel might like to be persecuted in.”  Or, “How quickly was every bad thing discovered to be the fault of the previous administration (an evil set of men who wedded general stupidity to wickedness of purpose).”

It really is rather like reading a Jane Austen fantasy novel.  And yet, as wry as the telling is, the novel is also at once fanciful and melancholy: “Woods were ringed with a colour so soft, so subtle that it could scarcely be said to be a colour at all. It was more the idea of a colour – as if the trees were dreaming green dreams or thinking green thoughts.”  Indeed, many spectacles are twinged with horror, such as is spoken by the enigmatic gentleman with the thistle-down hair, who nonchalantly relates how “I cleverly contrived to capture the little children of my enemy and we pushed them out of the belfry to their deaths.  Tonight we re-enact this great triumph…Of course, it was a great deal more striking when we used real children.”

Clarke likewise does an excellent job of immersing her complex characters within their worlds; nothing feels anachronistic. In fact, the characters espouse the backwards opinions of their time (Mr. Norrell, as well as being against street-magicians and vagabond-magicians, is also very much against “lady-magicians.”)  At the same time, Clarke is able to make use of her current perspective, exploring for example, the subject of slavery, a topic that authors such as Austen just barely mention; the son of an African slave observes: “…skin can mean a great deal. Mine means that any man may strike me in a public place and never fear the consequences. It means that my friends do not always like to be seen with me in the street. It means that no matter how many books I read, or languages I master, I will never be anything but a curiosity – like a talking pig or a mathematical horse.”

Altogether, while picking up Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell may be a lengthy endeavor, I consider it quite worth the while for those looking to invest their minds in an elaborate, well-thought out novel, and for those who perhaps may have a great deal in common with the titular characters: “Books and magic are all either of them really care about.”

  1. Some readers complain of these notes, which generally provide “historical” context – often an account of magic – but I, as a fan of British fairytales and legends, found them enthralling.

A note about the title of this article: the title is derived from the layman’s rule of thumb concerning magical books: “…books written before magic ended in England are books of magic, books written later are books about magic.”  Of course, magicians find plenty of ways to quarrel over this maxim.