In the pages of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, expect to find dusty books, formal balls, and a lot of tea. But be warned: you will also meet prophets, fairies, disappearing roads, dark curses, and one very famous English poet.
Susanna Clarke knows that doing something well can often take time. The magnificent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell took her ten years to write, and looking at the massive tome made me fear it might take almost as long to read! But even though it was slow going, each page gave me a new reason to chuckle, to imagine, and to dive into this rich and complicated universe. It was, to say the least, well worth the effort.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is many things. It is a story of magic and mystery, but also a sprawling Dickensian tale of manners, family, and business in an alternate-history early 1800’s England. If that sounds a little like Tolkien-meets-Jane-Austen, you’d be completely right! And that’s a huge part of what drew me to this unique story. Nothing excites me like the dangerous moors and curious creatures of a fantasy novel.
Fantasy provides a way to examine our hopes, fears, and ethics in a new light, usually in high stakes and desperate circumstances.
This novel somehow incorporates the best of both magic and mystery genres. It is at once mundane and fantastic. It is as slow-moving as molasses, but builds in parts to an almost frenzied intensity. It’s so long and has so many twists and turns, that it’s hard to even canvass in a review!
For starters, the novel is 100% English in spirit. There’s the dry, witty, detached side, like Ricky Gervais in The Office and the Queen Elizabeth side – where people elegantly sip tea and exchange verbal barbs. But there’s another part to England’s heart and mythos: a throbbing wanderlust, a wild madness. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell explores both sides of this coin with its two central characters.
Mr. Norrell is the quiet, proud one. He keeps to tradition and custom, doesn’t raise his voice, and maintains a meticulous house. Much to our surprise, this grey-wigged, glass-half-empty creature is the greatest practical magician in all of England. In fact, he’s the only magician in England.
Then there is Jonathan Strange, who brings vigor, romance, and madness to the narrative. In a way, it’s very surprising that Mr. Norrell takes Strange as an apprentice, because they could not be more different. Strange is young and will suffer orders from no one. Filled with ambition and new ideas about how magic could be worked and used, he petrifies the stately, conservative Norrell. Their partnership and friendship, full of unexpected twists and turns, provides the backbone of the novel.
Perhaps it shows my American-ness to admit that I care for Jonathan Strange infinitely more than I do for Mr. Norrell. Even at his worst, Jonathan’s emotional honesty and sense of justice draws me over to his side. Mr. Norrell is in many ways an amusing and relatable character, but as the story wore on, I found it harder and harder to empathize with his struggles or his goals. You see, he has very specific ideas about what magic is for. About who magic is for.
Falling headfirst into the world of Jonathan Strange makes me hunger for a long-ago England rich with spirits and spells. You can’t capture England on Instagram. It’s old in a sense that Americans can’t fathom, filled with dark, sad secrets, and immeasurable light and joy. Befriending Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange has given me a profound respect for the different, often conflicting, passions running through England’s veins and legends.
It’s the kind of book that opens you up to see magic everywhere you go, even in the most unexpected places.