Susanna Clarke’s 2004 Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a stand-alone historical fantasy novel1.
In 1806, John Segundus raises a question that many in York’s society of magicians would prefer not to have been asked. Once the North was dominated by the Raven King, whose sorcery is the stuff of legend. Why, then, is there no more magic done in England?
York’s magicians being theoretical2 rather than practical, some among them feel the question makes as much sense as expecting astronomers to rearrange the stars. In fact, Segundus’ question is incorrect but not for that reason. In fact, there remains at least one practical magician in England: wealthy, antisocial, arrogant Gilbert Norrell.
Norrell is pleased to prove that his magic is practical and real, provided the York magicians promise to abandon magic following Norrell’s demonstration. Norrell loves magic but he does not love other sorcerers; the useless sort as found in York are a close second in his disesteem to other practical magicians. He makes the statues in York’s cathedral speak. The dissolution of York’s society of mages follows.
Norrell’s demonstration places him in the public spotlight, a role for which the tedious misanthrope is poorly suited. As well, vanquishing the York sorcerers rid the world of magicians who would never have accomplished anything, at the cost of showing more capable mages that magic is indeed possible. Jonathan Strange is one such mage, a man who may lack Norrell’s library and mystical education, but whose raw talent for magic rivals Norrell’s.
Norrell discovers that having made the statues speak carries surprisingly little weight with the British government. (It does not help that an overeager reporter wrote an account of the feat so lurid as to border on the absurd.) Seeking some more impressive proof of his ability, Norrell turns to necromancy, resurrecting Emma Wintertowne from the dead. Emma marries Sir Walter Pole and Norrell gains the respect and fame to which he is certain is his by right.
However … Norrell’s personal power was insufficient to bring someone back from the dead. His ambition led him to embrace actions that Norrell knew to be risky. He implored the fairy lord known as the gentleman with thistle-down hair3to resurrect Emma. The gentleman demanded a price. Norrell, misinterpreting the fairy lord’s terms, agreed. Unfortunately for Emma, she is the one who must pay, spending her every night dancing to amuse the gentleman.
Meanwhile, the more personable Strange chases adulation by offering his services as a military mage in the Napoleonic Wars. Wellington is at first skeptical. Determining how to apply the magic he knows to military needs takes Strange some time. In the end, Strange is successful in harnessing his increasingly alarming magic to military ends, moving forests, roads, and entire cities to suit Wellington4. Good news for England but perhaps less good for a world unsuited to accommodating commonplace miracles.
Having had his attention drawn to the mundane world, the fairy lord becomes obsessed with Sir Walter’s African butler, Stephen Black. Not only is the gentleman convinced such a beautiful mortal should be King of England, but he is also convinced that a certain prophecy proclaims that Black will be King of England.
George III might disagree but George III is a poor pitiful madman who should be easy enough for the gentleman to eliminate.
One reason magic is no longer practiced in England may be because magic is ludicrously powerful. Magicians are an active hazard to all around them. Strange moves cities around at a whim; the only reason he does not drop Paris into the Atlantic is because he feels using magic to kill directly is ungentlemanly. This may not be a universal belief. Having restored practical magic to England, the question may be how to get rid of it again. Surviving its restoration could be a challenge.
This is another instance of a historical fantasy world that despite fundamentally different natural laws and significantly different history somehow managed to produce a world not just very similar to our 19th century, but one with more or less the same people in it. Given the events of the novel, it seems likely that this can only be a momentary convergence.
The first thing the reader will notice about this book is that it is a weighty tome, coming in at a chonky 785 pages in hardcover5. Unlike certain authors one could mention6, Clarke does not squander her pages. The narrative on each page serves a purpose. Consequently, while this is a rather convoluted tale, having a much larger cast of characters than one can cram into a thousand-word review, this is a much faster read than one might expect.
While unblinkered about the distasteful aspects of Georgian society, of which there are many, and despite the moments of horror, particularly whenever the gentleman tries to be helpful, the novel is not all terror and squalor. The characters themselves may lack sufficient distance to see how absurd they often are, but the author and her text have the perspective required.
I put off reading this because I feared it would be long and boring, a hesitation I now regret. This was a serious misjudgment on my part. Despite my current difficulty sticking with long works, I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrellwithout stopping save for piffling needs like food. Despite keeping a reading schedule that does not often permit rereads, I suspect that this book will be the exception. I can see why this novel won awards.
1: While the novel stands alone, other works take place in the Raven King setting.
2: Or less diplomatically, utterly useless.
3: Not his true name. Names have power and prudent people do not share theirs. The gentleman is one of three people in the narrative whose true name is obscure. One might conclude that prudent magicians would take the frequency with which names are hidden or lost into account. But “prudent sorcerer” appears to be a contradiction in terms.
4: Necromantic experiments go less well.
5: The second is that the author, like all great writers, has an admirable love of footnotes.
6: But do not.