Some have said that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is like Pride & Prejudice with magic, but I have always felt that description does this book a disservice. People might expect there to be romance and young women carving out their place in a sexist society, but romance is a side note in this tale, and all the carving is done by men. In many ways, the only thing the two books have in common is location, era, and an ampersand. Imagine instead a book about two magical geeks rereleasing magic upon British society with an almost sociopathic disregard for the ramifications, written by a history buff with a penchant for wry wit and folkloric anecdotes.
There was a day when England was overbrimming with magic. The world of fairy and man were ruled by one man, the Raven King, and great works of magic happened across the land. Then the Raven King went away and magic slowly faded. Enter Mr Norrell centuries later, a fussy, anal-retentive little man with a jealous love for books of magic.
There is a difference between books of magic and books about magic. Norrell snapped up all the former and left the latter, like robbing the world of all its recipe books and leaving only essays on the impact of good cooking on society for others to read. Unfortunately, his hoarding could not stop Jonathan Strange from discovering magic on his own. Norrell took Strange on as a student in an effort to control him and shape English magic into his own image, and Strange fought for independence from his master throughout the entire book.
English society was slow to believe Norrell at first until he performed a work of magic that none could dispute: he set the carved statues of York Cathedral to talk, each telling their own tales of woe and wonder. Soon the various ministries put both Norrell, and then Strange, to work—especially Strange who was sent off to war to help Duke Wellington battle Napoleon by moving towns and roads around, summoning apparitions to spook a superstitious enemy, and creating an armada of ships out of rain.
Norrell had many hypocrisies, one of which was the demonizing of all things fairy. When Norrell beseeched Lord Walter to let him raise Lady Wintertowne from the dead, Norrell summoned the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. But the fairy wanted credit for the deed and fame for being Norrell’s tutor. Norrell’s pride would not allow this to happen. They struck a deal and raised the girl, but the fairy’s pride was bruised and he set about to bring ruin down on England and its new magicians.
Susanna Clarke writes in an old fashioned way, using archaic spellings to set mood and setting. Her descriptions are thorough, her dialog crisp, and the narration is peppered with sarcastic, British cheek. She has created a world that is so detailed that the reader could be forgiven for wishing it was real. And Oh! the footnotes!
Aside from the odd definition here and there, the footnotes provide backstory, as if Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings and included The Silmarillion in the margins. When Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell first appeared, the fantasy world was abuzz with praise. It is no small wonder that the BBC is producing a miniseries based on the book.
But is it any good?
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is not light reading at 782 pages, especially with footnotes that exceed chapter boundaries. A reader must be prepared to feast on the book slowly, taking in all the text, including copious footnotes, for a full, immersive experience. It is cleverly written, if a bit wry, and full of the details that alternate history buffs will enjoy. I found it worth every bit of praise that other authors heaped on it. But like jazz, it is an acquired taste. I believe it is worth the effort.
Release Date: August 26, 2004 (USA)
ISBN: 0747570558 (9780747570554)
Alcohol/Drugs: 0 (description)
Language: 1 (18th century swearing)
Nudity: 0 (description)
Sexuality: 0 (description)
Violence: 2 (war, people die, nothing graphic or gory)