There is nothing else in magic but the wild thought of the bird as it casts itself into the void. There is no creature upon the earth with such potential for magic. Even the least of them may fly straight out of this world and come by chance to the Other Lands. Where does the wind come from that blows upon your face, that fans the pages of your book? Where the harum-scarum magic of small wild creatures meets the magic of Man, where the language of the wind and the rain and the trees can be understood, there we will find the Raven King.
Biology classes in films and TV shows often depict the dissection of various small vermin to study their entrails, but my own experience was quite bloodless. Whether it was due to a lack of budget by our school or a lack of initiative by our Biology teacher, we went through our two upper secondary Biology years without cutting into any living creature—until we raised the issue to Mr Choo (for that was his name) near the end of our Fifth Form. He responded by telling us to bring any animal we capture to the next class and he shall show us how to dissect it. I captured a live cockroach and true to his words, he took my wriggling offering and drowned it in a bottle of formaldehyde. Then, he guided me in inserting a scissor blade through its anus, cutting along the side of its abdomen, and then opening the insect’s exoskeleton like a book to expose the viscera underneath. I attended to the task enthusiastically in the spirit of discovery. I do not know if it is related but three years later, I found myself at med school flaying the skin off the chest wall of a human cadaver (one who was already dead and did not need drowning). So those are the two things I ever dissected in service of my education: a cockroach, and then a human being. Anyway, I feel the exercise of reviewing a book involves a similar process. It requires one to open the cover of the specimen to analyse what’s hidden within. Some books are like cockroaches, undesirable, foul, and in possession of far too many legs. One may find it easy, trivial even, to violate its interior because they do not inspire respect. However, some books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are more akin to the incorruptible body of a saint or a lover. The thought of taking a scalpel to it conjures feelings of sacrilege, and one often shies away from the task due to a sense of unworthiness and inadequacy.
Because that is how Ms Clarke’s Strange and Norrell makes me feel. It made me feel that way when I first read it feverishly over 4 days in 2005, and it made me feel the same in the 6th and 7th times I’ve re-read it since. It invokes sobering thoughts about how I will never write any thing as beautiful as this. How can I? It is the Platonic ideal of a novel to which I compare all other novels! For 15 years, my goal as a reader and lover of books is to find its supplanter—another book as good as, or better—and for 15 years I knew only disappointment. Strange & Norrell aged like a fine vintage in the meantime, while my maturing palate keeps discovering new dimensions of the book to appreciate.
That being said, I understand that Strange and Norrell remains miserly with its delights for some readers. While the book’s wry humour had me in stitches, some found it dreary. Some complained that the book is too long, while I lament that it is not lengthier. Insomuch as I admire Ms Clarke’s verve in setting the book in Regency England and writing it in Regency English, I recognise that some may find her style to be overly affected. And while others condemn its plot as meandering, I found it thrilling that I could not tell where the story was taking me. As for its two titular characters, Jonathan Strange grew less and less likeable as he progressed through the book while Mr Norrell started out unlikeable and then proceeded intrepidly to excavate new depths of unlikeability. I cannot prescribe the “right way” to read this book, if such prescriptions are even possible, but when I read Strange & Norrell, I do not think of them as heroes and I think that helps. I believe the reason the book inspires such polarised reactions is because of the choices Ms Clarke made which were challenging in the context of the fantasy genre (and even fiction in general). I maintain that this as a good thing. It would be a very neuter sort of art if it behaved in exactly the way which was expected of it.
“Such nonsense!” declared Dr Greysteel. “Whoever heard of cats doing anything useful!”
“Except for staring at one in a supercilious manner,” said Strange. “That has a sort of moral usefulness, I suppose, in making one feel uncomfortable and encouraging sober reflection upon one’s imperfections.”
The story of Strange and Norrell is overlaid on an early 19th century England which experienced a different history from ours. In the late 16th century, the northern half of England was conquered and ruled for 300 years by an enigmatic figure known as the Raven King who also governed a kingdom in Faerie and another on the far side of Hell. Then as mysteriously as he came, he vanished and magic in England waned to nothingness in his absence. Some of his northern subjects believes he had never left, and some believes he may return some day. Whether it was intended or not, he appears to occupy a similar messianic niche as King Arthur in English legends, but one stranger and darker than his Camelotian counterpart’s. The practice of English magic was subsequently reduced to a purely theoretical and historical pursuit for the upper class, and opportunistic charlatanism for the lower. In the middle of England’s war against France and Napoleon, two magicians appear who could perform miraculous feats of magic no longer thought to be possible, and they aspire to restore magic to their country.
Thus it was written on the surface of the book’s corpus, but beneath its skin lies the ample flesh of social criticism in the tradition laid down by authors like Austen, Trollope, and Edgeworth. Amusingly, Ms Edgeworth’s 1801 novel, Belinda, exists in the world of Strange and Norrell and could be found in a bookcase in Sir Walter Pole’s home, and Strange said he had read it with his wife, Arabella. Indeed, the greater part of my sympathy for the characters in Strange and Norrell lies with the less privileged characters orbiting the two main characters. It lies with the the women who suffered most from the two magicians’ ambition, in Arabella Strange and Lady Pole. It lies with the servant class in Norrell’s man of business, John Childermass and Sir Walter’s butler, Stephen Black, who is a freed slave.
“… Yet it is true—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.”
While magic is a staple in the genre of fantasy, the way Ms Clarke writes magic is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and I am at a loss of words to describe it. I can only offer you a report of how it makes me feel, and it makes me feel as if the world around me is in fact many times larger than what its physical dimensions suggest—that there are impossible spaces between walls, through mirrors, and behind the sky. It helps me understand, for the first time, what religious individuals experience when they profess their love and fear God. Because the root of fear is the unknown, or what we believe to be unknowable. It is that scream we do not hear which emanates from inside our chests when we stand in the middle the woods at night, and though the place belongs to no one, we still feel a bone deep suspicion that we are trespassing. Strange and Norrell may be mostly written in a comic and satiric tone, but when it has a mind to, it can be truly frightening. I read it for the first time when I was 19 and even at that age, I found it quite intolerable to read too late into the night.
He went into the room that had been made ready. He washed his hands and face and, as he did so, he caught a glimpse in the mirror of the bed behind him. It was heavy, old fashioned and – as often happens at inns – much too large for the room. Four carved mahogany columns, a high dark canopy and bunches of black ostrich feathers at each corner all contrived to give it a funereal look. It was as if someone had brought him into the room and shewn him his own tomb. He began to have the strangest feeling… the feeling that something was coming to an end and that all his choices had now been made. He had taken a road in his youth, but the road did not lead where he had supposed; he was going home, but home had become something monstrous. In the half-dark, standing by the black bed, he remembered why he had always feared the darkness as a child: the darkness belonged to John Uskglass.
I reread Strange and Norrell earlier this month, and even though I rationed the pages and savoured every line like it was holy writ, I still depleted all 800 pages of it in a week. I returned to it a sightseer, eager to visit all my favourite scenes and passages, and there are many: the haunting scene with the statues at York Minster; the first appearance of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair and all his subsequent dealings with Stephen Black; the affair at Maria Absalom’s Shadow House, the entire Portugal campaign (and the seventeen dead Neapolitans); the visit Strange paid to mad King George; everything surrounding Venice and Mrs Delgado, Lascelles’ fate; and of course, PINEAPPLES. Oh my god, that damnable fruit came up more often than I remembered (I counted 5 instances), and it was glorious! Ms Clarke is a playful writer, and one thing I noticed in my latest read-through is the large number of references she inserted into the book pertaining to the craft of writing. She jokes about the disrepute of novel writers. She pokes fun at the agony Gilbert Norrell experiences in committing thought to paper, perhaps in self-deprecation of her own slowness (reportedly 10 years) in authoring Strange and Norrell.
But the other Ministers considered that to employ a magician was one thing, novelists were quite another and they would not stoop to it.
Now, I am often asked for my opinion on the BBC One 7-episode series, and while it is not without its merits, it simply cannot hope to measure up to the book for the simple crimes of its lack of Ms Clarke’s enchanting narration, its unforgivable deficiency of pineapples, and the utter mismanagement of the conclusion of Henry Lascelles’ story by substituting one of the most imaginative and heart-stopping twists in literature (one which caused me to gasp audibly in my first encounter with it) with something altogether ordinary and banal.
Another limitation of the screen adaptation was its inability to translate Strange and Norrell‘s surfeit of footnotes, some of which go on for literally pages. They allude to fabricated publications by fictional scholars which play no small part in constructing a convincing magical tradition for the British Isles, as well as offer folkloric tales surrounding magicians, fairies, and the Raven King. And since we are touching upon the subject of fairies—Ms Clarke was neither the first nor the last author to feature the fae as amoral sociopaths, and writers as such as Sir Terry Pratchett (Discworld) and Mr Butcher (The Dresden Files) have featured similarly capricious and dangerous beings in their works. As much as I laud their portrayal of these creatures, theirs still pale in comparison to Ms Clarke’s. The inhumanity of her fairies feels primal and thorough. They are an eldritch blend of the madness of tyrants and the ego of despots; malicious, absurd, and disorienting. It is unsettling to see creatures so ancient, so powerful behave in such a childlike manner.
I offer an apology for my failures in critiquing this book because in lieu of a dissection, I have submitted worship. I award Strange & Norrell every superlative. It is one of the funniest books I’ve read. It is also one of the most chilling books I’ve read, as well as one of the most awe-inspiring. It has the most beautiful, most elegant prose; obsessively written over a span of 10 years. Of its varied cast of colourful and memorable characters, the Raven King stands out as one of my favourite characters in fiction though I love every one of them, even the detestable ones like Drawlight and Lascelles. It is, in my opinion, the closest any author have managed to manufacturing real magic on paper. It became my favourite book 15 years ago, and it will likely remain so 15 years from now.
P.S. There exists a singularly outstanding analysis of the social themes in this book by Ms Hoiem entitled The Fantasy of Talking Back: Susanna Clarke’s Historical Present in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I do not believe I have the learning to write a better one, nor would I deign to attempt it, so I shall direct you to it instead. If you are in search of an essay which put all of Ms Clarke’s published canon into the context of her life, personality, and illness, I direct you instead to Ms Miller’s Susanna Clarke’s Fantasy World of Interiors. If you want to know what Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell thought of the novel they are in, you can find their opinions here.