Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell ~ Susanna Clarke

It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week. 92

There's nothing like eagerly anticipating a book for months and having all your expectations answered thoroughly. Hot damn! What a book! What a nice way to finish up an awful year, curled up with a big, sprawling joyride of a novel. The style is Austen--pure wit and sarcasm--but the scope is closer to Fielding; Clarke adopts his perogative of digressing though her history as often as she sees occasion, and though she often focuses on a few families in a country village, she also throws in the war against Buonaparte, the magical history of England, Parliment, ancient prophecies, blackmail, murder, fairy kingdoms, Lord Byron, and the madness of Kinge George III. So I guess it's akin to the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe (whom Clarke mentions several times as well); an affectionately ironic gothic novel. The plot is all about the pursuit of knowledge and power, ambition and greed, etc, played out in a battle of wills between our two magicians, Mr. Norrell, a nasty little man who's name I'm positive is a deliberate echo of Mrs. Norris, and Jonathan Strange, charming but flawed hero, obviously Clarke's personal version of Henry Tilney:

In person he was rather tall and his figure was considered good. Some people thought him handsome, but this was not by any means the universal opinion. His face had two faults: a long nose and an ironic expression. It is also true that his hair had a reddish tinge and, as everybody knows, no one with red hair can ever truly be said to be handsome. 192

I love him almost as much as I love Mr. Tilney (best of men!); his character is a bit darker than Henry's, probably because he isn't in a romantic comedy, and his father really was something of a gothic villain.
Behind everything in the novel is the shadow of the Raven King, John Uskglass, greatest magician in English history and ruler of Northern England for 300 years. Bit of an Arthurian figure; he disappeared one day and ancient prophecies say he will come again, after two magicians (presumably Norrell and Strange) bring magic back to England.Clarke gives you glimpses of him but he always remains a mysterious figure; by the end you want to meet him as badly as Jonathan Strange does. Somehow Clarke manages to combine a breath-taking atmosphere of enchantment and fantasy (man, can that woman write a prophecy!) with a realistic Regency setting and make it work. You believe in it readily; of course Mr. Norrell can raise a woman from the dead, and walking through mirrors, as Strange does, seems a perfectly reasonable way to get around. The gentleman with thistle-down hair (a nameless but dangerously capricious fairy king, as fairy kings generally are) is equally convincing as the Duke of Wellington. Vinculus, a ragged street magician and con artist, and John Childermass, Norrell's assistant, are some of the best drawn characters in the book (and there are a lot of them); you're not sure what to make of them, you never really know who's side they're on or if they're trustworthy. Which of course makes them fascinating.
This book has really got it all: magic, history, gothic suspense, satire, romance, and humor. And pictures! And footnotes! My god, the footnotes! Pages and pages of them, full of anecdotes and ballads and biography and citations, and references to Clarke's earlier stories, like "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" (where I first met Strange and decided I had to know him better). I love this book. What I read next will have a hard time competing with it. I guess I'll leave it to the Washington Post to sum it up accurately: "Many books are to be read, some are to be studied, and a few are meant to be lived in for weeks. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is of this last kind."


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