Author: Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Publishing Date: 2009
Number of Pages: 1006 pages
Genre: Historical, Alternate History, Fantasy, English Fiction
It is 1806, the Napoleonic Wars are raging, and most people believe magic to have long since disappeared from England – until the reclusive Mr. Norrell reveals his powers and becomes a celebrity overnight. When another practicing magician emerges, the young and daring Jonathan Strange, he becomes Norrell’s pupil and the two join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic and soon he risks sacrificing not only his partnership with Norrell but everything else he holds clear.
Writers always strive for perfection. Each wants his or her works, especially the first one, to be very meaningful, just like the case of J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series. The same could be said about Susanna Clarke and her magnum opus on which she spent 10 years of research to write about magic, history and a plethora of other subjects. When her debut work, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was finally published in 2004, it stirred quite a sensation. Clarke’s hard work has been finally repaid with a resounding victory.
It was out of curiosity that I purchased the book. I had no idea that it was Clarke’s debut novel. It wasn’t the title or the synopsis that caught my attention but it was the book’s thickness which astounded me. What kind of magic does this thick book hold? Ever since I begun reading, I have this fascination with lengthy reads even though I find them challenging. To liven up my 2018 reading year, I included it in my 2018 Top 20 Reading List. Thankfully, it did not fail to enchant.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the book relates the story of the reclusive magician Mr. Norrell who, in spite of his hermitage, set on a mission to revive practical magic in a period when theoretical magic reigned due to the docility of English magicians. In his quest to revive English magic, Mr. Norrell became involved in the Napoleonic Wars. He was tasked to be the consultant to several English military bigwigs.
While serving for the military, a certain magician emerged in the person of Jonathan Strange. Originally lacking any magical inclinations, his curiosity was piqued when he started learning simple tricks. Mr. Norrell normally wouldn’t take any students but Strange’s earnestness to study earned him the honor of being Mr. Norrell’s first protégé. But their individual differences, in both demeanor and beliefs, created a schism between them. This schism put their relationship, both personal and professional, in peril. In the end, whose magic will prevail?
“I mean that two of any thing is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery. Two must always watch each other. The eyes of all the world will be on two, uncertain which of them to follow.” ~ Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Magic and History
One of the novel’s outstanding qualities is its strange fusion of varying literary genres, which Clarke referred to as “something new”. The first prevailing theme is of the magical kind. The book is enchanted with its own brand of magic different from J.K. Rowling’s. There is a certain air of maturity with Clarke’s brand compared to Rowling’s more puerile and free-spirited brand. Each one is unique in their own way and both are equally engaging and enchanting. The biggest difference though was how each author utilized magic in their storytelling. Rowling used it to fascinate her readers while Clarke used it as a mechanism to retell history.
This historical reinterpretation is the other prevailing theme in the story. It extensively depicted an alternative history of the Napoleonic Wars. The book played with history, giving it a different yet implausible interpretation. A healthy portion of the story dealt with the Napoleonic Wars. This mix of magic, war and history makes the book’s historical otherness an enthralling read. What if magic existed? How willl it shape history and everything that we believe is true?
Undoubtedly, history and magic are the primary centrifugal forces upon which the entire narrative revolved. However, it also dealt with an array of other subjects, including friendship and loyalty. Certain aspects and qualities of English culture and literature, both provincial and high society, were also incorporated into the story. There were some undertones of romance as well.
The novel also dealt with darker subjects such as betrayal, war, death and immortality. Immortality, although more obscured than the other subjects, is also a central theme. Ironically, it was an act of immortality that introduced Mr. Norrell to the high English society. His act of necromancy is begging of the question, “How far can we go in order to see our loved ones live again.” It highlights the inevitability of death, irrespective of one’s age and stature in society. Immortality also extended to the erudition apropos to magic and the very life of magic itself.
How can we make magic last?
“Time and I have quarreled. All hours are midnight now. I had a clock and a watch, but I destroyed them both. I could not bear the way they mocked me.” ~ Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
But the novel’s outstanding qualities doesn’t end in the wide array of subjects that it has revolves on. Clarke also utilized a variety of of genres to effectively deliver the narrative. It is a Gothic tale and an extensive military novel while at the same time satirizing the high English society. On its own, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a great under study for those Romantic and English fictions.
This marriage of different themes and genres ultimately make up for a complex yet amazing work of fiction. What truly stands out in the entire narrative is the astounding amount of research that Clarke did in preparation for the book. Not many writers would endeavor to do the same and this just goes to show Clarke’s passion. I really commend her for her careful attention to details.
The different elements which Clarke incorporated into her debut novel makes it an astonishing work. But in spite of its unconventionality, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, is the quintessence of English fiction. Clarke pastiches the writing styles and language of renowned 19th century literati, consistent with the setting of her work. This writing consistency is evident as well in the 185 footnotes she used to supplement her fictional history of magic.
One quality that the book possesses and is ever present from start to finish is the pall that hovers above it, giving it a more macabre and sinister atmosphere. This is also consistent with John Uskglass’ (the fictional Raven King) prevailing influence in the story. He is Clarke’s version of Rowling’s Lord Voldemort. The overall mood of storytelling is somber and melancholic at best. This miasma of macabre magic is perhaps best portrayed in the end when Jonathan Strange was seemingly swallowed by the mist as he walks away from his wife.
“She wore a gown the color of storms, shadows, and rain and a necklace of broken promises and regrets.” ~ Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
As can be expected, works as lengthy as this one is presented with its own set of challenges. The initial challenge is how to get through the drivels that flooded the book’s first few few hundred pages. It is detailed to the hilt but it did little in advancing the story. As a result, establishing a rhythmic reading pattern at the start becomes a challenge because of too much humdrum drivel that is unnecessary and excessive. However, once a rhythmic pace has been established, the story begins to transform.
It is also true that what makes the book shine could also be the one that causes its own downfall. To some, Clarke’s take on different themes and genres is fascinating but to some, it could present a major problem. At some points, the story becomes overbearing, and even confusing. One might even prematurely decide to skip the entire narrative.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell touches on everything that makes English fiction soar. All of those 10 years Susanna Clarke spend on researching for her work is all worth it because she not only wrote a book, she wrote a masterpiece that enthralls with its complexity, density and overall beauty. It deserves all the accolades it got from all literary pundits. In a manner of speaking, English magic is alive, rather English literature is very much alive.
Although Clarke’s magnum opus is a challenging read, it still delights in all the literary elements that it was able to strung together in one cohesive piece. It was not always perfect but Clarke’s careful attention to details and her research makes the narrative soar. The ending ended in an enigma which could be a prelude to a sequel. And if it is indeed true, I will be waiting for it with great anticipation.
Recommended for all English and romance literature students, those who are looking for a well written and well researched narrative that explores different literary genres and themes, those that like fantasy novels, and those who are willing to spare a chunk of their time reading a lengthy masterpiece.
Not recommended for those who dislike complex narratives and genres, those who prefer shorter stories and those who dislike fantasy.
About the Author
(Photo by Curtis Brown) Susanna Clarke was born on November 1, 1959 in Nottingham, England. She was the eldest daughter of a Methodist minister and his wife. She spent her childhood in various towns across Northern England due to her father’s vocation. As a child, she enjoyed reading English literature books. In 1981, she graduated from St. Hilda’s College, Oxford in 1981 with a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy, politics and economics. Post college, she spent eight years in publishing and two years in teaching before working on her first novel.
For 10 years, Clarke researched and wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It was finally published in 2004. In spite of Clarke’s doubt of it being ever published, the book stirred quite the sensation, even winning some literary awards. It was named by Times Magazine as the Best Novel of the Year. It also won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Clarke also published a collection of stories titled The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (2006)
Clarke is currently residing in Cambridge with her partner, Colin Greenland.