Wednesday Book Club: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Wednesday, 13 May 2009 — 1:15pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke.

In brief: In the height of the Napoleonic Wars, two magicians appear in England and strive to restore its long-lost tradition of wonders, but disagree on whether fairies have any role to play. On one thing we can all agree: this epic love letter to England herself is fantastic, and shouldn’t be missed.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, keep reading below.)

1.

I’ve been writing casually about books here for a little short of a year now, and I am still not acclimatized to the habit of making value judgments about literature. Value-judgment criticism seems to take two rhetorical forms. Naïvely one begins with an argument from taste: I responded well to this; I didn’t respond to well to that; I like the tomato. Thenceforth the reader who wishes to justify that taste with something persuasive turns to the argument from principle: I liked this because it exemplifies something that literature ought to be; I hated this because it was contrary to those ideals. (Literature ought to be “true”, literature ought to be “entertaining”, literature ought to make “money”, etc., etc.) The determination of whether a book is any good, even in the most professional and well-regarded publications aimed at the literate public, appears to involve a simple process: the application of an argument from principle to disguise and justify an argument from taste.

My discomfort with the idea that literature ought to ascribe to a single set of principles, an ideology in the most pejorative sense, comes from a belief that a world of creative activity that directed itself towards one set of ideals would be very dreary indeed. It is wholly unreasonable to expect a single book to capture the essence of Literature when some principles inevitably take precedence over others in any given work.

Nevertheless, I think there is always room to say that it would be very interesting to encounter certain ideals, or combinations of ideals, that have yet to appear in one’s personal reading history. And for some time now, I’ve unconsciously converged on a mental picture of what I would like to see in a novel—not every novel, but at least one. An eloquent and witty prose style that doesn’t mire the plot; convincing world-building full of both imaginative and historical interest; demonstrable literacy within and outside of its genre, but not at the expense of being independently comprehensible; events and images that linger in the mind; a meaningful contribution to the world of ideas; total synergy of content and form.

So now I’m staring at the Real Thing—roundabout 1000 gobsmacking pages of the Real Thing, boxed in a lavish three-volume edition—and I’m not sure what to say.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Damn, what a novel.

2.

No synopsis would do this book justice. The problem isn’t with its complexity, but its girth. Whether your edition is bound as one book or three, there is no doubt that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell recalls the print culture of Regency England, when novels were parcelled out into separate volumes for smoother distribution in the circulating libraries. Novelists adjusted to match, writing immense tapestries with plots of a serial structure. It would be easy to dismiss the sheer enormity of Susanna Clarke’s magisterial debut novel as one of her many period gimmicks, but she has more than enough material to fill it.

The novel takes place in the years 1806 to 1817 in an England not quite like our own: in medieval times, its northern half was ruled out of Newcastle by a legendary magician known as the Raven King. When the novel begins, magic has long faded from England and become a theoretical, almost philological discipline. Scholars and dilettantes band together in gentlemen’s societies and exhume what they can of it, as they would a dead language.

Enter Gilbert Norrell, a man who shut himself up in his veritable shrine of a library to teach himself magic out of books and restore it to England in the form of respectable practical use. Norrell is at once a technologist and monopolist. His aim is to reestablish magic as a study worthy of the age of reason (with none of that nonsense about fairies and ravens), while buying up all the books of magic in the country and driving everyone else out of the business. But as we see in the most fascinating characters in fiction, principles are no match for secret personal hypocrisies; and soon enough Mr Norrell, desperate to forge political connections that will allow him to deploy magic in the nation’s service, finds himself bargaining with a fairy trickster to resurrect a Cabinet minister’s fiancée.

Norrell elects to conveniently forget about this and go about his merry, contradictory way, returning magic to national prominence while restricting the flow of information so as to create an orthodoxy that will have absolutely nothing to do with English magic’s wild and folksy side, the England still under the Raven King’s banner in spirit if not in name. And so magic prospers in England under a dictum of good sense, although it predictably runs aground of the same problem I identified with ideologies of sensible literature: a successfully established orthodoxy denies the exploration of a field of vast interest, and inevitably stagnates.

That’s where Jonathan Strange enters the fray, as we move into the autumn of 1809 and the second act of the book. Strange is a talented, if distractible young fellow who turns to magic because no other vocation holds his curiosity for long, and Romantic to the core. Strange’s creativity is his greatest asset, and it isn’t long before Norrell begrudgingly takes him as a pupil. Then it’s no time at all before Strange tires of Norrell’s tutelage and goes off on his own wild adventure, which takes him through the Peninsular War at Wellington’s side and, irresistibly, to Waterloo.

Clarke’s vision of the Napoleonic Wars with magic is nothing short of triumphant, and every indulgence justifies itself with sheer wonder. Every occasion Norrell and Strange pull out their magic makes for a showstopper of narrative fireworks. It may look as if I am verging on hyperbole, but it truly must be read to be believed. Not common these days is the novel that excites the senses as well as the mind; I’ve found one, and I’ll treasure it.

Once Napoleon is out of the picture and you realize there is still a third of the book to go, one almost wonders if Clarke has anywhere left to take it. And it’s true that in the book’s final act, it begins to buckle under the weight of its own mythology as the widening philosophical gulf between Strange and Norrell turns into an all-out rivalry, where Strange is enraptured by the enduring mysteries of the Raven King and England’s folkloric fairy-magic (through, of all catalysts, the madness of George III), and Norrell is destroying Strange’s publications to censor his fantastic notions from the public. It is to Clarke’s credit that, having exhausted raw spectacle, she turns the novel inward to the characters’ personal journeys. Norrell seems oddly neglected throughout the final stretch, as Strange has clearly taken centre stage; then again, that is easily explained as the end result of how Norrell has rendered himself powerless, after years of delegating his decisions and his interaction with society as a whole to a Dickensian pair of scoundrels.

And throughout all this, one shouldn’t forget about the gentleman with the thistle-down hair—the fairy villain that Norrell unleashed with his ill-thought resurrection contract, who causes everyone a copious share of grief.

That is, in a nutshell, the plot. Its ambition speaks for itself.

3.

One would be remiss in calling Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell an alternate history of England. In so many ways, it is the history of England, but with the exciting, imaginative bits blown up under a magnifying glass, and given voice and shape.

Clarke documents her novel with extensive footnotes, some of which stretch for pages of exposition in small print, establishing an entire history of England’s magical roots. Yet the Raven King and the otherworld of Faerie, which courses through the rivers and woodlands and the interconnected halls on the other side of mirrors, are manifestations of a folkloric tradition that, if we were to trace it properly, stretches back before the Norman conquest.

In literature we are most familiar with it through every Shakespeare play that involves a forest, although the nostalgia for a feral, pre-Norman Britain was also a subject of intense interest for Walter Scott, who wrote in the era in which Strange & Norrell is set: one recalls the court of Cedric of Rotherwood in Ivanhoe. And in the history of the English imagination, the place of the woodland fantasy is difficult to pinpoint. In Clarke, as in history, it isn’t magic of the Arthurian sort: Merlin is explained away as a half-man, half-demon, and we are informed that the Raven King began a separate tradition of magic that was wholly his own. But folklore survives in a wholly different fashion once it is under the pressure of civilized reason, and England’s pre-Christian mythology has always had an odd way of surviving in spite of every effort to wash it away and pretend it never was.

And all that is a precursor to the action that is in front of us for most of Clarke’s novel, which easily claims the latent intrigue of the England of the Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, and the memory of William Pitt the Younger simply by naming them. It only gets better once we see what Clarke does with the wealth of modern English mythology in front of her. The government implores Norrell to resurrect William Pitt, Wellington barks impatient commands with a no-nonsense voice that is in every way how one would imagine him to speak, and Strange crosses paths with the legendary poet only to find the Byronic brand of romance not exactly compatible with his own:

Having taken an immediate dislike to each other, they progressed smoothly to quarrelling about politics. Strange wrote: “I do not quite know how it happened, but we immediately fell to talking of the battle of Waterloo—an unhappy subject since I am the Duke of Wellington’s magician and they all hate Wellington and idolize Buonaparte. Mrs Clairmont, with all the impertinence of eighteen, asked me if I was not ashamed to be an instrument in the fall of so sublime a man. No, said I.”

This is a cunning observation, and one of countless indications that Clarke is well aware of her target audience. In my experience, present-day Anglophiles are most likely to disagree with their beloved country in their reverence of Napoleon, who is an attractive historical figure for many of the same reasons as England herself.

4.

I can hardly exaggerate how rewarding this novel is to people who read books. This is an English novel for people who read English novels, and nowhere is it more evident than in the nineteenth-century prose style, which is true to the period in orthography as well as syntax.

By now I’ve read so many modern novels that replicate nineteenth-century English prose that the aesthetic choice has ceased to surprise me, or even surprize me. Counting only the ones that I have read in the past year and reviewed, I can spot The Ruby in the Smoke, The Siege of Krishnapur, and Watership Down—each of which appropriated the Victorian style to convey something about genre without crossing the line into parody. (Respectively: the penny dreadful, the colonial novel, the rustic adventure.) Add Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to the list.

Clarke’s style, in sentence construction, tone, and attention to detail, is perhaps best described as an amalgam of Jane Austen’s sense and Robert Louis Stevenson’s sensibility. It is to the novel’s credit that one quickly becomes accustomed to the narrative voice as part of the texture, and it recedes into the background without drawing too much attention to itself. With the ideas and images in the foreground, the connections to the English literature of the period become even sharper. At heart the novel delights in taking every opportunity to be a comedy of manners, rife with upstairs-downstairs social satire, class snobbery, and myopic sexism. One would think that Clarke was bringing a revisionist present-day sensibility into the fold if Austen hadn’t done a good share of it already.

In our contemporary reading environment, where the novel format has its own elaborate hierarchy of class stratification in all its wonderful, arbitrary instability (and frankly, we’re relieved if we can get the kids to read at all), one is liable to forget that the worth of prose fiction was hotly debated in Austen’s time. In the age of the circulating library, novels had a nasty public reputation as silly diversions by silly girls, for silly girls. Technological causes aside, the English novel’s ascent in status is a story of negotiating a shifting balance of escapism and good sense, an arduous metamorphosis that invariably led novels to jibe about themselves. The model for this is Austen’s own Northanger Abbey, an extended Quixotic subversion of Ann Radcliffe. (Austen is far from alone: the infamous seventeenth chapter of Adam Bede saw George Eliot stop her novel dead in its tracks to deliver a realist manifesto.) Now here comes Susanna Clarke, dreaming up an England where magic is an accepted part of life, but where novels are no more respectable:

The King’s Ministers had long treasured a plan to send the enemies of Britain bad dreams. The Foreign Secretary had first proposed it in January 1808 and for over a year Mr Norrell had industriously sent the Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte a bad dream each night, as a result of which nothing had happened. Buonaparte’s empire had not foundered and Buonaparte himself had ridden into battle as coolly as ever. And so eventually Mr Norrell was instructed to leave off. Privately Sir Walter and Mr Channing thought that the plan had failed because Mr Norrell had no talent for creating horrors. Mr Canning complained that the nightmares Mr Norrell had sent the Emperor (which chiefly concerned a captain of Dragoons hiding in Buonaparte’s wardrobe) would scarcely frighten his children’s governess let alone the conqueror of half of Europe. For a while he had tried to persuade the other Ministers that they should commission Mr Beckford, Mr Lewis and Mrs Radcliffe to create dreams of vivid horror that Mr Norrell could then pop into Buonaparte’s head. But the other Ministers considered that to employ a magician was one thing, novelists were quite another and they would not stoop to it.

5.

More must also be said of the footnotes, which here serve the function of shoving unsightly bricks of exposition off to the side for the reader’s leisurely perusal and giving the whole affair a mock-historical air of factual credibility. Novels with footnotes are nothing new, but Clarke puts a spin on the ones in Strange & Norrell that I may not have seen elsewhere. Strange, Norrell, and their various acolytes and collaborators are all involved in publishing scholarship about magic, and it is often to their works that the footnotes refer.

What this allows Clarke to do is use the footnotes as a foreshadowing mechanism. Jonathan Strange does not appear until the end of Volume I, yet by that point we already know, from publication credits alone, that he is to become a pupil of Mr Norrell’s, a rival following some disagreement, and later a historian with an interest in the Raven King. On the flipside, one begins to sense that the novel is growing too big for its britches near the end when the footnotes start referring to earlier chapters (or even earlier footnotes), in case the reader has already forgotten most of what has already happened.

Most impressive, however, is how Clarke seems to be an endless fount of stories within stories. There are times when Norrell will casually spout off references to incidents he read about in assorted books, and Clarke will footnote every single one of them with a tale complete with beginning, middle, and end. If you can imagine J.K. Rowling cramming the complete text of The Tales of Beedle the Bard into footnotes annotating the chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that names the various stories, then you might begin to get the idea. I do not imagine that many authors could get away with this; Clarke does only because she finds a way to make almost every story an interesting part of English magical history. The footnote markers are almost there to say, “You can skip us if you like—but you won’t.”

I do not wish to leave anyone with the impression that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a perfect novel (should such a thing even exist). Not everyone will have the same tolerance for its scope. It is also worth noting that as the novel progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that the acts of magic are so without rules and boundaries that anything can happen for the sake of having to happen: no conundrum appears impervious to Norrell consulting the right book or Strange taking the right risk. The actual problems to be solved via magic are hardly challenging at all.

But as an intelligent entertainment, Strange & Norrell is a novel of the most exquisite quality, a fiction that thinks about the England we know through depicting the England we love. My highest recommendation.

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10 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

  1. Time now to read the Polemical Introduction to Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, the 1957 technical-reference manual for literature (if not the whole thing). There’s a somewhat sloppy OCR on line at http://tinyurl.com/fryeaoc (points to archive.org), or you could just buy the book. It explains exactly why value judgments are not critical appreciation, or even the same kind of thing as critical appreciation.

    Monday, 18 May 2009 at 3:52pm

  2. I’m way ahead of you. Read it years ago and have it on my quick-reference shelf. He’s right, you know.

    Monday, 18 May 2009 at 3:53pm

  3. Oh. Embarrassing. You have read it.

    Monday, 18 May 2009 at 3:54pm

  4. I was thinking of it when I was writing the first part of this piece (and Frye is probably responsible for my use of the phrase “value judgment”), but the reason I didn’t bring is up is that the way I read it, Frye was more interested in setting an ethical direction for the scholarly brand of literary criticism. Kind of like Norrell and magic, I suppose, but not quite so curmudgeonly.

    Journalistic criticism has all sorts of lessons to learn from that, but the genre does play to certain expectations on the part of an audience that wants to know if something is “good” or “bad”, worth their cash or not worth their cash. And when one isn’t trying to make a scholarly contribution, I suppose it doesn’t hurt too much to assess things personally. There’s always going to be some level of personal engagement there, whether one admits it in writing or not.

    Monday, 18 May 2009 at 4:01pm

  5. Christine

    I totally loved this book when I read it. The only bad part was trying to balance the 1000-page book on the stairmaster without falling or losing my place.

    The footnotes really made the book in my mind.

    Tuesday, 19 May 2009 at 5:01am

  6. Mel

    At the risk of being booed off the stage, I have to ask if you’ve ever read Mark Z. Danielewski’s _House of Leaves_. He also does some weird and wonderful things with footnotes, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in my four years of undergraduate, footnote-disdaining slavery.

    Wednesday, 20 May 2009 at 1:35pm

  7. Re: Danielewski – I haven’t, but it looks interesting enough at a glance that I’ll append it to my impossibly long list.

    Wednesday, 20 May 2009 at 1:59pm

  8. I like Clarke’s footnotes almost as much as I like Wallace’s.

    I read this book a little over four years ago, though most of my interesting thoughts about it came sadly after I had written the review.

    It is a testament to Clark’s quality as a writer, I think, that at the very moment the novel hooked me, 800 pages came and went like a photon. One doesn’t even notice until one turns another page and finds himself at the back matter.

    Saturday, 27 June 2009 at 3:04pm

  9. I’ve been trying to resist ever since I read this review, but I finally buckled and am re-reading this book.

    Tuesday, 6 October 2009 at 5:37pm

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