Features | Written by Kate Fathers 21/12/2020


After two books greatly steeped in aliens and androids and lasers, I thought it was time to delve into one of the other areas of genre fiction, specifically fantasy. I’ve read fantasy before, and in fact loved it first before I fell for science fiction. I’m not sure how far back it goes; The Wizard of Oz was a definite start, The Chronicles of Narnia another. I fell hard and fast for Harry Potter and spent six months reading The Lord of the Rings (and somehow managed to do all of my school work too). It was somewhere between Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince that my dad read an article about book recommendations for Potter fans, and pointed out Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to me in a bookshop. At the time, it was in plain black hardback, striking and intriguing, but daunting in its size (and this from the girl who later read Deathly Hallows in two days).

I ignored it.

Now, seven years after its original release in 2004, I have finally decided to give it the attention it deserves—volume by volume. Because at 1006 pages the paperback makes a satisfying thump when you set it on a table; the hardcover could probably kill someone. If I have one criticism it’s that it would be far easier to read if it was broken up into three separate books, one for each volume, much like a number of editions of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have been. Carting it around to coffee shops and on spontaneous holidays is difficult when you have to put it in a separate canvas bag because it won’t fit in your purse.

Set in early 19th Century England, the text reflects it, although I’m not sure if it’s to the novel’s betterment. While the prose has that formal Austen-esque tone to it, it’s not as weighty; not as rife with semi-colons or paragraph-long sentences. In fact, it’s a surprisingly easy read. Clarke does, however, throw in the occasional Romantic spelling, such as “chuse” and shewed” (in fact, I believe those are the only two words spelt differently in the whole of the first volume), and I can’t say I’m a fan of it. As opposed to the stylistic nod it’s probably supposed to be, I found it jarring, each use a stone in the text making my eyes trip and stumble right out of the narrative. But it’s the only thing that does, as aside from the prose there is also another nod to 19th Century literature: pictures.

For the most part, pictures are now firmly relegated to children’s books, however, illustrations have been used in literature for centuries—literature firmly aimed at adults. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was illustrated, for example, and I happen to have a lovely copy of Jane Eyre from the 1930s that is filled with block prints. The illustrations are beautiful, almost haunting, and by artist Portia Rosenberg. They are reminiscent of the ones in the American editions of the Harry Potter books (drawn by Mary GrandPré), although they are lacking in the shocked expressions—wide eyes and round mouths—that seem so prominent in GrandPré’s work. There’s something sinister about them, something hazy, the edges smudged and all done up in shades of grey. They’re like flashes from a dream, and they support the text wonderfully, bolstering ones image of the described characters rather than serving to paint another picture of them entirely.

Supporting the text are also copious footnotes, sometimes ones so long that they go on for pages, but always giving more detail, always serving to make the alternate universe Clarke is creating fuller. Many of the footnotes regard texts mentioned by Mr Norrell, or stories mentioned in passing in the primary narrative. It’s all very Terry Pratchett to me (as footnotes are one of his trademarks), although in this case while the deviations are enjoyable, sometimes their length can become distracting.

The first of the three volumes is titled “Mr Norrell”, although it hardly starts with him. Instead, the book opens with The Learned Society of York Magicians, who instead of waving wands and brewing potions “read each other long, dull papers on the history of English magic”. These so-called “gentleman-magicians”, who can no more practice magic than we readers can, “enjoy[ed] a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical men in Yorkshire”, and yet, at the behest of one of their newest members, they contact a “practical magician”: Mr Norrell. It’s an interesting contrast, the academic magicians versus the practitioner, and one can’t help but wonder if Clarke is making some kind of comment on those who spend their lives talking about something without ever actually having experienced it themselves. The researcher versus the scientist? The critic versus the writer? In any case, the York Society is painted as being ineffectual and silly which, if a comparison does lie within the narrative, doesn’t bode well for researchers, critics, and academics. When they do meet him, Mr Norrell isn’t at all like the York Society expects, being “small” with a quiet voice “as if he were not used to speaking his thoughts out loud”. Appearance is a common theme within the book, and within 19th Century literature as well, the motif’s typical operation being that a character’s personality reflects in their physical appearance. Fair faces and blonde curls mean innocence and virtue, while dark hair and sharp eyes mean cruelty and intelligence and, in women, wild sexuality. George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss uses this very motif to juxtapose two of her characters, the primary one not, in fact, being the virtuous blonde, and many more authors have both made use of this motif and subverted it.  Clarke seems to be doing a bit of both, because often times the expectations many of the characters have of magicians are dashed. Magicians are supposed to look like Vinculus, “lank hair and a dirty yellow curtain”, doing spells on the street and, generally, swindling people. They are not supposed to be small men who wear wigs and read books, although cheating people seems to be something both Norrell and Vinculus have in common. It’s early on in the volume that Norrell offers to show the York Society practical magic, all for the price of them renouncing their titles as gentleman-magicians and ceasing their study of magic. It’s a perfect example of Clarke’s subversion of the motif, because just as none of the characters would mistake Norrell for a magician on sight, neither would they think he would be so cruel as to try and stamp out others’ pursuit of magic.

In Norrell, there’s a very interesting (and very real) contradiction of ideas, because as I said, he hordes all knowledge and practical magical application for himself, however, his move to London is exactly the opposite: the desire for a Renaissance. Like works such as Vanity Fair, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell does not shy away from the political occurrences happening within the book’s time period. The novel opens a few years into the Napoleonic Wars (which ran from 1803 to 1815), and it plays a key part in the first volume. Mr Norrell uproots himself from his home in Yorkshire to London, with a desire to use his magic to help defeat the French, and to revive practical English magic. But for all that he yearns for English magic to flourish, he wants to be the only one wielding it. This kind of dichotomy is typical of 19th Century fiction, two forces—two worlds—often opposing one another. Rich versus poor and man versus woman are very popular, and there are numerous examples here in this novel: the British versus the French; magical versus non-magical; self-interest versus selflessness; fairy world versus human world. Even the brief glimpses we are given of Jonathan Strange via footnotes and some not-terribly-cryptic foreshadowing lead one to wondering if Strange and Norrell will be pitted against one another. Their introductions are very different, after all, because for all that it is Norrell’s volume, there are glimpses of Strange in there too.

The first time we’re introduced to him, on the first page, is through a footnote, a reference to a book he had written. There are many more like that, some even referencing Strange as Norrell’s pupil, and I’m not entirely sure I like that. Granted, it does make one wonder, as the volume progresses, how Norrell eventually acquires Strange as a student. Is Strange a distant relative? A homeless boy taken in á la Oliver Twist? One of those Vinculus-like charlatan magicians who actually has magical talent? However, revealing the nature of Norrell and Strange’s eventual relationship is almost disappointing and, for all that I am still unsure about whether or not I like it, it took some of the magic out of their story for me. Nevertheless, after numerous footnotes, in Chapter 14, we are introduced to Laurence Strange, Jonathan’s father. Laurence Strange is Ebenezer Scrooge without the tragic past, without any qualities that would make him redeemable save for allowing his son to grow up largely away from him (although even that is due to a desire to “avoid[ing] paying for the boy’s food and clothes for months at a time”). The chapter is largely devoted to him, although we get glimpses of his son: Jonathan Strange who is quiet, Jonathan Strange who hides sherry bottles in odd places, Jonathan Strange who doesn’t appear to have any magical aptitude at all.

Of course, with two more volumes before us, it is only a matter of time before Strange the Younger develops an interest in magic, one that holds his attention longer than any other profession he’s entered into before. A prophecy also heralds his interest, a popular plot device in fantasy fiction. I will admit that, post-Harry Potter, another fantasy story with its leads entangled in a prophecy is a little bit eye-roll worthy. However, prophecy has a long history in fantasy literature, reaching back into what could be called the beginnings of fantasy: ancient myth. Not only did the ancient Greeks firmly believe in the divinations from the Oracle at Delphi, but their myths are riddled with prophecies, most often concerning what happens when they are ignored, such as with the Trojan War. Clarke even borrows a plot device from the aforementioned war myth, casting Vinculus in the role of Cassandra, who delivered the prophecy of the destruction of Troy at the hands of her brother Paris.

Stupidly, no one believed her.

Despite readers being bluntly told that Strange becomes Norrell’s pupil, it does make one wonder how easy it’s going to be for that to occur. Strange, who is wealthy with an estate in Shropshire, is hardly likely to stroll up to Mr Norrell’s front door in London asking to be tutored, and Norrell is hardly likely to take him on seeing as he would rather be the only magician in Britain. But obviously it does happen, and it is something that keeps you moving towards the second volume. To Clarke’s credit, Norrell’s campaign to revive English magic is not an easy one, adding a realism which I love. Prior to his move, one of the members of the York Society, Mr Segundus, writes “AN APPEAL TO THE FRIENDS OF ENGLISH MAGIC” in the hopes of drumming up support, but it isn’t instantaneous, and since Norrell is as solitary and socially awkward as any massive bibliophile can be (and I say this as a bibliophile myself), he ends up acquiring assistance in order to do what he wishes to do: help in the war.

How Norrell goes about convincing the government of his usefulness is when magic truly starts to take hold in the novel. Oh, magic was performed before, but the enchantment used at the beginning of the volume pales in comparison to what comes later. The novel is not about the kind of magic that makes you think of sunshine, that enchants teapots and does the washing and turns bees to butterflies. Instead it’s the kind of magic that makes you think of winter, the very opening month of the book, January with slate-coloured skies and frigid breezes and everything cast in cold blue light. It’s the kind of magic that tricks armies and does unnatural things, with consequences this volume only touches on.

Because this early on, things can only get worse.

The first volume of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is set up rather brilliantly. It introduces the titular characters, major themes, as well as an antagonist known only as “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair”. While the content of the next two volumes is hinted at, it’s just enough to keep you reading, as, of course, is the prose, modeled after Romantic writers and wonderfully crafted. It does everything that a good book should, to ensure that its readers will refuse to put it down.

I know it’s cast its spell on me.

Article originally published in July 2011.

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