Book Review : Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
By Susanna Clarke
Two magicians shall appear in England.
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me…
The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very opposite of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the one between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.
(Courtesy of goodreads.com)
Adult Point of View
As I hefted the book out of the library I thought it looked a tad daunting; as I opened it and saw the size of the type and the extent of the footnotes I knew I was right. Some books are written in a straight line, going straight from beginning to middle to the end; while other books take detours. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has many ungainly limbs spreading out into different paths, that really have nothing to do with the main story line, but add background, depth and humour. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression and think I didn’t like the book, because I actually liked it quite a bit, but I also think future readers might like to know that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell will be a journey. In my mind this would be a book more typically enjoyed by women, however, it was recommended to be by my friend’s husband. It was also a man’s review online that gave it a glowing report. This novel has also been a New York Times Best Seller! So, before you read any further I want you to know that I recommend it for all audiences. It is appropriate for a young audience though the style and thickness might be overwhelming. Ultimately this is a book about people and their choices, and not all choices are as simple as right and wrong.
I thought it would be helpful to have a readers guide to characters. There must be 100 characters, but only a dozen or so are important enough to remember.
As per the title, you can guess two key characters, and the rest of the characters that I would consider to be of the utmost importance are as follows:
Mr Gilbert Norrell – fussy bachelor, magic book aficionado, vain and anxious, first modern practicing magician of England, power hungry and devious while being unassuming
Jonathan Strange – landed gentry, without direction until he happens upon magic, obsessive, also vain, student of Mr Norrell, second modern practicing magician, driven
Childermass – servant of Mr Norell, though so much more knowledgeable and capable than such a description would suggest
Drawlight – a gossip, a gentlemen strung out on credit, vain, brings Mr Norrell into society
Lascelles – has a studied demeanor of boredom, advisor to Mr Norrell, schemes with Drawlight to stay popular through their association with Mr Norrell
Sir Walter Pole – distant relation of Mr Norrell, a politician, brings government’s attention to magic and Mr Norell
Lady Pole (former Miss Wintertowne)– example of Mr Norrell’s magic prowess as she is raised from the dead, she grows to hate her life and dancing
A Gentleman with thistle-down hair – King of Lost-Hope, a fairy kingdom, with a love of revelry and reenacting the glorious (and often bloody) past
Stephen Black – the black servant of Sir Walter with regal mannerisms, the reluctant companion of the Gentleman with thistle-down hair and commiserator of Lady Pole
Mrs Strange (former Arabella Woodhope) – sister in circumstance with Lady Pole and wife of Jonathan Strange
Vinculus – curtain magician, fraud, thief, seer and rather smelly man with 5 wives
Mr Segundus – a theoretical magician, a genuinely kind, unassuming person
John Uskglass – also known as the Raven King, the Black King, the King of the North, the greatest historical magician of England and author of English magic; some revere him while others hope to push him into obscurity
Jeremy Johns – loyal servant of Jonathan Strange
Lord Wellington – Army commander, directs Johnathan Strange in useful magic against Napoleon’s forces
Greysteele family – friends of Jonathan Strange, met while traveling on the Continent, spend a considerable amount of time together in Venice
The majority of the scenes take place in drawing rooms, through conversations, some letters or published works and of course over books of magic. There are two drawn out battles with Jonathan Strange working to thwart Napoleon as well as the time he spends in Italy. And finally, there are scenes that take place in the fairy world, which are most discomfiting. The writing style reminds me distinctly of Jane Austen, with the fussy, proper characters and social prejudice inherent to the early 1800’s.
Here are a few quotes to give you the flavor of the book.
A commentary on politics:
“The Foreign Secretary was a quite peerless orator. No matter how low the Government stood in the estimation of everyone, when the Foreign Secretary stood up and spoke – ah! how different everything seemed then! How quick was every bad thing discovered to be the fault of the previous administration (an evil set of men who wedded general stupidity to wickedness of purpose). As for the present Ministry, the Foreign Secretary said that not since the days of Antiquity had the world seen gentlemen so virtuous, so misunderstood and so horribly misrepresented by their enemies. They were all as wise as Solomon, noble as Caesar and courageous as Mark Antony…” (p 69)
A typical character description (this one is of Vinculus):
“His face was the colour of three-day-old milk; his hair was the colour of a coal-smoke-and-ashes London sky; and his clothes were the colour of the Thames at dirty Wapping.” (p 127)
A typical passage that I found humorous:
“He believed that he had done everything she wanted in the way of reforming his behaviour. His card-playing and other sorts of gambling had all dwindled away almost to nothing and he drank very little now – scarcely more than a bottle a day.” (p 208)
I hope you enjoy reading this book, I definitely recommend it!
4 out of 5 stars
- the Mother
If you liked this one try Sorcery & Cecelia: Or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede, another Regency meets magic novel.
A little about the author, Susan Mary Clarke:
Clarke began Jonathan Strange in 1993 and worked on it during her spare time. For the next decade, she published short stories from the Strange universe, but it was not until 2003 that Bloomsbury bought her manuscript and began work on its publication. The novel became a best-seller. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)