There was a post going around tumblr for a while referencing “the knowing eye contact women make when men are talking,” which someone else helpfully supplemented with this illustrative gif from Carol* (and if you’re looking at this opening excerpt from the CBR top page, you do have to click through to see it, I’m afraid):
The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susanna Clarke, feels like the prose manifestation of that post. Set in the world of her popular novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the collection of short stories keeps the idea of historical England but with magic. And while that may be unchanged, it takes a very different tack and tells several tales directly from women’s points of view.
The first story (also the title story) connects most directly with the novel. While that version established Mr. Norrell as rude and controlling in contrast to Jonathan Strange’s younger and more dashing figure, the title short story here allows that, no matter how devoted he might be to his wife, Mr. Strange still aligns with his era when it comes to sexist views on woment’s intelligence and potential for magical skill. Quite frankly, he’s a bit of a jerk in a way that most women will recognize: not in the “Clarke is destroying the beloved character she created!” sort of way but in the way that often makes women shrug with a bit of “Ah, well, that’s often how they turn out to be.”
Other stories take well-worn fairy tale motifs like magically abducted maidens or even a nearly exact retelling of Rumpelstiltskin and subtly feminize the narration to emphasize the red flags that were always there. A village gaslights the grieving mother of a missing girl, assigning her a flighty personality and assuming she ran off with a passing traveler, not matter how out of character that might actually be. A villainous lord makes self-pitying comments about the woes of potentially being “forced” to harm his young wife if she fails to meet his absurd expectations with victim-blaming complaints straight out of every study on domestic abusers.
Yet while that might sound grim, Clarke’s stories never lose the merry tongue-in-cheek tone that made Jonathan Strange such a delight. Despite their circumstances, the women have plenty of agency and resourcefulness, going about solving obstacles through cooperation or by threading the loopholes society does not think they will be clever enough to find. Even the stories that center around men usually have the protagonists facing figures more powerful than them, either by status, magical power, or both. And, quite often, the writing is just plain funny, leaning into the absurdities of folklore or the quirks of human nature.
In short, if you enjoyed Jonathan Strange, you will be glad to know that Clarke has not lost her step with Grace Adieu. Her stories swirl on, skipping along lightly and with a sly grin to share with you.
*I’ve linked to one version of the post, but tumblrs vanish and move all the time, hence the decision to embed a copy of the gif in this review too.