I’m not usually interested in historical fiction, but after reading Piranesi, I wanted to try more of Susanna Clarke’s work. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is set in England during the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s. There used to be magic in England, but magic hasn’t been seen in centuries. Instead, the people who call themselves magicians are theoretical magicians – they study magic but don’t practice it. However, in the quest to discover why magic is no longer practiced in England, one of the minor characters comes across Mr Norrell, who is actually able to do magic.
Mr Norrell wants to bring magic back to England. He gets involved with the government, his way in being his saving a politician’s wife through the use of magic, and he starts using magic to aid England in the war. Norrell is pedantic and oddly short-sighted. He wants to bring magic back to England but wants to be the only person doing the magic and often tries to prevent people from even studying it. It makes me wonder what he thought would happen to magic upon his death. His view of magic – both theoretical and practical – is very different from that of Jonathan Strange’s. Strange comes upon magic almost accidentally and becomes the only other practicing magician in England. Norrell takes him on as a pupil, this being the exception to his rule about his being the only magician in England. They work together to help the war efforts but grow apart as a result of their differing views on magic, which are partly the result of Strange joining the front lines of the war.
There is also a “bad guy” in the book. Norrell brought the politician’s wife back to life by bartering with a fairy, who agreed to bring her back to life in exchange for half her life. Norrell thought this meant that he would take her back to Faerie when she was in her 40’s, but instead her takes her nights through an enchantment that brings her to Faerie every night for balls, dancing, and processions. This leaves her exhausted and depressed during the days but also unable to speak about her enchantment. The fairly also becomes enchanted (ha! see what I did there?) with a Black servant in the household – Stephen. He likes the Stephen’s bearing and thinks he should be a king, so he enchants Stephen in the same way. He clearly thinks he’s doing a good thing for both of these people, but it makes them miserable. I found the plot focused on Stephen and his interactions with the fairy particularly interesting and enjoyable, and there was a reasonably satisfying conclusion to this subplot.
This is a long book. The kindle version I read was almost 850 pages. It also starts off very slow. Clarke is writing in a pastiche of writers of that time period, such as Jane Austen, who are not exactly known for action-packed novels. I will say that Clarke does this very, very well. It really feels like reading one of those authors. I felt the book picked up about 15% through. It wasn’t a slog before that, but it was slow enough that I did consider DNFing. There was a lot of focus on setup and time spent with Mr Norrell, who isn’t a very pleasant character on his own and needs people to interact with and make him more interesting. Books like this also tend to have “slice of life” type elements, like descriptions of meals (which I actually liked) that don’t really move the plot forward. I’m glad I persevered. I ended up really enjoying the book. It’s creative and very well-written. It also abounds with equally fictitious footnotes. Clarke put so much work into this novel, and it pays off. While it may not be for everyone, I’m very glad I read it.