What I’m Reading: Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

I am very late to this particular party – one reason for this is that I have a habit – as persistent as it is unjustified – to shy away from books that have become unexpectedly popular (which also led to me reading  – and enjoying – The Name of the Wind years after everyone else), another that I had read that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was kind of like Jane Austen – as I’m not very fond of that author’s works, I was not exactly in a hurry to check this novel out.

Just a brief glance at the table of contents, however, would already have sufficed to show me that the Jane Austen comparison is very far off the mark – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, it turns out, is a novel in three volumes and is thus modelled after the Victorian three-deckers rather than the (comparatively) slim volumes of Jane Austen – I assume people were judging by the period the novel takes place in rather than the writing, because while the former might be Regency, the novel’s language, style and form are much more reminiscent of the likes of Thackeray and Trollope. And this is the first area (but will by no means be the last) in which Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is jaw-droppingly amazing: I have read a lot of Victorian novels in my time and therefore think I am a decent judge of those matters and can state with some confidence that Susanna Clarke really hits the nail on the head here – her style and tone, the way her plot develops, the way her characters are introduced, the narrative voice… simply everything is pitch-perfect. So, this is one level at which Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell can be enjoyed – as an utterly delightful pastiche of the Victorian three-decker novel, that comes as close as possible to the real thing as is possible for something written more than a hundred years later.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, then, is almost exactly like a genuine novel from the Victorian Age that somehow found its way to us only belatedly – with the small proviso, however, that it has arrived in the reader’s hands not from our, but from some alternative universe version of the nineteenth century. There are quite a few historical fantasy novels that work from the principle of taking a historical period and then adding magic to it – a popular example from the same period Susanna Clarke’s novel covers would be Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series or (for some actual Jane Austen feel) Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories. But while Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell belongs into that category, it is very different from anything else in that sub-genre (anything I have ever read, at least). For one thing, Susanna Clarke only adds magic to her Regency period to then immediately subtract it and present us with an England where magic used to be strong but has almost entirely vanished. In fact, the entire concept of setting her novel during the Regency but telling it from a Victorian perspective already indicates a fundamental difference, a difference that is deepened by the lengths Susanna Clarke goes to not just get her facts straight, but also her characters, her writing, her very voice (and I cannot emphasize enough just how talented a ventriloquist she is – almost on every single of its many, many pages there at least one instance where a small tingle went down my spine at some particularly delightful turn of phrase in the Victorian manner). Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is vastly more ambitious than any Fantasy novel I have read in the last two or three decades, and really only comparable to the equally fantastic (but otherwise completely different) Little, Big by John Crowley (which I really need to read again soonish).

There are so many wonderful things to love about this wonderful that I could probably go on listing them for several posts, add examples and more examples of just how great this is, and end up quoting the whole thing in its entirely, but of course entirely out of order so that nobody would be able to put it together again. I won’t do that then, but confine myself to one thing which is probably what struck me the most about the novel and which (I suspect) is at the root of the enthusiasm Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell inspires in its readers (at least those that are susceptible to it), and that is Susanna Clarke’s incredible generosity as a writer.

Now, this might need some explaining. First, there is the world-building: during the whole of this massive novel, the reader cannot but admire just how extremely detailed the alternative England presented here is, from the grand historical sweep of the Napoleonic Wars down to the tiniest minutiae like her invented books having a publisher and a publishing date. This is part of the novel’s intended effect: the world here needs to appear very solid and substantial for its gradual subversion by magic to have the desired effect, and Susanna Clarke has done an amazing job at making her Regency England just as credible as the real one (and after all, none of us have actually experienced the period in question). But as utterly convincing as both the breadth and depth of her world-building are, as awe-inspiring as the effort that went into creatin all of this must have been – we still get the impression that the author is lifting the veil only on a tiny part of what she as created, that there is much, much more than would have been necessary, a whole world in fact that Susanna Clark has created for us just so that we could enjoy the single tale of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

But of course, there is not just that single tale in the novel – there are also the tales of Stephen Black, of Mrs Pole, of Arabella Strange. And the tales of Mr Drawlight and Mr. Lascelle, of Childermass. And not to forget the tales of the man with the thistle-down hair and of John Uskglass. And that is not even to mention all the countless short tales told in the numerous footnotes throughout the novel, scatterings from Susanna Clarke’s apparently inexhausible cornucopia of stories.

But most of all, there is the sheer exuberance of the writing that dizzies and exhilarates. I do not think I have ever read a novel that made its readers feel so very welcome, throwing the doors open wide for them, receiving them with open arms, then seating them at a sumptuously laden table, feeding them with one delicacy after the other until they’re positively bursting, then offering them some more until they’re almost suffocating from the opulence… In fact, the unrestrained hospitality does beging to appear somewhat unsettling after a while, and the reader guests may start to shift uneasily on their seats as they feel themselves more and more reminded of the unbounded generosity the man with the thistle-down hair is showing towards Stephen Black… And isn’t there another writerly influence peeking in among the stately Victorians, one slightly disreputable at that, namely the German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann? Unobtrusively at first and barely noticeable, but increasingly more prominent as the novel moves along, and, what is worse, moving from his light-hearted, quirky tales to the dark and uncanny ones like “The Sandman”…

It really is nothing short of admirable how Susanna Clarke handles the transition towards a slow darkening of the novel, mirroring the shift from Enlightenment to Romanticism, or – maybe more fitting – from first generation to second generation Romanticism (with Mr Norrell as Wordsworth or Coleridge and Jonathan Strange as Shelley or Byron). It is very subtle, barely noticeable at first, but gradually magic begins to take over the novel and its protagonists and it turns out that they have been dabbling with forces far beyond their talents or knowledge. The tale becomes increasingly uncanny, the atmosphere increasingly creepy and there is a growing awareness that the most important protagonist might be someone who we never get to see directly. In the end, everything comes together wonderfully, with enough threads wrapped up to give a sense of closure but enough mysteries left unresolved to not let the magic fade into the light of common day. And, probably not at all surprisingly, the greatest English magician of them all turns out to be Susanna Clarke.

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2 comments

  1. Interesting, though it’s worth pointing out that the novel doesn’t take place in the Victorian era, as Victoria wasn’t on the throne yet. Better to say the Georgian era or the Napoleonic era.

  2. Thank you. 🙂 – And yeah, I assume that the novel being set in an alternative Regency led many people to think Jane Austen; but formally and stylistically Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell clearly takes its inspirations from Victorian novels, and that wouldn’t change even if it was set in the Middle Ages. 😉

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