Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
By: Susanna Clarke
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 antithesis of Norrel. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms that 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.
So this novel has been sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read since last Christmas. Been meaning to get around to it sooner but I had all these other books to get through and to be honest, its size was rather daunting, lol (despite having read longer books before; books this size definitely need considerable attention). When I left to Italy for my semester exchange, I decided to take this book with me. That was in September; I didn’t get around to actually reading it until the end of November when I had a long train ride from Trento to Wien. Anyways, I only finished it yesterday when I got back from my exchange altogether (having read the remaining 300 pages on the plane ride back) and the following things really stuck out for me from the book…
The first thing that really stood out for me was the way that Clarke was able to integrate the fantastic element to the nineteenth century world embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars. It really felt as though the world inhabited by Jonathan Strange, Mr. Norrell and co. was an alternate world to ours where magic is possible and a very integral element to its history. What is equally amazing is how detailed the magic system and history is in the novel; if you’ve every casually picked up the novel and flipped through it, you would have noticed the amount of footnotes present in it. The novel is rich in detail about historical events and information related to the magic, so much so that it reminds me of the detailed appendices in The Lord of the Rings. It really adds to the overall scope and detail of the novel.
The story itself is rather fascinating; on the outset, there’s the story of integrating magic on a day-to-day level in the service of the British Empire championed by Mr. Norrell and later by Jonathan Strange. On the other level, there’s also the magical element of dealing with faerie creatures, prophecies and dangerous magic. Again there’s this historical element that’s intertwined with the broader, magical issue that made the story very interesting. It’s also a relatively dark aspect to the story because of the nature of the wilder, stronger magic which makes it all the more interesting to read.
The novel is populated with a wide range of interesting characters, each with their own distinct personality and quirks. The ensemble is reminiscent of Austen or Dickens but it’s not so difficult to keep track of all the characters moving in and out. What was particularly interesting about the way that Clarke presented these characters was how gray these characters are–Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell represent two sides to the issue concerning the usage of magic but it’s not clear as to who’s right on the issue; the reader is left having to decide who they agreed with more on the issue. These characters are also realistically flawed; one minute you would be rooting for one of the main characters and the next minute you’re completely frustrated with them.
Stylistics-wise, Clarke did a wonderful job of narrating the story in a nineteenth century format. Having read all of Austen’s works and a number of Dickens’s works, her novel really feels like it was written in the 1800s. It also helped set the tone of the novel.
Overall, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was an amazing read, both story-wise and scope. It’s a slow build up (especially at the middle of the last section of the novel) but the build up really establishes the characters and the world they inhabit. If you’re into fantasy and historical fiction, this is certainly worth checking out =)