I’ll own up to the fact that this beautiful book remained on my shelves for about five years before I read it. I’d bought it while doing my degree in literature, so I was already reading five books a week and although I loved the blurb I just couldn’t get into such a weighty book. I remember picking it up and reading the opening paragraph, then slotting it back on the shelf a few times too. When I finally did read it I was absolutely enchanted and amazed by the incredibly detailed world the author had created.
The year is 1806. 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 hoards books of magic for his library and can perform incredible and unexpected feats of magic. He is approached by Sir Walter Pole whose wife has died and he begs Norrell to revive her. Despite his scruples about old magic he knows this might be the only way to bring this beautiful young woman back to life. So, he is tempted by a richly dressed gentleman fairy, who agrees to help Norrell on two conditions. First he would like a keepsake of the lady and takes a finger which he keeps in a jewellery box. Secondly, if he is to give life back to her, it seems only fair that he should have half of it. Norrell does a quick calculation and decides it will not matter to have a few years shaved off her life. However, as Mr Norrell himself knows, fairies can be tricky, deceptive little creatures and this one may have ulterior motives. After this amazing feat of magic MrNorrell becomes the talk of London and finds himself working for the government, conjuring illusions to aid England in their war with the French. However, Norrell would still like to keep magic controlled, only performed by serious and studious men. Constantly, at the back of his mind, is the bargain he’s made with the fairy creature. Can he be trusted and will the magic that brought Lady Pole back to life work as planned?
Norrell becomes challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell. He only begins to study magic because he is in love and she loves him back, but there is a very stern father in the way, who does not like Jonathon. He thinks he’s an idle layabout with a rich father, but no real prospects. Unless he commits himself to a profession, he will not give permission for Jonathon to marry his daughter. Jonathon Strange finds he is surprisingly good at magic and he’s certainly a showman, enjoying the performance element of magic. As word spreads of this new magician on the block, Mr Norrell becomes concerned. In a bid to contain the situation he asks to meet Jonathon Strange and offers him an apprenticeship. This will control Jonathon’s wild exhibitions of magical power. He sets him to studying, but Jonathon is increasingly frustrated by Norrell’s unwillingness to perform magic. A row erupts and so begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the war between England and France. Each man’s obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine, while all the time Norrell’s dabble with the fairy gentleman and old magic is coming back to haunt him.
It’s really hard to explain the richness of the detail in this beautifully written novel. There’s the amazing historical background with 18th Century society vividly brought to life and the rural home of Jonathon Strange contrasting sharply with London society. There’s the city of York, where an incredible scene in the Minster involves Mr Norrell bringing all the statues to life in front of a terrified magician’s society. Of course the illusions are spectacular, but so is the fashion and just wait until you enter the dreams of our poor resurrected Lady Pole! The characterisation is playful and humorous, with both magicians thought of as great men but each ridiculously comical in their own way. Mr Strange is like an overexcited puppy who has just found a tennis ball and might trample the whole garden in his exuberance. Mr Norrell on the other hand, is like a squirrel gathering nuts for winter, collecting all the magic and storing it in a safe place where no one else will find it. He is fussy and persnickety in his manner, but can also be rude and abrupt with people. This is where Mr Strange excels, he is handsome and charming, making his magic appear to be an innate talent rather than the result of studying dusty books. We go from rural England, to London, to France and Venice with every setting evocative and rich. I loved incidental characters like the street magician who plies his trade in a rather tongue in cheek way, using props that Mr Norrell finds deplorable. Mr Norrell’s servant is also a fascinating puzzle. I was truly sucked in by the story of Stephen, a servant in the household where Mr Norrell dabbles in fairy magic. The way he is slowly sucked into something he doesn’t understand is incredibly well done, from the bell ringing that only he can hear and the mysterious guest upstairs who he didn’t see arrive. Stephen serves with pride and is proud of the place he has reached in life as a black man in 18th Century society, but promises of greatness from the new guest appeal to his need to be respected. Why is he offering these opportunities and why is Stephen so incredibly tired all the time? It’s as if he hasn’t slept at all.
The novel explores the 18th Century preoccupations with reason and madness, but also with classification and includes long academic style footnotes referencing an entire fictional body of literature on magic. Last year Collins released her second novel Piranesi, a full seventeen years after Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell. It had taken her almost ten years in her spare time to write this debut novel, which isn’t surprising given the level of detail. It was revealed recently that she struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome and having experienced this level of fatigue for many years as part of my MS, I can only marvel that she managed to write such a substantial debut. However, if Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell had been the only novel she wrote in her lifetime, I would still think of her as a genius, because this novel is an absolute masterpiece.
Meet The Author
Susanna Mary Clarke was born 1 November 1959 in Nottingham and is an English author known for her debut novel Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell (2004), a Hugo award winning historical novel. 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.
Two years later, she published a collection of her short stories The Ladies of Grace Adieu (2006). Both Clarke’s debut novel and her short stories are set in a magical England and are written in a pastiche of the styles of 19th-century writers such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. While Strange focuses on the relationship of two men, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell, the stories in Ladies focus on the power women gain through magic.
Clarke’s second novel, Piranesi was published in September 2020, winning the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.