I’ve read Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell once before; at the time, I focused on two major points. The first was the oft-repeated canard that the book was some clever hybrid of Harry Potter and Jane Austen1; as the world was swept up in a fever pitch of Harry Potter mania at the time, I’m sure this made all the sense in the world for every single reviewer alive to say. What better way to bridge the space between your audience and the book than to anchor it to the cultural zeitgeist? The second point was to belabor my initial aversion to the book, couching it defensively in criticisms of Clarke’s (obviously purposefully) Victorian prose.
Having read the book a second time, I can say with some confidence that I was a twit for making either of those two points.
For let’s face it: the Harry Potter comparison is fatuous. They are similar only insofar as they both feature magic; trying to illustrate one in terms of the other would be like comparing Top Gun to Airplane! because they’re both about fixed-wing aircraft. Whereas the Harry Potter universe was an entertaining romp through a somewhat traditional fantasy environment, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is, if not altogether new—see Patricia Wrede’s Magic and Malice—then at least vanishingly rare.
What Clarke has done is much more in the grand tradition of Tolkien: plot is really a secondary device which exists only so that the author can build worlds, languages, and histories around it. Clarke’s footnotes rival those of David Foster Wallace; some are merely citations which point some datum in the text to a (fictional) book in which it is found, while others are full-fledged stories which build up a canon of folklore. In this alternate history of England, magic played a fundamental role in its origins. A dark and mysterious figure known as John Uskglass, the Raven King, ruled England for 300 years before disappearing. Uskglass is emblematic of the relationship between “Christian” England and the alternate world known as Faerie, where magical beings known as fairies live; a Christian child kidnapped and raised in Faerie, he returned to England as a teenager with a new sort of magic that became the practiced magic of England until its use slipped into antiquity and the practice of magic ceded to the mere study of the history of magic.
This is the state in which the book begins: England in 1806, which Clarke depicts to the hilt, has gentlemen who call themselves “magicians,” though their only real activity is studying the available histories of such English magicians as Thomas Godbless or Martin Pale; it calls to mind the Philological Society in London which preceded the Oxford English Dictionary, full of intellectual men harumphing at this or that irregularity in English speech or orthography. This changes when a small, unpleasant scholar named Gilbert Norrell announces his ability to do practical magic—that is, cast spells—and that when he proves his ability to this Magical Society, they must forever disband and cease calling themselves “magicians.”
That Norrell would be so inimical to the study of magic or the existence of magicians, however misnamed, is a curious point; in fact, it is the first of many occasions that Norrell—who is indeed a very intelligent and capable practical magician—proves himself something of a secondary villain in the story. Norrell wishes for the revival of “English Magic,” though he wishes himself the only magician, and therefore not only the sole executor of magical knowledge and power, but also recipient of all the glory, laud and honor due such a personage.
The character of Jonathan Strange isn’t officially introduced until the second part (though the footnotes allude to his being a magician), and his rise produces a conflict that is far more interesting to me than the main narrative thread. It has a great deal to do with Clarke’s excellent world-building, and the way she constructs the concept of magic in this world. Norrell, though the first magician in quite some time to perform practical magic, builds and enforces a strict orthodoxy that flouts the conventions of English magic after Uskglass. It was common for some of Norrell’s historical predecessors, for instance, to take a number of fairy servants; fairies, though chimerical and occasionally wicked, could be powerful magical allies. As Clarke puts it, magic is the natural state of being for fairies, who have strong inclinations to it but a natural lack of reason; normal men, on the other hand, are possessed of the exact opposite. Norrell views fairies as inherently and consistently wicked; so too does he scoff at most of the darker and more dangerous magic described in his books. By buying most important and rare magical books, Norrell is effectively able to control knowledge of magic; once he becomes famous throughout England as the first (and only) practical magician in many generations, he is at his leisure to set the direction of magical study through various publications. Most of all, he spits invective at the Raven King, whose influence, power, and importance Norrell attempts to repress: the magic of the Raven King is, after all, fairy magic.
Jonathan Strange, a younger and more rebellious magician, appears virtually out of nowhere, having taught himself magic from such scarce books as he could find (all the best ones, of course, being sequestered in Norrell’s four- or five-thousand book library); he is, though still very much a proper gentleman of the era, representative of the wilder, darker, and more passionate aspects of the art of magic. Though eventually tutored by Norrell (who takes great pains both to keep most of the best books from him and attempt to instill Norrellite orthodoxy in the brooding gentleman), Strange’s ideas about magic are in direct contradiction of Norrell’s: Strange is fascinated by the Raven King, wishes to consort with fairies, and actively desires to spread the knowledge of practical magic to anyone who wishes to learn. As Strange writes in his oft-mention book, there is no magic without the Raven King. It was precisely John Uskglass’ synthesis of Fairy magic with English/Christian logistical skill that made him such a powerful ruler.
As I mentioned in my last review, the magic of John Uskglass is very Germanic; like most Germanic fairy tales2, it ties magic and power very closely to nature—that is, alignment with stones, skies, trees, animals, &c. is the source of power in fairy magic. To an English gentleman in the early 19th century, this was far too mean and base a thing for proper magic, and Norrell’s magic therefore happened to be heavily abstracted and book-based. Strange, meanwhile, had no compunction about aligning himself with nature, just as he had no objection to joining Lord Wellington on the front line in the Napoleonic Wars. The conflict between the styles of Norrell and Strange strikes me as a textbook example of organic, grassroots (literally, in this case) ideas against entrenched, scholarly ones. Norrell is Latin or Latinate French, the language of scholarship and law; Strange is Germanic English, the language of the commoners. Norrell is the Catholic Church, crafted of ritual, hierarchy, and privilege; Strange may be a Protestant3, translating the Bible into colloquial languages and removing some of the barriers between the pulpit and the pews.
Class conflict is not a new idea, though I’ve never before heard of it being applied to the practice of magic in a fantasy novel; in this way, I suppose, Clarke’s story about magicians parallels the conflicts that existed in this era: like the Jane Austen she so admires, Clarke gently lampoons the sexism, classism, and ridiculous notions that affected the entrenched nobility and privileged class. Magic, like just about every other observable difference, can become the basis for disenfranchisement—consider, for instance, that while Norrell is unamenable to expanding the rank of practicing magicians, he is particularly resolute in his distaste for female magicians.
What I admire the most about Clarke is the way in which her writing—footnotes and all—has the effect of immersing the reader entirely in her world. “Martin Pale” is an entirely fictional character and his books are likewise invented; yet the consistency and solemnity with which he is referred, quoted, and cited within the text makes it all too easy to forget that he is a figment of Clarke’s wonderful imagination. The novel is filled with stories that don’t necessary go anywhere or illuminate any dark corners—they’re like footpaths from the main road which quickly cede to brambles—but it’s that very peripatetic, discursive nature that gives the book its character: a history book plucked from two centuries ago, thoroughly convinced of its accuracy. It does not feel like a book of fantasy; it feels like a book of history. As Nicholas Tam says, “In so many ways, it is the history of England, but with the exciting, imaginative bits blown up under a magnifying glass, and given voice and shape.”