Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It was a Dark and Stormy Night in Yorkshire

I have seen people reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on airplanes for years, and decided that the autumnal Northwest provided a dark and rainy October perfect for reading Susanna Clarke’s bestseller. I was told that this book was cross between Jane Austen and a dark Harry Potter (with a bit of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising thrown in for good measure). This recommendation was not far wrong: like Jane Austen, Clarke’s book contains men in naval uniform, young women with and without inheritances, fashionable circles in Bath and London, and the importance of manners and decorum. Like Harry Potter, magic is often seen as utility, improved upon by rigorous study and practice rather than by an exploration of mysticism or divine gift. Also, like Rowling’s magical kingdom secretly inhabits the normalcy of everyday England, Clarke’s proper Georgian England is the unlikely (yet perfect) backdrop for magic of every kind.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the novel begins with a small circle of theoretical magicians in York, who would never practice magic, only study it (echoing Dolores Umbridge’s plot to curtail the practical elements of Hogwarts’ class of Defense Against the Dark Arts). But when a hermetic magician, Mr. Norrell, proclaims himself the only true magician in England, and desiring the return to real English magic, causes the statues in York cathedral to sing and speak, England is forced to reconsider the relevance and applicability of English Magic in the Enlightened Age. Mr. Norrell desires to aid the British in their fight against Napoleon and the French, and he is soon joined by the man who will become his pupil and ultimately his rival, Jonathan Strange. As exploratory and passionate as Mr. Norrell is cautious and stingy, the two become so divergent as their approach to magic that they reach a schism. Both magicians are haunted by the legend of the Raven King, the ultimate English magician (a Northern English Merlin and Arthur hybrid). Embarking as a charming, anecdotal by-the-fire sort of book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell increases in intensity and darkness and spins a well-written plot designed to keep you up past your bedtime.

Clarke’s use of copious footnotes might annoy the reader, though I confess it thrills me that Clarke has embroidered Regency England to such a degree that she has conjured up fictitious sources and pseudo-historical figures. This is done so thoroughly as to cause the reader to wonder how much Clarke has created and how much she has simply adapted. The footnotes cause a constant stream of stories-within-a-story.

Ultimately, if any of the following put you off – novels the size of large bricks, reading polite conversation, words spelled in the Georgian way (eg. “shewed” for showed, “stopt” for stopped), and a cautiously progressing plot – then you had best avoid Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. But if you are thrilled by a brooding English atmosphere, quaint English names like Honeychurch and Drawlight, historical figures such as mad King George, the Duke of Wellington, and Lord Byron, strange enchantments, questions of magic and ethics, by all means embark on this novel as Halloween approaches.

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