The following (rather lengthy) post is my review of Susanna Clarke’s doorstop, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Believe it or not, this was the abridged version!
WARNING: The following review contains a (mostly) complete plot synopsis of the novel. There be spoilers!
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell skillfully uses the conventions of nineteenth century novels, along with rich details and Romantic overtones, to create a modern-day Victorian novel. As I was reading the 700+ page book, I couldn’t help thinking that if Charles Dickens had taken the plunge into writing straight fantasy, this novel would have been the result.
The novel is divided into three volumes, each named after an important magician in the story’s alternate history: Mr Norrell, Jonathan Strange, and John Uskglass. The premise of the story is that by the early nineteenth century, the magic that shaped England’s history is all but gone. There are a few who still study magic, theoretical magicians like John Segundus, and fewer who can use magic. Mr Norrell is a cynical practicing magician who hoards magical texts to prevent others from misusing magic. He plans to bring magic back to England, but only on his terms.
There is a prophecy circulated by a vagabond named Viniculus that states two magicians will unite to restore magic to England. The second magician is the young, charming Jonathan Strange. Strange becomes Norrell’s pupil and together they perform magic for the English government, doing everything from protecting shorelines to relocating armies. But Norrell and Strange disagree on many things, including how they perceive the long lost founder of English magic, the Raven King, John Uskglass. The magicians have a falling out and go their separate ways.
Meanwhile, a faerie known simply as the Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair begins stealing humans for his entourage in the faerie realm of Lost-Hope. He sets his sights on Mrs. Arabella Strange, enchanting her and making Strange believe that his wife has been killed. By drugging himself into madness, Strange follows the faerie back to Lost-Hope, where he discovers Arabella and others are being held captive. Before he can save his wife, Strange is cast out of Lost-Hope and the faerie curses him to live in eternal darkness and solitude.
But from within his prison, Strange works magic so dark and powerful that it awakens the old magic in England. Norrell is disturbed by the strange instances of magic, but cannot explain how they are happening. Strange travels to Norrell’s private library where the magicians are reunited after years of strife. They agree to summon John Uskglass to ask for his help in breaking the enchantment on Arabella and the others. In the end, the villains get their due, the prophecy is fulfilled, and magic returns to masses in England. The various threads of the story are all tied up quite nicely except for the fact that Strange and Norrell remain cursed by the Eternal Darkness, even after the faerie who cast the spell is dead.
Like Dickens, Clarke uses an ensemble cast of characters, representing all different classes, creeds, and races. Sometimes, there seem to be too many characters to keep straight in your head. Add to this the sense of mystery that often accompanied a character’s appearance and it was easy to confuse one character for another. Also, there were too many characters named John. I kept thinking that at any moment one of these men would reveal himself as the Raven King, John Uskglass. Throughout the novel it was continually mentioned that John Uskglass had left England, but he would return one day and bring the magic back with him. I was disappointed that Clarke did not take the opportunity to make Uskglass a fully formed character; the last third of the book is named after John Uskglass, but he only makes a brief appearance in the chapter with Viniculus and John Childermass. For most of the novel, Uskglass is just an idea debated in conversations and footnotes. I believe revealing Uskglass as one of the characters who had been in the story all along would have been a compelling twist.
For the most part I enjoyed Clarke’s weaving of magic into history. I could believe that the British government would use Jonathan Strange’s magic to aid Wellington in his battles against Napoleon. Additionally, the location of John Uskglass’s kingdom in Northern England correlates well with the historically pagan and mystical nature of that area.
But there were some instances when Clarke’s use of a historical figure distracted the reader, rather than amplified the story. For example, I found the addition of Lord Byron to be out of place. Clarke wants the reader to believe that Strange visited the same party in Geneva where Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley, among others, were having their infamous competition to see who could write the best horror story. From this occasion sprung what is commonly believed to have been the first vampire and science fiction novels. While it is admirable for Clarke to pay tribute to this significant literary event, it did not have anything to do with Strange’s story. To this reader, it felt a bit like Clarke was trying to impress with her knowledge of history.
If you enjoy the intricate fabrication of Victorian literature, and you have the time to read through 700 pages including extensive footnotes, then you will enjoy Clarke’s novel about the history of English magic. Just don’t expect to meet the Raven King.
Agree? Disagree? Still reading? Let me know!