‘He hardly every spoke of magic, and when he did it was like a history lesson and no one could bear to listen to him’.
So, we have finished the first week of our read along of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Although I am ahead of schedule with the reading (though not with the reviewing, I apologise) and couldn’t put the book down I wouldn’t say it was because I am exactly loving it. I feel like I want to like it more than I do, which is a shame because it has everything in it that I would usually enjoy in a book. There are magicians set in real places and real historical time periods which is a really interesting dynamic. Also, the fact that Clarke makes use of a lot of footnotes (and very extensive ones at that!) in some way creates a more realistic and historical account of the events that take place in the purely fictional world of the novel. However, I, personally, find them extremely distracting from the main action.
The novel opens on a scene of middle-aged and elderly gentlemen from The Learned Society of York Magicians, made up entirely of ‘theoretical’ magicians. There is outrage as Segundus questions why they do not practice magic and that there is, indeed, one man in England, a Mr Gilbert Norrell, who is a ‘practicing’ magician, despite the fact that magic has not been present in England for quite some time. The magicians are in disbelief at this claim and need pure, concrete evidence to prove it. Reluctantly, Norrell makes a deal with them – if he performs an act of magic then none of the York magicians may continue to study magic. Everyone but Segundus signs this deal, believing in his incompetence and eccentricity. However, Norrell proves his worth as the only practising magician in England by bringing to life the stone statues that litter York Cathedral. His assistant, Childermass (a character that would not be out of place in a Dickens novel), encourages Segundus to write an article about the spectacle to a London newspaper. The sensation this causes is extraordinary. Mr Norrell moves from his secluded and hermit-like existence in the countryside of York to the bustling capital of London in an attempt to be of use in the Napoleonic Wars. But it takes Mr Norrell much more effort and skill to convince the politicians of using a magician in the battle against the French. And he also has to employ the help of two ‘men-about-town’ – Drawlight and Lacelles – to conquer his own social ineptitude.
After Section 1, which focuses predominantly on Mr Norrell, I am still finding it difficult to work out what to make of his character. I neither like him nor dislike him. He is a man who is intent on becoming the one and only magician in England, which seems a rather selfish and arrogant position to take. Yet, at the same time he comes across as a bumbling and hesitant fool – take for example his inability to finish writing a book about magic. Although the first section focuses on Mr Norrell, there are a couple of chapters that crop up, slowly introducing us to the other main character of the novel, Jonathan Strange. I wonder what Mr Norrell will make of Jonathan’s claim to be another practicing magician in England? I can only assume that he most probably won’t like it.
‘Two magicians shall appear in England. […] The first shall fear me; the second shall long behold me; The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction; The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache; The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand. […] The first shall pass his life alone; he shall be his own gaoler; The second shall tread lonely roads, the storm above his head, seeking a dark tower upon a high hillside…’
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, Pg.154-5
Like Vishy mentioned in his post on Volume 1 (which you can read here), I found the minor characters, such as Drawlight and Lacelles, Stephen Black, Childermass, Segundus and Vinculus much more interesting as characters, yet they do only play a minor role (so far). I read somewhere that Susanna Clarke is writing a sequel to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell which focuses more on these smaller characters, though how true this is I don’t know. I am particularly drawn to the character of Vinculus who is the vessel through which the prophecy of the two magicians arrives, yet I wonder how aware he is of this power. Is he perhaps a body through which a magical, supernatural being communicates or has he just been entrusted with the task of issuing the prophecy to the right people? And what does this prophecy even mean? I wouldn’t like to be either of these magicians, their fate doesn’t sound very promising.
Another area of Clarke’s novel that I found particularly interesting was the representation of women in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Set in the nineteenth century, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Clarke’s descriptions of the women’s place, or sphere, is so obviously stereotypical that I can’t help but think she is doing this deliberately:
‘In their separate homes the York magicians breakfasted alone. They watched in silence as a servant poured their coffee, broke their warm white-bread rolls, fetched the butter. The wife, the sister, the daughter, the daughter-in-law, or the niece who usually performed these little offices was still in bed; and the pleasant female domestic chat, which the gentleman of the York society affected to despise so much, and which was in truth the sweet and mild refrain in the music of their ordinary lives, was absent’.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, Pg.30
Further on in the novel, we are introduced to a Mrs and Miss Wintertowne. Talking of her stepmother, Mrs Wintertowne declares:
‘Her only weakness was foolishly to doubt her own capabilities. My father believed that, in understanding and in knowledge of right and wrong and in many other things, women are men’s equals and I am entirely of his opinion’.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, Pg.90
It seems like the female characters in the novel are slowly becoming more varied and individualised, rather than the angel-in-the-house type, the more we read. Yet, the fate of Mrs Wintertowne’s wonderful, young daughter really troubles me. The fact that Mr Norrell decided to sell half her life to the faerie in order to bring her back from the dead seems an extraordinarily high price to pay. Already we are beginning to see the torment this woman is facing. It will be interesting to see what becomes of her.
Although I have found it quite slow to get into, I am looking forward to reading more of Volume two of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Susanna Clarke is a gifted and talented writer and you can tell that a lot of work has gone into creating this reinvention of a magically historical England.