Read Along – ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke – Volume III (John Uskglass)

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This read along is hosted by Vishy over at Vishy’s Blog and Delia over at Postcards from Asia.

“If I were you, Mr Lascelles”, said Childermass, softly, “I would speak more guardedly. You are in the north now. In John Uskglass’s own country. Our towns and cities and abbeys were built by him. Our laws were made by him. He is in our minds and hearts and speech”.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, Pg.914

The third volume of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell certainly picks up the pace of what was an incredibly slow-moving, though intriguing, plot. The volume, entitled John Uskglass, starts off with an excerpt of Jonathan Strange’s The History and Practice of English Magic. Strange has finally finished the book that completely absorbed his time and concentration. But Mr Norrell doesn’t take the publication of his rival’s book lightly. When Strange  travels to Italy for a well-earned break from England, Norrell sets to work destroying Strange’s book. His method of magic – to make the books disappear – is simple, yet effective and inevitably splits the English public into Strangeites and Norrellites.

In Italy Strange is completely un-phased by Norrell’s actions. He has made the great acquaintance of the Greysteel family, a father and daughter and aunt all travelling together through Europe. At first it seems as if Miss Flora Greysteel will replace Arabella in Strange’s affections but Clarke cleverly steers us away from this rather predictable and unimaginative story line. Instead Strange becomes fixated (as he does when writing his book in Volume II) with summoning up the help of a fairy to advance his magic and become greater than Norrell. I found the connection between fairies and madness really fascinating. The only way Strange is able to summon up the gentleman with the thistle-down hair is by essentially becoming mad himself, and, in doing so, he realises the real truth behind Lady Pole and Arabella Strange’s sad fate. His only thought now is to save his wife through whatever means he can.

After being damned to eternal darkness by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair Strange decides to make his way to the only place in England with a stash of magical books no one but Mr Norrell has read – the library at Hurtfew Abbey. Mr Norrell senses and pre-empts this move and is ready to confront Strange there and then. However, to his surprise Strange is not angry at him – he is too preoccupied with trying to summon up The Raven King in order to break the fairy’s enchantment.

Instead Strange asks Mr Norrell for help and the two great magicians of England work together to try and break the enchantment that binds Arabella to the Faerie world. They call on The Raven King, John Uskglass – the mysterious king of the north whose departure from England also saw the departure of English magic. Through the mysterious and overpowering presence they summon up (presumably the magic of John Uskglass, though he doesn’t appear to them in the flesh) they are able to break the enchantments of the wicked fairy with the thistle-down hair. However, they are now both entrapped in the eternal darkness – they are both one and the same.

‘He had congratulated himself on penetrating Strange’s counter spells at last; until it occurred to him that he was looking at a vision of himself in his own library. He had tried again. He had varied the spells. He named Strange in different ways. It did not matter. He was forced to conclude that English magic could no longer tell the difference between himself and Strange’.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, Pg.97

Like I said in my thoughts on Volume I, the minor characters appealed to me more and this was certainly the case throughout the novel. I was much more engaged by the reappearance of Childermass, Vinculus, Lady Pole, Stephen Black, Drawlight and Lascelles in Volume III. I particularly enjoyed the re-emergence of Vinculus. We find out that the mysterious blue lettering that covers his whole body is in fact the King’s book. After the prophecy is fulfilled the words on his body begin to alter and change. This significance is deliberately left ambivalent:

“[…] why should you change all of a sudden? There is no rhyme or reason in it!”

     “There is every sort of reason”, said Vinculus. “I was a Prophecy before; but the things that I foretold have come to pass. So it is just as well I have changed – or I would have become a History! A dry-as-dust History!”

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, Pg.994

However, there were certain characters whose actions in the final part of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell really struck me as odd and completely out of character. I, personally, couldn’t understand the blood thirsty nature of Lascelles in Volume III. When did he ever show any inclination towards murder in the previous volumes? I thought he was harmless (maybe I need to re-read those sections again).

It is only within the last 100 pages or so that the pieces of the prophecy are brought full circle. But there is no actual closure at the end of the novel. Instead the fate of English magic is held wide open, perhaps alluding to better, more promising things to come. I particularly liked the friendship that begins to blossom between Arabella (who is safe and secure in Italy with the Greysteel family, having travelled through a mirror that was placed there by Strange) and Flora Greysteel. Despite Flora’s previous feelings for Strange she accepts that his wife is, in fact, not dead and tries to help him. It is so common-place to see female rivalry in books, films, etc, that it was refreshing to see the opposite occur. It was also interesting to note that Clarke doesn’t try and tie up every single piece of her story. I don’t particularly like stories that wrap up into nice, neat packages. Instead there is scope to speculate beyond the last page. But, having said that, I still felt as if there was something lacking with the novel. I couldn’t completely absorb myself in the story, in the magical nineteenth-century world Clarke has created, no matter how hard I tried. Perhaps this will be a book that will grow on me with a second reading in the future.

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11 Replies to “Read Along – ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke – Volume III (John Uskglass)”

  1. I hadn’t even given much thought to the friendship that develops between Arabella and Flora. You are right; it is refreshing to have two female characters helping each other. I was impressed by how well the different story lines got tied up. I don’t mind that some were left open; it fits into how the book is set up, in my opinion. But I don’t think there will be a second reading of this book in my future. I have no intention of drudging through that slow first volume again…

    1. Yeah, I don’t think I will be re-reading it anytime soon but it had all the elements that I would have enjoyed in a book but for some reason it didn’t completely click with me. That’s why I feel I should give the book another chance.

    1. Thank you. Although I enjoyed it I think I probably had such high expectations of it that I was left feeling a bit disappointed.

    1. There is certainly a lot packed into Clarke’s story so I think I will probably read it a second time too. Glad you enjoyed the book!

  2. Beautiful review, Yasmine! I also liked the way the secret of the Vinculus’ book is revealed. The connection between fairies and madness is also quite interesting. I too couldn’t understand Lascelles’ behaviour towards the end. I also couldn’t recognize the Drawlight who comes in the last part of the book – he looks like a new character and is so different from the Drawlight that we encounter at the beginning of the book. The relationship between Arabella and Flora is also very beautiful. Sorry to know that though you liked the book, you felt that there was something lacking in it.

    Thanks for joining us in this readalong. Hope you enjoyed the ride.

    1. I almost couldn’t recognise Drawlight either in Volume III, he changed so drastically (as did Lascelles). I’m glad I participated in the read along and managed to finish the book. Thanks for hosting!

  3. It’s really interesting, reading all these comments and seeing what people thought about the book. Quite different opinions, too. I liked the book overall, but what I really enjoyed was the writing and the humour. The story was secondary.
    I could understand Lascelles, never liked him, he was just a leech living off Norrell’s back. I wasn’t that surprised by the murder he committed, I’m surprised he didn’t try to kill Strange as well.
    And that part about Strange going off to save Arabella felt more like a reason to see the fairy’s place than to rescue a loved one. I think Strange was a little bit too wrapped up in his magical experiments to really care about anything else.

    It was really nice to read this book with blogging friends, a much more enjoyable experience than reading it by myself. Thanks for participating and I hope you’ll join us again in future read-alongs.

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