Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I found this book a couple years ago and dove into the challenge. It weighs in (in one volume) at about five pounds, or about 782 pages. And it’s a lovely masterpiece of intricate work.

The setting is Victorian England and the main characters are the first magicians in England in a thousand years or so. Mr Norrell is an academic magician who prefers a theoretical study and practice in his library. Mr. Strange is briefly Mr Norrell’s pupil but their views on a mysterious historical figure (The Raven King) and his role in magic clash as well as their views on the purpose of magic. Strange ends up with the Duke of Wellington on the continent fighting in the Napoleonic War while Mr Norrell is taunted by a fairy gentleman who helped him bring a young woman back to life. (After reading this book I came up with the idea for my short story & poem about Lord Nelson, The Duke’s contemporary).

Clarke’s writing style is something to be admired. Immensely. She spent about ten years on the manuscript. The tone and style hearken back to Dickens, and in some parts Austen. There are extensive footnotes and a well developed historical background that makes the novel something of an alternate history. (I was duped. I even did some research about the Raven King). I have to admit that I’ve read a lot of novels with antiquated language and it’s bled over into some of my writing style. I was fascinated that Ms. Clarke was able to write such a mammoth novel, with such antiquated language, and do so well critically and commercially.

However, I think what I loved the most about it is how grown up the novel is. It’s a serious approach to fantasy. The novel allows magic and fairies to reveal their dark and wild sides within the confines of properly controlled Victorian culture (ah! the dichotomy). Surprisingly (for fantasy) it’s not racy at all. Most adult fantasy has so much sex happening it could be confused with the Kama Sutra, but JS&MN keeps it classy without becoming boring.

There are loveable creatures that span the social structure of 19th Century England. There are foppish young gentleman (Dandies, they called them, I believe) and street urchins, thuggish street magicians, and haughty African-English butlers, and orphaned children stolen by fairies. And as with any great British novel the reader gets to experience the uniqueness of British landscape, from the Western Midlands of Shropshire to Londontown.

It took some effort to read. Some days I wasn’t sure quite why I’d decided to read it at all. Those footnotes are greatly entertaining though. And the Fairy was awesomely mischievous. My friend owns a copy of this novel and sits pleasantly on her bookshelf. Every time I visit I feel proud that I did read it. I sort of wish I had a coffee table to plop a copy of my own down on to show off.

Well, thanks for sticking around with me this week. See ya tomorrow!

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