Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Published September 5th 2005 by Bloomsbury
(first published September 2004)
The Library at Hurtfew
I have no wish to share this book with you. In a great fit of jealousy and selfishness I vowed I wouldn't talk about it here, deliberately depriving you of the experience of hearing about this most amazing book. It is only out of a sense of duty and obligation as a book lover, and because I dearly love my blog that I'm going to gift you with a brief insight into this wonder. Make no mistake though- this book, is mine. I give you leave to read it, enjoy it even, but you are not allowed any additional rights to it as I have claimed all others. 1
There has always been magic in England. 2 The history and study of English magic was once a profession held in high esteem. To say that one was a magician was comparable to saying that one was a great gentleman, a scholar, a patron of the arts, more reputable than the practice of medicine, nearly as decorous as royalty and almost as venerable as the clergy (but not quite since that would be considered presumptuous). To spend one’s days laboring over texts and accounts of English magic was a perfectly respectable occupation for a gentleman, who wasn’t expected to have one. A gentleman could study magic, but to practice it, would have been commonplace.
Practical magicians, those vagabonds and swindlers who for pennies tell futures and sell love spells on street corners, are not respectable. Boasting that one can perform magic is the height of vulgarity. No gentleman would associate himself with charlatans. With the decline of English magic in more recent years, and fewer and fewer gentleman engaging in the study of magic, these unstudied miscreants have come to be associated with the title magician. The Learned Society of York Magicians, a group of aged magical scholars, in keeping with long standing tradition, prefer to keep the study of magic an occupation for gentleman and spurn any man who claims to practice magic. It comes to their attention that the majority of magical texts that still exist in England are being bought up in great numbers by a solitary scholar by the name of Mr. Norrell, who makes the abominable claim of being both a theoretical and a practical magician. This claim by a gentleman is unheard of and when the York Society calls for a display of magic by Mr. Norrell to substantiate this preposterous declaration, the price for the performance is for each member of the society to forever give up the study of magic and relinquish the title magician. When the society witnesses Mr. Norrell’s most extraordinary talent, they have no choice but to keep their word and cease their studies. In this way, and with his acquisition of most of the magical text in England, Mr. Norrell distinguishes himself as the only remaining magician in England.
Mr. Norrell, who wants the practice of English magic to once again be held in the highest esteem, while at the same time campaigning to be the only one who practices it, offers his services to aid the English in their war with France, performing great feats of magic that amazes the nation. The solitary, reserved Norrell, doles out his spells sparingly, not wanting his craft to be misused, his tight hold on the whole of English magic making it nearly inaccessible to anyone but himself.
But one man cannot hold the whole of English magic solely. England is destined to have another magician, the young novice, Jonathan Strange, who takes up magic on a mere whim, at the prompting of a street sorcerer, who claims it is prophesied that Strange will be a great magician.
“My name is Vinculous,” he declared. Considering that he had just spent a night under a hedge his voice was remarkably loud and clear. “For ten days I have been walking westwards in search of a man who is destined to be a great magician. Then days ago I was shewn a picture of this man and now by certain mystic signs I see that it is you!”
Everyone looked around to see who he meant.
The man in the shepard’s smock and the knitted shawls came up to Strange and plucked at his coat. “It is you, sir” he said.
“Me?” said Strange.
Vinculus approached Strange.
”Two magicians shall appear in England,” he said.
”The first shall fear me; the second shall long to 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 it’s ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand…”
“I see,” interrupted Strange. “And which am I, the first or the second? No, do not tell me. It does not matter. Both sound entirely dreadful. For someone who is anxious that I should become a magician, I must say you do not make the life sound very appealing. I hope to be married soon and a life spent in dark woods surrounded by thieves and murders would be inconvenient to say the least. I suggest you chuse someone else.”
“I did not chuse you, Magician! You were chosen long ago.”
“Well, whoever it was they will be disappointed.”
Vinculous ignored this remark and took a firm grasp on the bridle of Strange’s horse as a precaution against his riding off. He then proceeded to recite in its entirety the prophecy which he had already performed for the benefit of Mr. Norrell in the library at Hanover-square.
Strange received it with a similar degree of enthusiasm and when it was done, he leant down from his horse and said very slowly and distinctly, “I do not know any magic!”
Vinculus paused. He looked as if he was prepared to concede that this might be a legitimate obstacle to strange’s becoming a great magician. Happily the solution occurred to him immediately; he stuck his hand into the breast of his coat and pulled out some sheets of paper with bits of straw sticking to them. “Now,” he said, looking even more mysterious and impressive than before, “I have here some spells which…No, no! I cannot give them to you!” (Strange had reached out to take them.) “They are precious objects. I endured years of torment and suffered great ordeals in order to possess them.”
“How much?” said Strange.
“Seven shilling and sixpence,” said Vinculous.
Strange becomes a very great magician indeed. After the momentary pause in his career that is his brief apprenticeship to Mr. Norrell, Strange goes on to serve the English government in their campaign against the French, performing great, history changing feats of magic that the overly cautious Mr. Norrell would never dare to engage in- daring, unimaginable, masterpieces of magic that change the course of a war. Strange’s blatant disregard for the current school of thought on the proper practice of magic, Mr. Norrell’s own views, drives a wedge between the two magicians, creating a magical rivalry that threatens the revival of English magic.
Fairy summoning, the raising of the dead, the movement of the very mountains, maidens abducted into other worlds and horrifying instances of darker, fairy magic make for a thrilling, entertaining, and almost believable, historical fantasy that is truly unforgettable.
I didn’t just fall in love with this book- I fell into it. It’s one of those stories that blurs the line between what is real and what is fantasy. In this story, it is entirely believable that magic really does exist. In fact, because of the story, even now that I’m outside of it, I can’t help but still believe. It’s a rather interesting mix of genres; both history and fantasy, combining both real historical events and real instances of English life in the 19th century with some vivid fantastical embellishments that make Clarke’s history much more entertaining than the real thing. Who’s to say that the battles between England and France during the Napoleonic wars were not altered by magic? Had that been taught in the history books we might have all paid more attention.
Jonathan Strange, with the fervor and foolish fearlessness in which he practices magic, and his steadfast dedication to his profession (once he discovered what it was) completely stole my heart. He is perhaps the biggest book crush I’ve ever had. I have a high respect for a man who would only ever forsake the love of his life for a book and in fact, I understand. He was smart, witty, daring, and always civil and gentlemanly. As an Englishman, he would retain proper decorum even when battling evil fairy forces and I just love him.
Mr. Norrell, who I couldn’t help but picture as a wizened, tiny, scrooge of a man made me so angry at times. He is one of the only two great magical minds that have existed in England for centuries and he is so conceited about his own powers that he nearly refuses to have them. He wants magic to return to England, but only if it returns to him alone, thereby depriving the people of the wonders of magic, or worse, giving them only the glimpses of it that he wants them to see.
The book, written as a I have said, as a history, is full of footnotes detailing the history of English magic as it was known in England. Every magical text and person mentioned is referenced and their involvement in magic is retold in footnotes, giving the reader not only a wonderful story experience, but an fictional education as well. You could learn many great and wonderful things from this book if you were of the mind to believe in an alternate reality- which I am.
This giant, brick of a book (1006 pages) will introduce you to some of the most extraordinary characters you’ve never imagined. An evil fairy spirit, and the magician’s foremost nemesis (besides each other), known only as The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, is by far the best villain I’ve ever met in a book. He is a fairy in every respect, mischievous, arrogant, thoughtless and unkind, all the while working on the pretense that he is the height of civility and chivalry. You will meet Stephen Black, a most pitiful servant who finds himself the unwilling companion to the Gentleman with the Thistledown hair, hopelessly trapped between his own England and the Gentleman’s fairy realms.
"It would need someone very remarkable to recover your name, Stephen, someone of rare perspicacity, with extraordinary talents and incomparable nobility of character. Me, in fact."
In it you will meet John Uskglass, the Raven King, the greatest of English magicians and whose teaching Mr. Norrell struggles so hard to suppress and whose magic Mr. Strange endeavors to master. It is his magic, and the accounts of his adventures that have shaped English magic.
“I reached out my hand; thought and memory flew out of my enemies’ heads like a flock of starlings;
My enemies crumpled like empty sacks.
I came to them out of mists and rain;
I came to them in dreams at midnight;
I came to them in a flock of ravens that filled a northern sky at dawn;
When they thought themselves safe I came to them in a cry that broke the silence of a winter wood…”
I’ve dogeared so many quotes and passages in this book that I’ve almost got it memorized. There are just too many instances of wonderful in this book to let them be forgotten. It’s the best book I’ve read this year, and one of my favorite stories of all time, if not my most favorite.
Susanna Clarke has written a book of short stories that take place in the fairy world introduced in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, entitled The Ladies of Grace Adieu and she is working (hard at it I hope) on her next book about English magic.
Footnote 1: In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Mr. Norrell attempts to buy up all the magical texts in England and keep them locked away in his library solely for his own use. Whether it is greed or a desire to keep books on magic from those who would interpret their contents in a way that differs from his own, Mr. Norrell takes a very possessive, selfish view of books and considers all books on English magic, his. Here, in reference to the book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I take a very Norrellite belief that this book, is mine.
Footnote 2: If that were written the way I feel it, the print would be in thick, glossy gold, and the letters would press deep into the page to convey the finality of the sentiment. If I’ve learned anything from stories and books, it’s that what magic there is in our world, exists, quite fixedly, in England.