Prompted by Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber, who’s had more to say on the topic recently, I’ve been reading, and reviewing, Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. My review is over the fold. Comments appreciated.
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell gives the alternate history wheel a new spin, by imagining a starting point at which alternate and real histories have converged. Clarke’s Georgian England is just like the real thing, but has a history in which magician-kings ruled the North until some time in the 14th century.
For reasons that are never entirely clear, magic has faded away until its study has become the domain of gentlemanly antiquarians, ‘theoretical magicians’ who never actually cast a spell. Their comfortable clubs are suddenly disrupted by the emergence of a ‘practical magician’ the enigmatic Gilbert Norrell. He is joined by a student and potential rival Jonathan Strange.
Strange is much the more attractive of the pair, but appearances may deceive. Without anything much in the way of moral qualms, he joins Wellington in wreaking magical havoc on the armies of Napoleon, often finding it difficult to put the world back together afterwards.
Meanwhile, running in parallel, there is a traditional faery story, beginning when Norrell makes the classic mistake of accepting an attractive-seeming bargain from a faery king, to spare a young woman from death in return for ‘half her life’.
The real point of the book, though, is not the story but the style, complete with 18th century spellings and rhetoric. Academic readers will particularly enjoy the footnotes, of which I quote only one:
Horace Tott spent an uneventful life in Cheshire, always intending to write a large book on English magic, but never quite beginning. And so he died at seventy-four, still imagining that he might begin next week, or perhaps the week after that.
The book has been described as ‘Harry Potter for grownups’, and this is true in a sense, but also misleading. Most of those who loved JK Rowling’s magical version of the Billy Bunter stories will find Clarke’s recreation of the 18th century novel dry, puzzling and far too long. However, those of us with omnivorous tastes in reading may get enjoyment from both.