Jonathan Strange

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.

6 thoughts on “Jonathan Strange

  1. Why don’t you do what Brad DeLong does, excerpt and maybe paraphrase from other people’s reviews and posts, and give links to them by way of acknowledgment.

    Come to think of it, Brad DeLong had a review of this book not too long ago. Funnily enough it said many of the same things.

  2. PML, if you clicked on the first link, you’d find a bunch more. I didn’t see any point in replicating them.

  3. You miss my point, JQ. I appreciated that links would lead somewhere, I was merely suggesting that the BDL style was more helpful. It’s a bit like the newspaper approach of rearranging the content so that the further up the more priority, with the headline itself being valuable.

    If you had that sort of style, that BDL uses, it would be clearer earlier that what you found was covered elsewhere. From a surfing perspective it’s your style that does more replicating – because we have to read to the end before realising that it has been covered elsewhere (in my case, by my having seen nearly the same stuff at BDL’s site).

    I suppose this is a sort of sub-editing suggestion, which you part-time journos will hold against me as evidence of philistinism.

  4. Thanks for the tip on this one John, I greatly enjoyed it, especially the gentle but deadly humour running through. I was trying to think of parallels with the history of science and came up with Hobbs and Boyle, but, on speaking with a proper historian of science, realised I was a good century and a bit out of date…

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