I have an interesting relationship with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell. Now, it’s not a recent book and it’s received about all the accolades it should, so it’s not exactly important for me to review, but I want to. So there.
It’s not actually my favorite anything. It’s a very fine example of a magical Regency-era England and Europe, but I sort of like Patricia C. Wrede’s better, maybe just because it came into my life a bit earlier. Its characters are wonderful, especially the villain, but I can think of plenty who’ve gotten under my skin more (even if I’m a member of Childermass’s fanclub forever). The writing is unique and well-paced and lovely, but again, I think it’s been matched and outmatched. And the story, such as ’tis, wanders a bit, though it’s still a joy. And yet, though no one element sticks with me as the best example of its kind, I’ve read this book about a dozen times since early high school. I have the audiobook and I listen to it whenever I’m not doing anything else. Despite not being the best at anything, somehow, the book is more than the sum of its parts and, to me, is the perfect novel.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is the tale of magic’s return to England, seen principally through the eyes of the two magicians most responsible (for good or for ill) and those around them. And damned if it’s not a problem you really want to see addressed!
My feelings on the subject are hard to put to words. The central conceits and the history of the world are something you know only through the story. …Duh. That, Ginger Waif, is what we call fiction. Yet somehow, when you find out within the first few passages that magic has been missing, you believe it, you’re distressed by it, and you can immediately jump right into the mindset of the inhabitants of this magic-bereft England of 1806. Maybe it’s the footnotes.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is about a third footnotes. I exaggerate, but the most prominent stylistic element of the book is the footnotes. Some of them are brief, citing as a source for some claim in the narration or dialogue in the form of a book or article written by or about the principle characters. Some of them are folk tales that ring entirely true, despite being mostly Clarke’s invention. Bits of history, notes on the characters’ lives and motivations, academic treatises, old spells, ballads… There’s a bit of everything. You’d think it would interrupt the story, but somehow it’s all seamless. When I started listening to the audiobook I thought it would be very strange to constantly interrupt things, including long streams of dialogue, with a thousand words or so of referenced fictional folktale, but I didn’t mind even then. Either way, being annotated through and through like the most exhaustive book of serious history you’ve ever read is definitely a flourish that Clarke indulges over and over and over again, and every time I expected to mind, I’d find myself happily buried in a song about the Raven King or the history of some fairy servant of some Golden Age magician. It’s weird. Weird but good.
Leaving aside footnotes, the novel follows years and years of the title characters’ lives. It has many, many subplots, the most prominent regarding the enchantment of several poor souls by a vindictive fairy known only as The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, but it would be hard to put your finger on the main plot. Strange doesn’t even appear for a good while. There’s the saga of the Napoleonic Wars plus magic, but that comes and goes. There’s the story of Strange and Norell’s relationship, beginning as student and teacher, straying in and out of friend and enemy territory, and that’s probably the closest thing to a single, central plot thread, but even that comes and goes. It’s better, I think, to look at Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell as an academic history of a world that never was, but an academic history with dialogue and a window to the inner life of its subjects. It is what it is, I suppose, and it’s expressly designed to please Ginger Waifs, it would seem.
My favorite part of the book is definitely its fairies. I’m a serious fan of scary fairies, and I think Clarke gets them exactly right. The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair is terrifying. He operates by an entirely different set of rules than the humans around him. He really does seem to think he’s doing good, or at least doing nothing bad. He’s a completely alien creature who’s unimaginably powerful. And the other fairies who appear, in this novel or in related short stories, encapsulate just exactly what fairies should be themselves.
And what is it about regency fantasy, anyway? Is it just the Jane Austen lovers in all of us? It’s just the perfect world to add magic to. I don’t know why. I’ve fallen hard for some Victorian fantasy (Parasol Protectorate, anyone? Not to mention, uh, your generalized steampunk) and while I can’t think of any Georgian fantasy, I’m sure it would be good. But for some reason we just love to mix dragons and Darcy. Maybe it’s the Napoleon backdrop? The fact that the characters are just barely modern in their language and ideas, and thus generally relatable, but still with their odd manners and without the icky sensibilities that come with Victoriana? I’m open to ideas.
That aside, um, aside, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is the best book in the world in the strangest of ways. This perplexes me, but I’ve decided to go with it. It saddens me that it’s about all there is from Clarke, aside from the short stories about the same world (collected in The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories), but it seems to be plenty to keep me coming back over and over again. In fact, the Ginger Waif is going to go listen to it again.