Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

By Susanna Clarke

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Remember that ridiculously long novel on
magicians in a fantastical England that came out
in 2004?  Who would have thought that a
supersized work of imaginative fiction—almost
900 pages long!—would find such an enthusiastic
audience?  That British lady
certainly deserved her Hugo
Award for best novel, no?  

What’s that you say?
Harry Potter?
Hogwarts?  I don’t know what
you're talking about.  I’m referring
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,
that exemplary 2004 fiction by
Susanna Clarke.   

Let’s make this clear from the start:

Clarke was no J.K. Rowling imitator.
She began work on Jonathan Strange & Mr
back in 1993, four years before the
publication of the
first Harry Potter novel. No
less an authority than Neil Gaiman backs up this
chronology—and let’s allow Mr. Gaiman to
continue the story. "For the next decade, people
would ask me who my favourite authors were,"
Gaiman has recalled, "and I would place Susanna
Clarke on any lists I made, explaining that she
had written short stories, only a handful but that
each was a gem, that she was working on a
novel, and that
one day everyone would have
heard of her."

Gaiman’s prediction was finally validated when
Clarke completed the massive manuscript.  
Editors at Bloomsbury had so much confidence
in the book’s success that they offered a £1
million advance for
Jonathan Strange & Mr.
—but only after two other publishers
turned it down as unmarketable.   The book
climbed as high as number three on the
York Times
bestseller list and won a half-dozen
prestigious awards.

Certainly Pottermania helped pave the way for
this novel's commercial success.   But in many
ways, Clarke delivered a far more peculiar and
daring book than any of Rowling's behemoths.  
Even classifying this novel presents issues.  
Certainly it is a work of high fantasy
and magical
realism, but it is also, in some degree, a
historical novel as well as an alternate history.  It
is also
a bit of an anachronism:  not only is
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
set in the early
19th century, but it reads like
a novel written
during that same time period.  Fantasy fiction
fans beware: there's more Jane Austen and
William Thackeray in this novel than Middle-
earth and

Clarke’s approach to characterization, pacing and
plotting all show deep roots in the literary
conventions of the Georgian and Victorian eras.  
Even her word choices, turns of phrase and
allusions share this pedigree.  "Davey was so
liberally coated in snow that one might have
supposed that someone had ordered a wax-
works model of him and the plaster mould was
being prepared."   An author today would hardly
think of comparing someone to a waxworks
model, but Madame Tussaud's wax figures were
the sensation of
London during the period in
which Clarke's novel is
set, and in the context of
this novel the description is perfectly apt.   Here’
s another telltale passage, the opening of chapter
nine, which could very well come
out of a book
that mixed Jane Austen with zombies:

"It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely
cleverer than the present author) how kindly
disposed the world in general feels to young
people who either die or marry.  Imagine then
the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne!  
No young lady had such advantages before: for
she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in
the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was
married upon the Thursday; which some people
thought too much excitement for one week."

Clarke’s story begins in 1806, when magic is in a
sad state of decline throughout Britain.   
Magicians can still be found in every city, but
they are all
theoretical magicians—who merely
study the history of magic and are not capable of
practicing it.  They look back with nostalgia at
the golden or Aureate age when spells had not
lost their efficacy.  They speak with reverence of
Martin Pale, Ralph Stokesey, Catherine of
Winchester, Thomas Godbless and, above all, of
the Raven King—the master magicians of
centuries past.  The tradition is dead and only
the memory of former greatness lingers on—yet
many are still inspired to study the surviving
spell books and dream of a revival of wizardry.

In the midst of this age of diminished
expectations, a new magician with remarkable
powers appears on the scene.  Gilbert Norrell,
who lives in seclusion in Yorkshire, has amassed
the largest collection of magical books and
manuscripts in England.  But Norrell claims that
he is more than a mere scholar, but a true
practicing magician.  When his skills are put to
the test, he stuns the gathered onlookers by
making all the statues in York Cathedral briefly
come to life.  In the aftermath of this
extraordinary demonstration, Norrell moves to
London and begins advising the government on
the use of magic in domestic affairs and the
ongoing war against Napoleon.  

But Norrell overreaches when he attempts to
bring the dead fiancée of a government minister
back to life.  He enters into a compact with a
devious fairy, only to find that his dealings have
led to the bewitching of the resurrected young
lady.  Eventually a host of unintended
consequences result from this misguided
endeavor, setting up conflicts and complications
that continue throughout the duration of the

A rival magician soon appears on the scene, a
brash young man named Jonathan Strange.  
Strange lacks Norrell’s erudition and extensive
library, but possesses
a powerful innate capacity
for magic.  The two wizards enter into an uneasy
partnership, with Norrell offering to tutor the
younger Strange—but only in the most cautious
manner.   Norrell is drawn to Strange, finding in
him a kindred spirit.  Despite this emotional
connection, he remains a stubborn, elusive
teacher, and keeps the bulk of his library of
magical books out of Strange’s hands.

These two main plots—the rivalry between the
magicians and the enchantments practiced
by the sly fairy—serve as the core stories that
propel the novel forward over the course of 850
pages.   But much of the fun in this book comes
from the subplots and throwaway tales that
Clarke liberally provides.  Often these show up
in footnotes—there are close to 200 in this book,
some of them stand alone stories in their
own right.  Other interludes bring our key
characters into contact with historic personages
and momentous events.  Strange is enlisted to
treat the madness of
King George III and assist
the Duke of Wellington at the battle of
Waterloo.  Lord Byron appears as an occasional
character, and even draws inspiration from
Jonathan Strange for his dramatic poem

As Clarke’s meandering narrative moves towards
its conclusion, the tone becomes darker and the
plot takes
a macabre turn.  More characters fall
under the spell of the malevolent fairy, and both
Norrell and Strange realize that they may have
let loose forces beyond their ability to contain or
control.   By this point, the charming Potter-
esque qualities of Clarke’s novel have been
subsumed by a tormented Faustian theme.
Perhaps the theoretical magicians had it right in
the first place:  magic may well be too dangerous
for mere mortals to practice.

But even if spells are suspect, don't

underestimate the spell Susanna Clarke casts on
her readers over the
course of this momentous
book.  By any measure, she has delivered one of
the great fantasy works of the modern day.   
Even so,
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell strikes
me as a one-of-kind work, quirky and
unprecedented—creating its drama and effects
by following a formula that other authors
imitate at their own peril.   Yet that, too, may be
a measure of its greatness.
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the course
of 2012,  I will explore an important
work of fiction that incorporates
elements of magic, fantasy or the
surreal.  My choices will cross
conventional boundary lines of genre,
style and historical period—indeed,
one of my intentions in this project is
to show how the conventional labels
applied to these works have become
constraining, deadening and

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only in
recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These labels
are not without their value, but too
often they have blinded us to the rich
and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very few
retain into adulthood this sense of the
kind of enchantment possible only
through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in our
imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and
Pantagruel by François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia

Week 24:  Little, Big by John

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
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