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 to 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 Norrell 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 thatone 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. Norrell—but only after two other publishers turned it down as unmarketable. The book climbed as high as number three on the New 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 fantasyand magical realism, but it is also, in some degree, a historical novel as well as an alternate history. It is alsoa bit of an anachronism: not only is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell set in the early 19th century, but it reads likea 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 Narnia.
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 ofLondon during the period in which Clarke's novel isset, 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 comeout 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 novel.
A rival magician soon appears on the scene, a brash young man named Jonathan Strange. Strange lacks Norrell’s erudition and extensive library, but possessesa 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 twomagicians 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 ofKing 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 Manfred.
As Clarke’s meandering narrative moves towards its conclusion, the tone becomes darker and the plot takesa 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 thecourse 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.
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 misleading.
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 share.
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.