‘Tis strange

August 16, 2007

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury, 2004)
782 pp. First reading.

In the first chapter of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, C. S. Lewis surveys the cultural forces molding Europe in the Renaissance. He draws our attention to the prevalence of magical practice alongside, and in many cases together with, early scientific practice, a state of affairs that frequently comes as a surprise to modern students of the period. We are inclined to view magia as opposed to science, but Lewis points out that in their time they had the greatest possible affinity. Speaking of magical thought and practice, he says:

“This glance at a forgotten, but influential, philosophy will help, I hope, to get rid of the false groupings which our ex post facto judgments of “enlightenment” and “superstition” urge us to impose on the past. Freed from those, we can see that the new magia, far from being an anomaly in that age, falls into its place among the other dreams of power which then haunted the European mind. Most obviously it falls into place beside the thought of Bacon. His endeavour is no doubt contrasted in our minds with that of the magicians: but contrasted only in the light of the event, only because we know that science succeeded and magic failed.”

In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke asks us to imagine a world in which that failure did not happen. Her story takes place in a world in which magic is effective, in which the land of Faerie interacts with our own, and in which enchantment can be a matter of mortal danger.

Of course, the great magicians lived long ago. In the early nineteenth century, when the story takes place, magic is a subject for scholars and historians. Some, indeed, believe that practical magic is not possible, others that it is, but that it is not a pursuit appropriate for a gentleman. In any case, the practice of magic has fallen into disuse, and if it was ever possible, all have forgotten how to do it. All, that is, but one. Mr. Norrell, hidden away in his library in Yorkshire, has amassed a huge collection of magical texts, and astonishes his countrymen by emerging as the first capable practical magician in centuries. Mr. Norrell is able in a workmanlike fashion, but another man soon demonstrates a natural talent. Jonathan Strange is younger, wilder, and more passionate than Norrell. Together they band together to put English magic at the service of England once again.

The ability to do magic does not, of course, mean the ability to do anything one’s heart desires. Magic is, as Lewis said, a technology, and its practice is limited by the repertoire of spells and enchantments one has mastered. And there are other limitations too:

“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange.

Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”

Careful to observe this principle, Norrell and Strange nevertheless turn their craft to military ends, using spells to confound the French and the Spanish in battle (needless to say, Faerie and the magic derived from it are exclusively part of the native English genius). All this is light-hearted and pleasant enough. After all, why not use magic for practical ends?

Yet beneath this technical magic there lurks a richer, deeper Faerie magic that is not to be trifled with, a magic that speaks to the stones, trees, and sky. Norrell despises or fears it, and wishes to leave it in forgetfulness; Strange only suspects its existence, but longs to know more. Paradoxically, it is Norrell who, in a moment of poor judgment, opens the door to Faerie and cannot close it again.

Clarke’s writing is very fine. She has adopted the literary tone of the early nineteenth century: proper, loquacious, and genial. She has peppered the text with footnotes which, being wonderfully witty and inventive, are among the chief pleasures of the book. The story does go on at some length, and doubtlessly some episodes could have been trimmed, but this is not a major fault. The writing is so good, and the premise so intriguing, and the story so enjoyable, that I was delighted for the duration. I especially admire the convincing way in which she has revived the fairy tale for adults. We should remember that it was only in the nineteenth century that such tales were banished to the nursery, and there is no reason why mature readers cannot enjoy a fairy tale well told. And be assured this is not a tale for children. On more than one occasion I had to turn the lights on in the hall to calm my troubled imagination. But this, too, was part of the pleasure.

4 Responses to “‘Tis strange”

  1. Amber Says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve been meaning to read this book for quite some time and you’ve sparked my interest again.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Much obliged for the compliment, and glad to be of service!

  3. Jim Says:

    Hi Craig,

    I hope that you’re in the process of having a good holiday. We’ve retreated to Kingston now, but had a very good time ourselves. I finished these fine volumes tonight and must say that I enjoyed them — and re-reading your review of them — a great deal.

    Happy New Year,

  4. cburrell Says:

    These volumes, did you say? Is there something I am missing?

    Have a very Happy New Year yourself, Jim. Very wise of you to retreat from the Great Beast. I’m stuck for now, but hope to make my escape tomorrow.

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