Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Review by Joseph Wright

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a modern English masterpiece. Published in 2004 Jonathan Strangeand set in nineteenth-century England, the novel tells an inverted version of history where magic exists and magicians are very real.

The story opens in the city of York, with the York Society of Magicians and a theoretical magician named John Segundus questioning ‘why there was no more magic done in England’ (4). This enquiry is ridiculed, and it soon becomes clear that magic is not respectable, as a ‘gentleman could not do magic’ (5). The history and practice of magic has all but fallen into the past and has been reduced to an academic part of life. However, this all changes with the rise of Mr Norrell and his ability to perform practical magic. The man is not your typical protagonist. He is somewhat unassuming and introverted, almost reminiscent of a dull history teacher. He is wealthy, educated, and enjoys his library and solitude. Norrell, however, defies all expectations and throws a spanner into the established order. To prove himself, he animates the ‘statues and monuments in the Cathedral’ (39) of York, thereby creating a mesmerising spectacle. Norrell, with ‘his man of business’ Childermass (13), moves to London to establish practical magic as a respectable practice in British society. Here in London, he brings a dead girl back from the dead (with the controversial help of a fairy) and tricks Napoleon and the French with ships constructed out of water.

Jonathan Strange, on the other hand, is almost Norrell’s complete opposite. Strange is ‘charming’ and ‘tall’ (243) – a much more likable character than his counterpart Gilbert Norrell. Where Strange ‘confessed he had no books; the other, as was well known, had two great libraries stuffed with them’ (287). Where Mr Norrell’s talent is self-taught, Jonathan Strange’s seems to come to him almost naturally. Watching these two magicians cooperate and argue is truly spectacular. Strange becomes Norrell’s student, yet slowly becomes seduced by the older, more savage, forms of magic. The duo disagree about the fabled Raven King and the journey in which English magic must take.

The novel is split into three volumes and has masterful pacing. It features great moments such as: the creation of great horses made out of sand, the reanimation of soldiers and a magical spin on the Battle of Waterloo. Magic in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is scholarly, yet dangerously visceral. It is unstable and wild, yet tamed and domestic. Its existence is almost mathematically logical, yet debatable in a literary sense. With historical characters such as the Duke of Wellington and mad King George III, the book feels like a true history of England during the Napoleonic wars. It is immersive and deep. Clarke adds multiple footnotes, which momentarily bring the reader away from the story, in order to give them a deeper understanding of the world they are absorbed in. Where many footnotes upset the pacing, Clarke’s only embellish and enrich.

The English fascination with class weaves around the characters and the plot of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It is forever being questioned, reformed and re-established. From the beginning, we are told that practical magic is not respectable. Magic is something ‘street sorcerers pretended to do in order to rob children of their pennies’ (5). Gentlemen merely study magic, they do not practice it. Mr Norrell upsets the balance in being a practical magician, yet also an upper-middle class man. Although Norrell destroys one boundary, he establishes another. He goes out of his way to convince the British government to remove ‘these vagabond magicians’ (225) – i.e. working class street magicians – thereby making magic an elitist practice. He then goes about ‘destroying the magicians already in existence’ (225), in order to put himself at the top of his profession. Magic transforms from something only the beggarly do into something only the very wealthy and powerful have the privilege of doing. Norrell also hordes magical books, especially those concerning the Raven King, so as to establish himself as the primary magical power in the realm. He monopolises magic and appears to despise everything he can’t control, whether this be a rebellious Jonathan Strange, or Vinculus the knowledgeable street magician.

With a fairy host, John Uskglass (The Raven King) conquered and ruled the North of England. However, during the time of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, he is deemed to be nothing more than a mythical being who operates as an ‘invention of the Northern English to keep themselves from the tyranny of the South’ (9). In taking the North of England, The Raven King established a literal boundary. In the real world, the English North – South divide metaphorically displays a difference in political values, culture and economics. Clarke physically establishes this boundary in her novel to show this divide. The Raven King then mysteriously disappears and the North, during the time of Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange, is ruled by the Southern parliament and king. Mr Norrell, in establishing modern English magic, escapes from the old gothic and untamed North, to the more authoritative and domestic South. Here he flourishes and attempts to eradicate the Raven King and old magic from his new order. The power lies in the south, much like in today’s world. The Raven King’s banner, as the novel progresses, becomes a symbol of the Northern working class. These people start an uprising in The Raven King’s name. Craftsmen ‘creep into mills and at dead of night and destroy property’ (685). They revolt against modern factory machines and the ‘tyranny’ of the South. The British government claims that ‘John Uskglass’s banner is flying everywhere in the north from Nottingham to Newcastle’ (686). The old order begins to re-establish itself for the working class and ‘revolution’ (686) is ripe.

To win over Sir Walter Pole, and thus the British government, Mr Norrell brings Miss Emma Wintertowne back from the dead. Miss Wintertowne had died only two days before her marriage to Sir Walter; thus in bringing her back Walter would be in Norrell’s debt. Norrell goes against his own values and summons a fairy – something he greatly disapproves of, as it speaks of an older more savage time of magic. He resurrects her, however, sells half of her life to the fairy. This act makes the now Lady Pole seem crazed. She cannot stand the sound of bells, as they are linked to the appearance of fairies, and she cannot talk about what Norrell has done to her, due to the fairy’s spell. The fairy also traps her every night in Lost Hope, a spooky ballroom dance filled with strange fairies. The same happens to Steven Black, a black educated servant of Sir Walter Pole. He too becomes silenced and trapped once a night. Clarke takes a supernatural twist on the oppression of women and black people in the 1800’s through magically silencing them and physically capturing them. Even before their entrapment however, Lady Pole is married away for her money, as Drawlight (Mr Norrell’s ‘friend’) claims that she was worth ‘a thousand pounds a year’ (95), and Steven Black is segregated due to his ethnicity. The two are oppressed in both their ‘lives’, yet the supernatural side both elaborates and draws attention to the reality of this.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a fantastic book. The novel is a breath of fresh air. It is a worthy example of English fantasy, pulling the reader in with its intricacy, detail and charm. Both Strange and Norrell are worthy protagonists and watching them on their journey of re-establishing English magic and battling the French is spellbinding.

Joseph Wright is a second-year joint honours English Literature and Creative Writing student at York St John University. His particular interests include Gothic and Children’s Literature. Discussing this blog post, he told Point Zero:

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my all-time favourite books; this is largely due to its masterful blending of history and fantasy. I wrote this review as a part of my ‘Literature at Work’ module. In this module, the Marketing Literature team and I created both an Open Day Pamphlet and website for incoming students to Literature at YSJU.