SF/F Saturday: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

“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 would.”

Since I’ve just heard the welcome news that it will soon be a TV miniseries, this SF/F Saturday presents a good opportunity to write about one of my favorite modern novels.

Published in 2004, Susanna Clarke’s debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is an alternate-history fantasy set in early 19th-century England, during the era of the Napoleonic wars. Clarke’s England has a storied past: a golden age of powerful magicians who bent heaven and earth to their will, chief among them a semi-legendary figure called the Raven King who ruled the northern half of England for several hundred years.

But for reasons no one quite understands, magic has slowly died out from the world. By the present day of the novel, England has only “theoretical” magicians, musty old men who have no talent for magic themselves but occupy their time in endless academic squabbles over arcane points of historical interpretation. “Practical” magic has fallen into disrepute, largely due to the ranting and posturing of streetcorner charlatans who’ve tainted its reputation and made it seem an unfitting occupation for a gentleman.

This all changes when, for the first time in centuries, a practical magician reappears in England, one Gilbert Norrell of Yorkshire. When he demonstrates his powers in a dramatic public spectacle, he inspires widespread interest and excitement, bringing hopes of a glorious revival of English magic. But while it’s true that Norrell possesses immense talent, he’s hardly the heroic figure out of legend that most people were expecting. He’s almost pathologically reclusive, miserly with his magic, and fiercely jealous of any hint of competition. Nevertheless, when he arrives in London and offers his services to the British government, he’s welcomed and hailed.

Although Norrell goes to great lengths to prevent any other magicians from arising in England, one emerges in spite of him, a dilettante nobleman named Jonathan Strange. When they actually meet, Norrell is won over by Strange’s innate talent and agrees to take him on as a pupil; but the pupil quickly matches his master and possibly even surpasses him. What’s more, the handsome and dashing Strange fits the public image of a magician in ways Norrell never could. When Strange and Norrell play a crucial role in England’s victory over the dastardly Napoleon Buonaparte, they cement their role as public heroes.

But just as English magic is at the height of public esteem, the two magicians part ways in a very public quarrel, as Strange grows obsessed with darker, wilder, more unpredictable kinds of magic which Norrell shuns as too dangerous to trifle with. Their rivalry develops into a bitter enmity, and a devil’s bargain that Norrell struck at the beginning of his public career will come back to haunt them both.

I’ve often described Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as Harry Potter if it were written by Jane Austen. Clarke’s writing is lively, droll, and just self-aware enough, with occasional long, discursive footnotes explaining people or events from her alternate history that her characters only allude to. She seamlessly interweaves her characters with real people from history, as Strange and Norrell rub elbows with the great and the good. And she’s equally good both at conjuring up the staid atmosphere of an English comedy of manners, and tearing it away to reveal the eerie, wild world of magic that most people go about their lives completely unaware of.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • arensb

    I’ve often described Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as Harry Potter if it were written by Jane Austen.

    I guess that means I shouldn’t read Jane Austen.

    Clarke’s writing is lively, droll, and just self-aware enough, with
    occasional long, discursive footnotes explaining people or events from
    her alternate history that her characters only allude to.

    I have to disagree with the “lively” part. I made it through five or six hundred pages before I gave up hoping for a major plot point, a likeable character, or some interpersonal conflict that I cared about.
    I didn’t even bother flipping to the end, because there was no “Well, do they save the world?” or “Do they get married?” or anything like that.

    I do admire the insane amount of work she evidently put into fleshing out her world, and the history of magic. One of the things I like about The Lord of the Rings is that the world feels real, and it’s obvious that Tolkien came up with ten times more background material than is in the book. Clarke has obviously done something similar here. I just wish she had a story to tell.

  • Ash Bowie

    Easily one of the most entertaining and well-written books I’ve had the pleasure to read. I’m thrilled to hear they are making a mini series out of it. Ten or more years back and I would cringe at what they would have done to it, but in the age of Game of Thrones I’ve reason to be optimistic they will do it justice.

  • Elizabeth

    I <3 this book. If you can't wait for the miniseries, check out "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" which is a book of short stories set in the same universe by Susanna Clarke. Many of the characters return and the stories are a lot of fun.

    One more quote because Adam took my favorite one at the top of this post.

    “May I ask you something?” Dr Greysteel nodded.”Are you not afraid that it will go out?”

    “What will go out?” asked Dr Greysteel.

    “The candle,” Strange gestured to Dr Greysteel’s forehead. “The candle inside your head.”

  • Bruce Wright

    I read it to the end, and I can confirm for arensb that nothing happens.

    I still think as a novel it informed me greatly about the supernatural realm of fairies. I FEEL as if I understand a great deal more about fairy stories and the magical folklore of England. As such, it provides a great mental playland that is like a less satirical Wonderland.

    But yeah… no plot really, and a story that meanders but goes nowhere.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    I read this book a few years ago, and I love it.

  • swbarnes2

    Err, Jane Austen would know that Strange is no nobleman. He has 2000 a year, presumably from rent-paying tenents, or maybe a lump sum of money that earns interest. Willoughby and Colonel Brandon make 2000 a year. Bingley makes 5000 a year. Henry Crawford makes 4000 a year, stupid Mr. Rushworth makes 12000 a year. Emma and Georgiana have lump sums of 30,000 which will earn them 1500 at 5 % interest, Willoughby marries a woman with a lump sum of 50,000.

    Strange is not a nobleman. He is gentry.