Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Susana Clarke’s first novel has been attracting a lot of attention. Now, I’m not normally one to take much notice of what other people are taking notice of, but this sounded interesting. I did see some vague comment about it being “Harry Potter for adults”, but that’s both lazy[1] and remarkably inaccurate. Don’t get me wrong – I actually like the Harry Potter books, and I’m looking forward to the next one. But they’re basically traditional school stories with magical trappings. Good fun, but nothing like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

So, what do we have here? For a start it’s a big book – nearly 800 pages[2]. It’s set in an alternative early 19th century, in an England which used to be dominated by magic. Until about 300 years before the action of the novel, Northern England was ruled by the Raven King, a powerful magician brought up by fairies[3]. His work was the foundation of English Magic, but since he disappeared, nobody has performed actual magic – the “magicians” of the time are scholars who read old magical texts and discuss them endlessly.

The story opens in 1806 when the York Society of Magicians encounter Mr Norrell, who claims to be a practical magician. When challenged, he provides a demonstration – the statues of York Cathedral[5] are brought to life. As a result, the York Society is obliged to disband, and its members agree to never study magic again. Norrell want to keep magic (and his extensive library of magical books) to himself.

Having revealed his power, Norrell is persuaded to move to London to aid the government in the war against Napoleon. If I have any quibbles about the book, it’s in the area of overlap between the fictional 19th century and our own. It seems to me that if the country had been dominated by magic for a number of centuries in the past, then little matters like the monarchy might have taken different paths – wars would have had different results, and it’s most unlikely that the same Kings would be ruling, or indeed the same politicians be in power. But that’s a minor point, and it applies to most alternative history stories. After all, if too much is changed, the past becomes unrecognisable…

Norrell continues to work magic for the government and privately, at one point making a dangerous error, which will have consequences that will run through the book. He takes every opportunity to prevent anyone else from gaining magical knowledge – only he can be trusted with such power, it seems. That is until he meets Jonathan Strange, a younger magician, who he immediately takes on as his pupil.

Strange joins the war effort in a more direct way than Norrell, and joins the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula War and later the Battle of Waterloo. It is after the wars that a rift develops between the two magicians…

There’s a lot more to the story, and it’s well worth the time taken to read it[6]. The whole thing is written in what would appear to be an early 19th Century style, including some (presumably) authentic archaic spellings. This is done so well that it doesn’t detract from the book’s readability[7], but adds a great deal of atmosphere.

Lots of characters, lots of locations, lots of fun.

[1] It’s the same phenomenon as new bands being called the “new whatever”….
[2] And it has lots of footnotes[4] in smaller print, which add a lot to the length
[3] Forget any notions of little people with fluttery wings. These are the altogether larger and darker kinds of fairy
[4] Another reason for me to appreciate it – the footnotes are mostly asides, historical notes and references to books. They add a great deal to the overall feel of the book.
[5] One of the numerous footnotes mentions that this church has been known variously as a Minster and a Cathedral over the years
[6] I did mention that it’s rather long, didn’t I?
[7] Sometimes, similar attempts at authenticity fall very flat

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