Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the first novel by British writer Susanna Clarke. Set against an alternate history of 19th-century England around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, it tells the tale of English magic, and English magicians.
Fantasy stories, especially ones about magic and magicians are sadly rarely great works of literature. When speaking of magic and Fairy’s we are all quite accustomed to donning our relaxed scepticism. Yet when we are presented with such eloquence, richness and alarming confidence in writing, as found in Clarke’s novel, you begin to wonder if this is not in-fact a true history.
Real world events are told interwoven with a whole new history of magic, and each is told so well that both are entertaining, and neither seem out of place. Its almost impossible to remember what is real and what is fiction.
English Magic has all but left England. Those English gentlemen who now study magic, merely study its history and the interpretations of its history. They call themselves ‘Theoretical Magicians’, and none of them has ever so much a seen a spell cast. This is set to change however, with the discovery of Mr. Norrell.
Mr. Norrell is as exceptionally learned as he is shy and fussy. “He is,” a character remarks, “at one and the same time, the most remarkable man of the age and the most tedious.” through years of careful an meticulous study within his great library, Mr. Norrell has become that which England had thought lost for ever. Mr. Norrell has become a Practical Magician. He sets out to bring English magic back to England but with all the flamboyance of an accountant setting out to address the company accounts.
What follows is a remarkable tale of England and of magic, a tale of Love, ambition, war and of two English magicians, as opposite as they could be. a tale of dark spells and lost secrets.., and of course of the mysterious ‘gentleman with thistle-down hair’.
There is a beautifully dry humour throughout the book. At one point the the narrator notes:
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 ever 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.
The book is packed with footnotes describing in great detail any part of the alternate history that was mentioned in the main story. Some of these footnotes almost become short stories in there own right, and are no less imaginative, or well told. The descriptions of character, of magic and of the magical lands of Faerie are completely enchanting. Its as if all fairy tales were history books for children, and this is a grown up account.
Neil Gaiman has promoted Clarke’s work since the beginning of her career. After reading her first short story he was quoted as saying
Neil Gaiman It was terrifying from my point of view to read this first short story that had so much assurance … It was like watching someone sit down to play the piano for the first time and she plays a sonata.
And on the subject of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell:
Neil Gaiman Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years.