The Magic of England
Susanna Clarke's novel of the fairy isle.
Oct 18, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 06 • By GREGORY FEELEY
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
THE CANONICAL LEGEND of Great Britain has long been that of King Arthur and the Round Table--the national epic or "the Matter of Britain," as it has been called since the twelfth century. Popular with poets, the Arthur cycle is firmly ensconced in England's literary culture, the story that explains the nation's origin and nature to itself.
But a second tale, less structured and obdurately common, runs through British culture, often flourishing in what were considered subliterary venues such as children's rhymes yet proving, at least since Tennyson's day, more popular than the Knights of the Round Table. Stories of English life touched by the world of fairies--capricious, inconsistent in their attitude toward humankind, finally unknowable--have held audiences at least since the late Medieval era, when the word "fairy" (from the French faerie, "enchantment," and evidently introduced after the Norman Conquest), with its suggestions of refinement, displaced the stolid Anglo-Saxon word "elf." The idea of fairies forming a hidden supernatural aristocracy certainly predates Spenser and Shakespeare, and seems to distinguish the English tales of wee folk from those of Scotland and Ireland. Perennially popular while tales of King Arthur often falter (another big-budget film failed this summer), they might be called the Matter of England.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke's very long first novel, has been described by its publishers as "Harry Potter for grownups." However seriously Bloomsbury Press may take this ambition (and they have been prudent enough not to mention it in their dustjacket copy), the comparison is misleading. The appeal of J.K. Rowling's novels involves (among other things) the pleasures of school adventures, the ironic juxtaposition of a magical world with the mundane contemporary one, and the pathos of the young orphan, none of which Clarke's book shares.
Clarke's England of 1806 is the one we know, war-weary and unmagical, but this England has a slightly different provenance, for magic is understood to have once existed, a major force in British history that disappeared centuries earlier. A society of "theoretical magicians" (meaning historians of magic) in York learns of a reclusive gentleman who claims actually to practice magic. When they express to him their doubts, he maneuvers them into agreeing to forgo all claims of being magicians if he successfully demonstrates his powers, which he then does spectacularly. He is Mr. Norrell, retiring and fretful, but so intent upon remaining England's sole magician.
CLARKE'S TALE of Mr. Norrell's rise to eminence, his eventual confrontation by Jonathan Strange--young, self-educated (Norrell has spent decades buying up all surviving old books of magic), bold where Norrell is tremulous--and their eventual uneasy rapprochement is recounted over nearly eight-hundred pages, in a narrative voice that is stately, assured, and pleasantly matter-of-fact. "Be that as it may," she writes, "Mr. Norell (a less fanciful person than I) was satisfied with his new house, or at least as satisfied as any gentleman could be who for more than thirty years has lived in a large country-house surrounded by a park of mature timber, which is in its turn surrounded by a good estate of farms and woods--a gentleman, in other words, whose eye has never been offended by the sight of any other man's property whenever he looked out of the window."
Reviewers have blithely likened Clarke's style to that of Jane Austen, but the points of resemblance are mostly superficial. Austen gets down to business briskly, while Clarke engages in a curious narrative strategy of continual deferral and delay. The first chapter commences with a discussion of the magicians of York, then focuses on two of them, Jonathan Segundus and Mr. Honeyfoot. They are described, their budding friendship dramatized, and the reader would (save for its title) swear to being in the presence of the novel's protagonists. Mr. Norrell is first mentioned merely as "another magician" in Yorkshire, and he is discussed, written to, and his reply received (and quoted at length) before we are finally told, in a parenthesis, his name.
And while Jonathan Strange is mentioned on the very first page, it is in a footnote, as the author of a book published years later. He eventually makes a number of such out-of-text appearances--cited as the author of one book, the subject of another, and occasionally noted for his various acute observations--but it is nearly two-hundred pages before he actually shows up. (Even then, another Strange is first proffered, just as another Jonathan had been: We are given a chapter-long account, both droll and faintly grotesque, of the life and death of his father.)