Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Magic and Napoleon

Themes Explored: magic, Englishness, friendship, reason and madness, historical otherness, ritual magic, narcissism, social awkwardness, romance, good versus evil, apprentice and master, new versus old, ritualistic versus natural, Napoleonic wars, academia, theory versus practice

Synopsis: At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806 most people believe magic to be long dead in England. Until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.

Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the Napoleonic wars. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear. (Adapted from Goodreads)

Review: I was introduced to this book by a friend and I am glad she recommended it to me. The books answers the question: what if magic existed in England during the Regency period? At over 800 pages, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell requires some will power to finish as several portions are not well paced. Clarke certainly excels at crafting a narrative full of lavish descriptions and rich character descriptions. Her imagination seeps through every page. Unlike other fiction books, this one contains numerous footnotes, which help flesh out some subplots in an unobtrusive manner. They are integral to understanding Clarke’s take on the world of the Faerie, the heart of all English Magic. Clarke has a promising career as a fantasy author should she choose to pursue the profession. This is a good blend of a classic literary writing style and low fantasy.

In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Clarke imagines a parallel history of Britain in which magicians were active and prominent in society.  The story begins in 1806. The Napoleonic Wars are in full swing and magic is strictly an academic subject. A street peddler predicts the return of practical magic, but no one believes him. Magic left England over three hundred years ago when the Raven King disappeared.  Then Mr Norrell appears, a man who claims to practice magic. He seemingly raises damsels from the dead and sends ghost ships to fight Napoleon. However, he is exceedingly jealous and wishes to remain England’s Greatest/Only Magician. In order to achieve this goal, he and his manservant, Childermass, painstakingly seek out every book on practical magic to add to his private library. Norrell also discourages every theoretical magician from pursuing practical magic. Then Jonathan Strange arrives. While only a magic novice, his possesses a natural aptitude for magic and his talents far outshine Norrell. A battle of wills between the two threatens to overshadow everything, including the war. Soon their dark practices cause them more harm than either of them ever imagined.  

The novel is divided into three parts. It begins with Norrell, which is slightly unfortunate as he is not the most engaging of protagonists. He is stodgy, nervous, narcissistic, and paranoid about the motives of everyone around him. Norrell emerges from the shadows of his vast library in order to prove that English Magic is not dead. After establishing his existence, he sets out to make himself useful to the government. Yet he also does magic in order to bask in the spotlight of public attention. The only thing more appealing than magic to Norrell is public adoration. He is a rather two dimensional character in that he does not seem to experience human emotion. He is clinical, rational, cold, and rather bloodless. His character mirrors the state of magic in England: an unapproachable and dry academic pursuit. Overall, he is despicable and hard to like. Yet he is important in that he is a foil to Strange and shows the dangers of obsession.  

Jonathan Strange is a naturally talented magician with little book knowledge. Norrell takes him on as a pupil, but refuses to teach him much out of paranoia. Once Norrell realizes the depths of Strange’s natural talent, the inevitable fallout occurs. Strange is the exact opposite of Norrell. He is charming, daring, passionate, young, and quite handsome. However, he is obsessed with the darker side of magic, which makes him a danger to himself and those around him. As he pursues it farther, he jeopardizes everything in his life. The philosophical clashes between Strange and Norrell are the most interesting parts of the narrative. Where Norrell plays it stay, Strange bounds ahead with little regard to consequences or repercussions. Strange represents the rashness of youth and Norrell epitomizes the staidness of middle age.

One of the main weaknesses of the novel is the distinct lack of emotion. Norrell’s paranoia over being upstaged by Strange is the most intense feeling portrayed in the narrative. Otherwise, this strange new world is rather bloodless. Basic human emotions such as love, hate, yearning, hope, and suffered seem oddly unattainable. Part of the reason the main characters feel underdeveloped is that they do not experience a range of human emotion.  As for sexual attraction, the protagonists are the chastest men in Britain. While Strange has a romantic interest, he never convincingly express his affections.  There are several other annoying flaws, though they do not detract from the story in any way. Just occasionally Clarke overdoses on the 19th century style prose. She sometimes lapses into overly fantastical descriptions that read more like a romantic greeting card than narration.

Clarke’s narrative is clearly influenced by classic literary authors. Parallels can be made to writings by Ursula le Guin, Charles Dickens, Mervyn Peake, GK Chesterton, and Jane Austen. She includes several nods to her literary idols throughout the novel. Though some of her illusions are little heavy handed, such as including Lord Byron in the narrative. Byron really adds nothing to the plot and only bloats the main narrative arc. However, Byron and Lord Wellington do help a feeling of authenticity to the time frame. While they are rather unnecessary as actual characters, they do set the tone of the time period. Overall, Clarke does a fantastic job creating the right kind of atmosphere. Everything from describing the pomposity of the British aristocracy to the word choices makes 19th century Europe seem real. While several parts of the narrative requires some will power to get through, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the better literary fantasy novels published in recent years.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Tor Books, 2006, 9780765356154