“I have changed England”: Reading Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Welcome back to our re-read of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. For the month of September, we reach the end of the novel (chs. 65-69) and say farewell to the magicians Strange and Norrell—but eagerly look forward to the release of Clarke’s second novel, Piranesi.

Recap

 The gentleman with the thistledown hair is panicked by the return of Strange to England and, accompanied by Black, demands to be magically escorted to the man who poses him the greatest danger. He is faced with Vinculus, whom he finds an unlikely foe and promptly hangs by means of magic.

Strange reveals to Norrell that he seeks his old teacher’s aid, not vengeance. Together, they determine how to call John Uskglass back to England, so that they might use his magic to free Arabella and Lady Pole. Uskglass does return, but in an unexpected manner—and not to them. Childermass, who has just discovered Vinculus’s body—and the strange writing that covers him (comprising the book of John Uskglass)—unknowingly encounters the Raven King. Uskglass brings Vinculus back to life.

Strange and Norrell unwittingly grant the powers of England—stone, sky, tree, and water—to Black. As the gentleman in the thistledown hair attempts to kill Lady Pole (now freed from her enchantment), Black wreaks vengeance upon him, washing him away in a stream and burying him under stone and rock. Shortly thereafter, Black finds himself in a reinvented Lost-hope, where he becomes a new and better king.

Arabella finds herself freed of Lost-hope upon the gentleman’s death and emerges from the mirror in Flora Graysteel’s care.

And Strange and Norrell realize—however fleetingly—how insignificant they are in the scope of John Uskglass’s concerns and turn with renewed energy to their study of magic, entrapped still in the darkness. Stealing themselves away from the mortal world and its concerns, the magicians leave England unencumbered and Childermass conveys to the magicians of the York society, and anyone else who desires to practice magic, that they may do so once again. Magic has truly returned to England.

Response

The carnival, Mikhail Bakhtin writes, is “the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It [is] hostile to all that [is] immortalized and completed.”

As a grad student in medieval studies, I was required to know something of Bakhtin and his theory of the carnivalesque which, in simple terms, theorizes that the non-dominant classes and members of society are given limited and controlled times in which to upturn the status quo (thus, carnivals which often included the lampooning of religious and secular officials) so that they do not upturn it in a more enduring fashion.

As I complete my read-through of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I find that I still love it. But it also puts me in a reflective mood (not just because the last page is the best sort of melancholy). With the completion of this series, I am putting my column on hiatus so I can finish up some other pressing writing and job obligations. And I find that I want to end my treatment of the novel with something that probably departs from any authorial intent on Clarke’s part. This is truly a response, rather than an analysis.

In these last chapters, Strange declares that “I have changed England to save my wife.” After all of the professional squabbles and clash of egos, it is love and family and humanity that drive Strange and Norrell to do something truly great. However, it is not ultimately they who save Arabella. It is Stephen Black who, mistaken for John Uskglass and temporarily granted all the magical powers of England, kills the gentleman with the thistledown hair. A gentleman who he has watched commit horrible atrocities. Who has dulled Black’s very existence. Who has justified his manipulation of Black by promises of future glory.

Who has, however, also paid attention to Black in a way that no one else in the novel has, despite his constant forced and unforced self-sacrifice on their behalf.

When invested with England’s essence, Black realizes that he finally has power: “Now all of England lay cupped in his black palm. All Englishmen were at his mercy.” The structures of power have been turned topsy-turvy, and his thoughts of vengeance are justified. Instead, Black saves Lady Pole. And England realizes that Black is not Uskglass and its magic leaves him.

And this is where the carnivalesque fails us. Temporary inversions do not make permanent change. Though Black finds another place to rule, in fairy, it is not England: “Stephen had done with England and England had done with him.”

Clarke’s depiction of Stephen Black is not perfect. But the end of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell reminded me that I, with whatever privilege I have, need to work to disrupt the status quo—constantly and continually. Not temporarily, not for a couple of months. Even if there is no magic to make it easier.

And this is the work of literature, to make us more empathetic. To make us pause. To make us the examine the structures in which we live.

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Since this will be my last piece for a while, I just want to say thank you to the whole blog crew at Luna Station Quarterly. This blog produces a lot of content and they deserve recognition for all of their hard work!

 

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