Like a Person Sleepwalking: 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 March, we’re looking at chapters 17–24 wherein the fey world impinges ever more on our own!

Recap

Mysterious happenings are afoot in the house of Sir Walter Pole and wherever Lady Pole and Stephen Black venture. Mrs. Brandy, a widowed grocer infatuated with Mr. Black, finds twenty-five glowing guineas in her shop. The streets of London lead to fairyland when Black ventures out at night. And Lady Pole has grown cold and still and quiet. When Mr. Norrell confronts the man with the thistledown hair about her condition, he is scared off by the fairy’s anger. But the man with the thistledown hair thinks very highly of Black and plans to make him a noble of fairyland, despite all of Black’s protestations to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Mr. Norrell is intent on ridding London (and all of England) of anyone who assumes the title of magician. To this end, he sends Childermass to run Vinculus out of town, but Childermass finds that Vinculus has some tricks up his sleeve, and the prophecy of the Raven King feels ever more real.

Jonathan Strange, intent on finding a profession so as to please his fiancée (and later wife), Arabella Woodhope, finally settles on magic as one to his liking. He has a natural knack for it. The last remnants of the Learned Society of York Magicians stumble upon Mr. Strange in the ruins of Shadow House, a gloomy abode once owned by the Tudor magician, Gregory Absalom. At their suggestion, Strange introduces himself to Mr. Norrell. Initially, the two disagree over the nature of English magic and the respect to be accorded the Raven King, but their shared passion for magic overcomes initial dislike. Mr. Norrell takes Strange on as an apprentice.

Response

The living dream in which Mr. Black finds himself disassociates him from the real world: he “felt like a person sleepwalking.” And yet chapters 17 and 19 remind us that Black’s real world has nightmarish qualities as well.

Upon returning from Mrs. Brandy’s shop, Black accidentally bumps into another gentleman. Despite the innocence of the encounter, the gentleman is immediately suspicious: “Instantly he was all alarm; he saw a black face close to his own face and black hands near his pockets and valuables . . . immediately concluding that he was about to be robbed or knocked down, he raised his umbrella to strike a blow in his own defence.” The moment is horrifying, yet it is not one that surprises Black. In fact, it “was the moment that Stephen had dreaded all his life.” He has very real concerns about the likelihood of an English jury acquitting him if he were to be arrested. It is only the transformation of Piccadilly into fairy that saves Black from discovering whether his fears are founded. The narrative, though brief, is incredibly poignant in light of ongoing conversations regarding racial prejudice and law enforcement.

But it is not only strangers who are implicated in nineteenth-century racism. Chapter 19 reminds us that slavery is still alive and well—and that ultimately Walter Pole, no matter how beneficent to Black, is complicit in the institution. When discussing his position with the man with the thistledown hair, Black lists for himself the many ways in which Pole has helped him, but cannot help but be struck by the fey gentleman’s description of the lord: “Because in the fulsomeness of his wickedness he has captured you and girded you with chains and now he triumphs over you, dancing about and howling with wicked laughter to see you in such straits.” Black cannot accept this entire description and is still set against the plan of the man with the thistledown hair to elevate him, but he is forced to take stock:  “the word ‘chains’ seemed to send a sort of silent thunderbolt through him.” Black has a sudden vision of the hold of a slave ship: “a hot, rank, closed-in place.” Black does not recognize the image for what it is but is nonetheless horrified. The man with the thistledown hair and the accompanying conflation of the worlds of fairy and human have revealed the nightmares that already exist in Black’s world, ones that Pole is safe from and one that he implicitly (if not explicitly) endorses. Britain did not abolish slavery until 1834.

Despite the natural aversion its characters hold to the encroachment of fairyland, the novel seems to ask us to consider which world is really worse: nineteenth-century Britain or the eternal realm of fairy.

For a larger discussion of marginalized identities in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I recommend you check out Elizabeth Hoiem’s 2008 essay in Strange Horizons.

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