“One Need Not So Much As Look Upon Another of One’s Fellow Creatures”: 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 April, we’re looking at chapters 25-32, wherein the magicians go to battle!

Recap

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell settle into their roles as student and teacher. Together, they are able to renew efforts to use magic to aid the English in the war with Napoleon. Arabella Strange is introduced to Lady Pole, who seems curiously unable to say what she wants about her mysterious illness. Instead, she tells long winding stories about magical folks and events unrelated to her own present circumstances. Stephen Black is afflicted with a similar problem, though the gentleman with the thistledown hair has promised him an earthly kingdom.

Strange is recruited to go to Portugal himself and help with the war firsthand. Norrell is convinced to let him go out of his own desire to possess the library of the Duke of Roxburghe (which he fears Strange will also want). While in Portugal, Strange works hard to gain the respect of Lord Wellington, marching and eating alongside the English soldiers. He becomes indispensable to the war efforts, though is forced to engage in questionable necromantic magic. When Strange finally returns to England, he is a hero, called upon to attend the “mad” king, where he finds magic afoot cast neither by himself nor Norrell.

Response

There are moments to analyze in these chapters that build on the themes and concerns we’ve already identified in our read-through.

Stephen Black is literally and magically silenced (as is Lady Pole) in his attempt to express his suffering under the attentions of the gentleman with the thistledown hair. We also hear more about his origins—“My mother was a slave on an estate in Jamaica that Sir Walter’s grandfather owned”—and are reminded that the English, though they may not allow slaves on the British isle, “own slaves in other countries.” This hypocrisy is highlighted again and again in the text.

These chapters also remind us, right and left, of Europe’s medieval, Gothic, and Romantic literary heritage, as it namedrops Chrétien de Troyes, Ann Radcliffe, and Walter Scott, each an author influential in their time for determining taste and style. These are appropriate references for a novel so steeped in its literary influences that it not only evokes the history and culture of Regency-era England, but imitates its writing. We are reminded strongly of this when the text censors Strange’s cursing: “D—!” The strikethrough is familiar to any reader of Austen or her contemporaries who used the dash to mark out place names (for the sake of generalizing the text) or swear words (for common decency!).

But what I would like to focus on, for a moment, is how the text dwells on Mr. Norrell’s introversion and desire for solitude. Studies have been done on how the act of reading can stimulate empathy. But it must also be acknowledged that we approach reading egocentrically sometimes. And as I started these chapters, I was immediately struck by Mr. Norrell’s description of a career in magic: “best of all, one need not so much as look upon another of one’s fellow creatures from one month’s end to the next if one does not wish it!” The line struck an odd chord, contextualized as it was by reading it during the 2020 pandemic. As an introverted extrovert myself (or an extroverted introvert?), the concept of social isolation is daunting.

Because even Norrell needs a friend. And though Strange finds Norrell annoying, Norrell himself becomes very attached to his pupil over these chapters: “His feelings of attachment seemed all the stronger for being entirely new; he had never felt truly comfortable in any one’s society before.” It is only Norrell’s obsession with books that ultimately reconciles him to Strange’s departure for the war. And I find myself more sympathetic with Norrell on this re-reading of the text. He is selfish, yes, but he is also discovering friendship for the first time. And one might imagine what the loss of that would lead someone to do. I am wondering myself how I will change over the next weeks or months.

Sir Walter’s reprimand of Norrell’s reluctance to part with Strange—“But every man must be prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of his country during a war”—might be a rallying cry for us all right now. Obviously, we should decry the nationalistic and jingoistic tendencies of Sir Walter Pole and the English. We should not fall prey to racism and xenophobia.

But we can turn to magic for comfort and embrace solitude by reading books and watching movies and chatting online with friends And, from a distance, help those in need.

 

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