The Madhouse Keeper: 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 June, we’re looking at chapters 41-48, wherein more than one wife is separated from her husband.

Recap

With the patronage of the wealthy Mrs. Lennox, Segundus tries to start a school of magic and is consequently harassed and shut down by Norrell. Meanwhile Strange begins his oft-footnoted book, The History and Practice of English Magic—which is excerpted for us in chapter 45. This book forces its readers to acknowledge the fay influence of the Raven King on English magic.

The gentleman with the thistledown hair makes all too clear his impact on the English world. Arabella Strange starts wandering the moors and dies suddenly, i.e. is stolen away to the realm of fairy. And Lady Pole, stricken with grief at the fate of her friend, attempts to kill Norrell. As a consequence, she is sent away to Segundus’s school, now changed through Norrell’s harassment into a genteel madhouse. After escorting her there, Black encounters the street-magician Vinculus, whose entire skin is covered in tattoos.

Response

It is almost passé now to reference Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in a feminist argument about the control and repression of women, but allow me to mention it once more. The story was published in 1892 and in America, some 76 years after the events in Clarke’s English novel. But it narrates the gradual insanity of a woman trapped for “her own good,” for a rest cure after giving birth. Gilman based this on her own exposure to such a cure.

The woman in the story becomes obsessed with the pattern of the wallpaper in the room she is constrained to, convinced that there is a woman trapped in it, “trying to climb through” and escape. Eventually, she identifies as the woman in the wallpaper, who frees herself in an attempt to control her own fate. The story is meant to exemplify the mistreatment of women’s physical and mental health.

The history of women and asylums is very similar in Britain to that in America. In the 1800s, women “were deemed likely to fall prey to disorders of the mind related to their biological vulnerability and the female life cycle” and consequently committed. Women were considered frail by reason of their very identity and often asylums were used merely to control or discipline women who defied typical gender roles.

Though, in JSMN, Lady Pole does indeed commit a terrible crime, attempting to murder Norrell, her sequestering at Segundus’s facility raises some important questions about how women are possessed, controlled, and manipulated by the men in these chapters and the book more broadly. Even Lady Pole, it must be remembered, suffers daily the tortures of living half in fairy and half in England due to Norrell’s ill-thought-out cure. She attempts to kill Norrell because she realizes her friend Arabella has been condemned to a similar fate, stolen away by the gentleman with the thistledown hair.

Lady Pole’s agony comes down to Norrell who, out of fear of revealing his own missteps, refuses to acknowledge or revisit her condition. We are reminded of how much he ultimately controls her fate when Black urges Segundus to hide his own profession from Lady Pole: “There is nothing in this world—in this world or any other—that would give her ladyship greater pain than to find herself in thrall to another magician.”

Ultimately, even more so than Norrell, the gentleman with the thistledown hair blithely manipulates and controls whoever he hopes to possess. This includes, of course, Black himself who is forced to help the gentleman procure the very moss-oak that will “obtain” Arabella. Though, the gentlemen still praises Lady Pole as an “addition” to his collection, he expresses that he likes Arabella more, but views himself in a constant struggle with Strange for her attention. This, in and of itself, points out the ownership model underlying much of the problematic marriage politics of the era.

And in Arabella’s abduction/death, we see an additional criticism of Strange. When Arabella finally returns to her home, wet and cold, after a mysterious disappearance, the neighbors are disturbed by the harsh tone of Strange’s questions: “the ladies began to think that it was her husband’s harshness that made her so quiet.” Though we know, as readers, that Strange is not typically harsh to Arabella (if anything, he is neglectful), the neighbors’ perceptions cue us into the position of power that Strange holds in his own marriage. Though his tone ultimately stems from fear, Strange’s authoritative questions, without accompanying care for Arabella’s distress, reveal his assumed dominance.

These chapters of the novel highlight the marginalized members of society that are ultimately hurt and controlled by white men in positions of power, whether due to obliviousness, maliciousness, or pettiness. It reminds us that magic, just like education or healthcare, can be used to reinforce damaging social hierarchies.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.