“UnChristian and UnEnglish”: 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 August, we’re looking at chapters 57-64, wherein magic returns to England.

Recap

Stuck within the darkness in Venice, Strange reaches out to his brother-in-law, Henry Woodhope. Woodhope, upset by letters that say Arabella is still alive, goes to Norrell for advice. Norrell uses these letters to discredit his former student.

Meanwhile, Lascelles sends the impoverished Drawlight to Italy to collect information. While there, Drawlight is confronted by Strange and given three messages to deliver. To Childermass, the truth of Arabella and Lady Pole’s captivity (with Lady Pole’s finger). To all the magicians of England, the alliances with tree, stone, sky, and water that Uskglass established are still active. To Norrell, that he is coming back to England.

Flora Graysteel encounters Strange one last time and is given guardianship over a mysterious mirror. Norrell is called to account by Lord Liverpool for magic spontaneously performed by untrained personages all over England, who claim that the stones and sky tell them what to do. Lascelles intercepts Drawlight and kills him, fearing the security of his position with Norrell. Consequently, Lascelles, Norrell, and Childermass retreat to Hurtfew Abbey, Norrell’s country home. There, Childermass and Lascelles quarrel, and Childermass leaves Norrell’s service. Childermass, having recovered Lady Pole’s finger from Lascelles, returns it to her and she finds herself finally and fully back in England.

And Norrell finds himself visited by Strange at last.

Response

These chapters drive home the examination of English nationalism in the text and ask us to question how nationalism gets tied up with other identities—religious, for one.

When Strange needs Drawlight to understand his message about Uskglass’s old alliances with the land, he inundates him with a vision of sorts, one in which “he became England” by embodying the rain, the stones, the waterways of the nation’s landscape. What has been continually repeated throughout the novel becomes explicit and pointed near the end: Strange is trying to resurrect not just any magic, but a particularly English magic.

This nationalism, though, that Strange and other characters exhibit, is inherently flawed. Though scholars debate when British or English nationalism took hold, we can certainly trace its rocky, problematic trajectory to the present day. And Clarke does not flinch away from examining both twenty-first-century and nineteenth-century nationalism simultaneously. Commentary from Stephen Black, for example, on how tired he is of “English arrogance and English malice” should make us pause before celebrating a distinctly English magic. After all, the Graysteels dismiss the Italian language of their hired servants as “dialect words” and Lascelles’s dedication to a toxic masculine idea of honor leads to his own foolhardy attempt to defend “England’s honor” (and his entrapment as the Champion of a fairy castle).

When we find out, then, that John Uskglass himself is regarded as “unChristian” and “unEnglish” by Lascelles, we are faced with a contradiction. Uskglass’s magic both represents England but is also labeled un-English by others who highly value their nationalistic identity. How can we reconcile this? Perhaps by recognizing the link between nationalism and religious identities. Christianity is not English, but certainly English nationalism has incorporated Christianity into itself. And, this portion of the novel reminds us, Christianity has often been wary of folk magics and fairy lore. Uskglass is reputed to have had Lucifer as an ally and we see clergy members suddenly wary of association with Mr. Norrell. This uneasy alliance between England and Fairy is grounded in real conflict of the Middle Ages (see Dr. Richard Firth Green’s research on how ideas of fairy get neutralized by or co-opted into Christian theology). The idea of what England is, then, is constantly shifting. There is no one true England to return to, no matter how much the characters may depend on it.

Uskglass is a walking contradiction, one that threatens our characters’ national allegiances even while they suppose him to be the representation thereof. After all, the fairy roads (the King’s Roads) that appear as magic floods through England are “not like Christian roads” and they “lead everywhere,” part of and yet outside of England. And approaching fairy as a defender of England’s honor does not save you, as Lascelles finds out to his detriment.

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