Gentleman-Magicians: Reading Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

I love Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is one of my favorite books of all time. So imagine my joy when I saw that Susanna Clarke was releasing a novel in 2020—and another one after that! Piranesi is certainly on my must-preorder list.

But Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is also a divisive book. I have friends who similarly loved it and ones who just couldn’t get through it. Perhaps I was drawn to it because I grew up on a steady diet of Austen and Dickens—and Clarke’s work was such a perfect 21st century version of 19th century prose with a complex magical lore that drew from the medieval (I was soon to be a medievalist myself). For whatever reason, the book was a satisfying read. And I want to celebrate Clarke’s work and her impact on me in my column A Woman Was Here for the bulk of 2020.

From January through September, when Piranesi will be released, I will be doing a read-through of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, one that provides a loose summary, dwells on some of the historical and cultural details, and analyzes the literary devices. I will be covering approximately eight chapters a month (about 100 pages), so I welcome you to follow along. Maybe you’ll discover a new favorite or rediscover an old friend!

In January, I’m looking at chapters 1-8, pp. 3-98.

In these chapters, we are informed that, in 1806, the magicians of England are theoretical, rather than practical. They are, in essence, scholars—they study what magic was and how it was used, rather than practicing it themselves. This is in contrast to the Golden Age of magic during the Middle Ages (the age in which the Raven King lived). However, due to the efforts of one John Segundus, the only known practical magician is brought out of his solitude. Mr. Norrell, a dry little man, performs a wondrous feat, bringing the statues and stonework of York Cathedral to life. After this affair is publicized, Mr. Norrell’s aide or waiting-man, Mr. Childermass, encourages Mr. Norrell to go to London. There, he is swept into a life of party and petty fame by the hangers-on Mr. Drawlight and Mr. Lascelles. However, Mr. Norrell has grander ambitions. He wants to help England in the Napoleonic Wars. In order to do so, he approaches Sir Walter Pole, a member of Parliament. Sir Walter thinks magic is cheap trickery until Mr. Norrell brings his fiancée, Miss Wintertowne, back to life. This last event concludes our reading for the month and introduces us to the man with the thistledown hair, the fairy who makes a deal with Norrell in exchange for Miss Wintertowne’s resuscitation: half of her newfound life.

Of course, footnotes throughout the text deepen the alternate history of Jonathan Strange, many of the tidbits drawn from a fictional library of books, some written by characters we meet. This focus on scholarship and textual history is part of what makes Clarke’s novel so fascinating. It is a book built on books, those mentioned within its pages, and those it imitates. The novel replicates the mocked gentlemen’s society of Dicken’s Pickwick Papers (see the York society of magicians) and the social maneuverings of Austen (see the mentions of Brighton and watering places).

But the novel is also one that questions whether books can provide the full picture. Mr. Norrell, for example, dismisses many of the very books he studies, and male characters frequently deride the reading of novels as feminine or frivolous—an opinion charmingly undermined by its inclusion in a novel. In this respect, Clarke is poking fun at nineteenth-century sexist mores. More importantly, however, it is made clear that many of the greatest magicians did not or could not write in Latin or otherwise to record their lives and practices. A footnote informs us that “[t]he great masters of magic, those we term the Golden Age or Aureate magicians…wrote little, or little has survived. It is probable that Thomas Godbless could not write.” Literacy does not necessarily equate to intelligence or skill. (And lack of textual evidence can be a very real problem for scholars who want to accurately represent all experiences—not just literate ones—of the past.) This is a subtle point that highlights the extreme classism of England’s elite. The characters’ responses (sometimes conflated with or echoed by the narrator’s descriptions) to figures like Childermass (“one of that uncomfortable class of men whose birth is lowly…”) exist to be questioned and undermined in much the same way as does their casual anti-semitism and sexism.

Though these characters’ views serve as our perspective, we are not meant to embrace them. In fact, the novel awaits the disruption of the preening London society by older magic and fairy influence. This, in and of itself, is not an unproblematic view of the Middle Ages, but one very much similar to the actual attempts of eighteenth and nineteenth century readers and writers to rediscover what they perceived to be a purer (alarm bells!) Britain. See, for example, the consternation and fascination with the con-games of poets Macpherson or Chatterton, who passed off their own work as that of rediscovered medieval poets.

In essence, in imitating so closely the prose and ideology of nineteenth-century England, Clarke turns the culture back on itself in a scathing and entertaining criticism of values that still underlie much of western society.