Welcome back to our re-read of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. For the month of February, we’re looking at chapters 9 through 16, and we finally get a glimpse of our second magician, Strange.
Miss Wintertowne, soon-to-be Lady Pole, is almost frighteningly healthy after Mr. Norrell resurrects her and she accepts her new role in society as Sir Pole’s wife with vigor. But there’s a fey influence on her house and the servants are haunted by the sounds of ghostly music, ringing bells, and trees tapping at the windows. Stephen Black, Sir Pole’s butler, finds himself serving a man with thistledown hair in a room he has never seen before and is swept into a ball at the Lost-hope House, a fairy castle, where he finds Lady Pole on the strange gentleman’s arm.
Meanwhile, Mr. Norrell uses his magic to aid the war against Napoleon. He crafts ships from rain to barricade the French ports and allow the English ships to move untroubled. His fame skyrockets, and he is convinced by Mr. Drawlight and Mr. Lascelles to edit a new journal on magic. In the midst of this popularity, he is confronted by the street-magician Vinculus (generally considered a fraud), who delivers a prophecy of kingdoms, thrones, and mysterious doorways that is reminiscent of the Raven King. Mr. Norrell is affronted and upset.
And on the Welsh border, a young boy—Jonathan Strange—grows up with his cruel and neglectful father. We see his father die as a consequence of his own petty vendetta against a stubborn manservant. But Strange himself, a young man now, seems mysteriously and often absent from the house.
These chapters deal with a number of important social issues—all filtered again through a narrator trapped within the society being critiqued and consequently sometimes complicit in the criticized behavior. For one, the marriage of Miss Wintertowne to Sir Pole reveals the inequity of men’s and women’s status within marriage. Lady Pole does not expect her husband to be engaged in their relationship: “Oh! I know that you will be pretty constantly engaged with business affairs. I know I must not expect anything else.” He cannot protest that and we are told that his own dreams of the marriage were, in fact, based partially on his desire to pontificate: “And being a man—and a clever one—and forty-two years old, he naturally had a great deal of information and a great many opinions upon almost every subject you care to mention, which he was eager to communicate to a lovely woman of nineteen—all of which, he thought, she could not fail but to find quite enthralling.” Though Pole is not an unsympathetic character in the novel, this description of his expectations is a not-so-subtle dig at the gender relations of the Regency era, one that anticipates the twenty-first-century term mansplaining. The narrator, omniscient as they are, does not hesitate to reveal these mockable interiorities.
The narrator also turns their critical eye to the treatment of racialized others and people of color within the text, sometimes in more subtle ways. Whereas Mr. Lascelles’ and Mr. Drawlight’s hesitation towards the Scotch (grounded in a very thorny history of intra-island racism) is shortly undercut by the reader’s realization that Jonathan Strange’s own heritage is Scottish, it is the unremarked-upon contrast that must serve as its own commentary. And the novel’s presentation of Perroquet and Stephen Black must be unpacked in the context of a British textual history that exoticizes, when not villainizing, non-white figures.
Perroquet, whose name means parrot, is the servant of a French admiral and is described to be “as dark as a European can be.” Here, already, we have a complicated and troublesome statement about the relationship between nationality and race. But this accords with how thoroughly the omniscient narrator is a part of the world they describe, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes criticizing what they observe. The Admiral is especially proud of the color of his servant’s skin: “Admiral Desmoulins often boasted that he had seen blacks who would appear fair next to Perroquet.” It is clear that Perroquet’s appearance is exoticized; he is treated as a prize and object. It should not be surprising, then, that Sir Pole’s household has a problematic relationship with Stephen Black.
Black’s name draws direct attention to the fact that he is a person of color, a fact of no small importance to the other servants. They are initially “inclined to be indignant” that he is their superior and threaten to be rude if he were ever to give them an order. However, they find themselves incapable of carrying out these threats: “But whatever their intentions, they discovered that when they were actually in Black’s presence they did nothing of the sort. His grave looks, air of authority and reasonable instructions made it very natural to do whatever he told them.” Rather than attributing this authority and reason to Black’s skill and hard work, though, the servants help to circulate (and believe themselves) that he must be a secret African prince. After all, they would never “have submitted to the authority of a black man, had they not instinctively felt that respect and reverence which a commoner feels for a king!” The narrator, of course, presents this as a mockery of the servants’ racism, but the rumor is reminiscent of other British texts that similarly argued for the humanity or status of a black man based on his hidden royalty rather than his innate claim to equality. See, for example, the novel Oroonoko, written by Aphra Behn in 1688. Though the text praises the titular character, an African prince stolen into slavery, it does so due to a belief in the “noble savage,” an intensely disturbing perspective.
And though Pole may not know of the rumor about Black’s heritage, the text pokes holes in his attitudes as well: he is “a politician who was pleased to advertise his liberal principles to the world by entrusting the management of his house and business to a black servant.” Pole values Black as an indicator of his own supposed virtue, and the text questions a liberality that is based primarily on public perception rather than a genuine desire to disrupt systemic inequalities.
How will Strange upset or reinforce this system? If you’re reading along, we’ll be looking at chapters 17 through 24 in March. See you then!