Welcome back to our re-read of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. For the month of July, we’re looking at chapters 49-56, wherein Strange finally meets the gentleman with the thistledown hair.
Strange’s book, The History and Practice of English Magic, is released to the reading public, and Mr. Norrell promptly employs magic to steal copies of it from the hands of readers and the shelves of booksellers alike. In consequence, public opinion turns against Norrell.
Meanwhile, Strange is eager to meet with a fairy because he is convinced that doing so is the only true way to progress in English magic—yet he has promised Arabella, his late wife, that he would not walk on the King’s Roads again. His new method, which he cultivates while abroad in Europe, is to engender madness in himself, since fairies are said to be attracted to those so afflicted. In dabbling with such magic, though, Strange unwittingly puts his new friends, the Greysteels, in danger and realizes—perhaps too late—the real fate of his wife, stolen away to dance eternally in the court of the gentleman with the thistledown hair. By visiting the court of the gentleman, who is already surprised at Strange’s power, Strange incurs his wrath and finds himself wrapped in eternal night.
When Strange visits the court of the gentleman with the thistledown hair, he engages in an unsettling conversation with a fairy lady there. She implies that Strange is out of his depth and unaware of the full ramifications of the prophecy about him—as “one of the two magicians who is destined to return magic to England.” These two magicians she labels Fearfulness and Arrogance and quickly determines that Strange is Arrogance. The label made me pause.
These chapters, in general, focus on the arrogance of men swanning about Europe and squabbling over books. Strange, for example, meets Byron in the course of his travels and they take “an immediate dislike to each other.” One cannot help but realize this is the result of two self-important men wrestling for dominance. More dangerously, perhaps, Strange becomes so obsessed with his magic and skill that he does not stop and consider the ramifications of the Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque tincture he makes to bring on madness (and thus access to fairy). In the course of this magic, he turns an old lady into a cat (something he assumes she wants), hurts the woman he is courting, and ends up cursing the part of the city where he lives to darkness. Thus it is no wonder that when he finally arrives at the fairy court, Lady Pole is dismissive of his ability or desire to help either herself or Arabella. When Strange insists that he wants to talk to his wife, she confronts him with a question: “Did you come here to help us?” And he is forced to say no. Lady Pole thus writes off all men: “I put no faith in them at all.”
In sum, these chapters deal with the privilege and obliviousness of white men. If nothing else tunes us into this, Strange’s echoing of Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice—one of her greatest buffoons—should do so. Strange assumes the fairy lady who insults him is like women in Europe who “pretended to scold the men they meant to attract.” An earlier reference to Emma, another of Austen’s works, prepares us for this allusion.
However, I became particularly aware of the voice of yet another in this chapter, one that underlines and supports the actors and reminds our readers of how deeply ingrained patriarchy and racism are in the society under investigation. This voice is that of the narrator, clearly a character unto himself. Clarke uses the narrator to show how ubiquitous are the problematic views of her characters, particularly of her men.
For example, we meet Strange’s pupils in these chapters, three young men, two of which are “well-born English gentlemen” and the other a Jewish “ex-dancing-master”: William Hadley-Bright, Henry Purfois, and Tom Levy. We learn that the two gentlemen are prejudiced against the dancing master. The narrator describes this in his usual sardonic manner: “Knowing Tom to be the most talented amongst them, they generally deferred to him in all matters of magical scholarship, and, apart from calling him by his given name…and expecting him to pick up books they left behind them, they were very much inclined to treat him as an equal.” England, much like most of Europe, has a particularly terrifying past with antisemitism, something we see echoes of in later chapters where the Greysteels visits an old Jewish friend of the family. So it is disturbing, then, when we see the narrator follow the model of his characters. Whereas the narrator references the gentlemen by their full or last names throughout this paragraph, he references Tom by first name. You see this even in the quote above.
The narrator thus becomes a character, one that often adopts the self-obsessed and problematic perspective of the white men in the narrative. This perspective is hammered home by Byron’s narcissistic response to Strange’s predicament; he uses it as inspiration for his poem “Manfred.”
Meanwhile, it is Stephen Black who finds himself perpetually forced into the role of helping those around him, and Strange cannot even remember his name when they meet at the fairy ball, “though he had heard Sir Walter speak it a hundred times.” We can only hope that the curse laid on Strange helps him wake up to his responsibilities and the harm he has done.