Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell revisited

Strange 1I haven’t seen the TV series yet (I’ve been away from home; the recordings are waiting), but precisely because I’ve been away from home, I’ve had time to reread the 800pp door-stop boot-thumper novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004) that made Neil Gaiman mutter about Susanna Clarke taking to writing like a novice musician sitting down to produce a perfect symphony. Or something like that. He wasn’t grumpy; he loves her writing. So much so that I notice on the reissue of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell that Gaiman’s strong praise is the featured blurby bit, replacing a bland piece of non-specific hyperbole from an anonymous Sunday Times reviewer that was almost all the casual bookshelf browser had to go by when the first paperback edition first came out, back in 2005.

Susanna Clarke’s short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu (2006) is, in a way, a better way to enter her world of Regency English magic, since you can finish a story a night, be chilled to your marrow, but also learn (very quickly) to be pleased with Clarke’s delicate hommage to the style of Jane Austen and Mrs Inchbald. To begin Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell without knowing and liking what you’re getting yourself into is an investment of more time, and potential straining of the book-holding muscles in your hands, than one might have expected. When I read Jonathan Strange the first time, I thought then and still think now that it is too long. The sections with Wellington in the Peninsular Wars, and quite a lot of the Venetian adventures into madness and faery worlds, could be lost without any difference made to the plot. They enhance our understanding of how Jonathan Strange got better at doing magic without Mr Norrell continually fussing about behind him, and how he learned certain spells that he will use later in his struggles against the gentleman with the thistledown hair. But they mainly draw curling decorative loops around the plot without encouraging it any further forward. The weight of the book is a serious argument in favour of e-readers, and a strong discouragement against putting it in your bag to read on the train after a morning’s shopping.

Strange 3But that is the only criticism I have of this novel. It is deeply rewarding, in an elusive, slanted way that shows how completely in control Clarke is as a storyteller. I want to know a great deal more about Mr Segundus the patient and deserving magician who is so clearly the nicest person in the novel, and about Miss Redruth who appears at the very end, a very angry Strangeite young lady. Clarke writes all her best bits obliquely, a sliding, glancing remark that illuminates a small aspect of a relationship or a setting, and then we’re off to somewhere else. Jonathan Strange remarks to Mr Norrell ‘I like your labyrinth’, and they’re off discussing spell construction while we’re wanting to hear more about how Strange broke it. The gentleman with the thistledown hair – as savage and merciless a monstrous fantasy villain as anything China Miéville might have disgorged – chats merrily away about his favourite murders and atrocities of the past. We’re glad we don’t learn too much more about them, but the horrified impulse to see the worst that might happen makes us fret a little that we haven’t heard the why as well as the how.

New covers created by Matt Roeser, cover designer: see more at his tumblr.
New covers created by Matt Roeser, cover designer: see more at his tumblr.

The novel is crammed with wonderful, believable characters. The incomparably resourceful Stephen Black, the fairy’s captive yet also a man utterly in possession of his own soul, and the enigmatic magician’s servant Childermass, are the two I’d like to hear a great deal more about. The Raven King is an oblique presence throughout the novel, talked of perpetually, whose hereditary position as King of the North of England even George III will not transgress. Arabella Strange is a charming and resilient heroine, who never complains to Jonathan about his neglect though she has all the reasons in the world to do so. Mrs Bullard is a brief but perfect portrait of selfishness, condemned in her own words in Clarke’s delicious inversion of the romantic elopement subplot. She shares the prize for convinced entitlement with Mr Lascelles the lying, cheating gentleman murderer.

Clarke’s genius with the extended, rambling tangential footnote make the pages aggressively lopsided, much the same as Alasdair Gray’s Lanark did, confusing the reader with an insistence on extra information that carries more of the plot than it ought to. (This is probably something that Sterne did with Tristram Shandy as well, but as I’ve never managed to finish that worthy work, I will resist that reference.)

Strange 4Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell creates a counterfactual history where magic was a fact of life, and available as a profession (once Mr Norrell had been enticed elsewhere) to everyone, even ladies and working men. Clarke does a tremendous job of creating an alternate history of England, far better than most of the dragons-in-history novels I’ve read, at present the dominant mode for counterfactual fantasy fiction. (There are no large dragons in Jonathan Strange.)  She understands the rhythms and vocabulary of Regency speech, and knows the social codes that too many other counterfactual authors get depressingly wrong. She is a perfectionist for the details, and my goodness it shows. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a triumph of scholarship and a feeling for language and style. There is apparently a sequel underway, but I’m not holding my breath. If it took her ten years to write Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, we could be into the 2020s before the further adventures of Childermass and Vinculus emerge. I’ll be waiting. In the meantime, I am rather keen to get home to see the TV version.


The stratagems of aristocratic survival, in Colette’s Julie de Carneilhan

Julie 1This week’s letter is C, and today’s author is Colette. Julie de Carneilhan was published in 1941, reprinted by Penguin in the 1950s in an English translation by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Apparently it was filmed in 1950, and in 1990. Leigh Fermor’s translation is over 60 years old now, as timeless as the novel itself, but also not modern; there’s a certain datedness about the vocabulary which makes it classic. Julie de Carneilhan is a story of bleak survival in the demi-monde of prewar Paris, except for the last few pages when, suddenly, Julie walks away from the tangles and grubbinesses of her life, to climb onto a horse and ride off, out of Paris, away from the sunrise. She is brave in the face of indignity and poverty, a magnificent character.

Film poster from 1950 version
Film poster from 1950 version

Julie de Carneilhan is a woman in her forties, from a very old noble Breton family. She lives in prewar Paris, a double divorcee surviving on a small allowance from her first husband. In the last week of each month, she begins to starve, waiting for the next cheque of her allowance to arrive. She is too proud to ask anyone for help. Her elder brother is as impoverished as she is, breeding horses on a shoestring, and struggling to find the money to feed them. Julie mends her clothes and furniture, and makes them last with clever stratagems, but she still employs a daily charwoman. She amuses herself by going out with younger people from lower social classes, but she is always aware of her own more noble lineage, as well as her greater experience in life. The feeling throughout this novel is of defiance against fate. She’s going downhill, slowly. She dresses elegantly to go to nightclubs and the cinema, but her resources are shrinking. Like all women of this period, she relies on men to take her out and pay for meals and drinks. She isn’t a prostitute, because her pride is too strong, but she allows her young admirer to take her to bed when she feels like it.

Julie 3
The austerity of French cover design

The complication in Julie’s life that produces this story is that Julie’s most recently divorced husband, the Comte d’Espivant, has just had a heart attack. He asks Julie to come and see him, because he wants to use her to make some money from his current wife, whom he dislikes. Julie is thus conveyed to her former home by her former chauffeur, and walks through the rooms she had decorated during her marriage, not many years earlier. She spends a combative lunchtime with Espivant, during which he has another heart attack, which she brings him through. There is affection between them, but also aggressiveness brought on by his masculine assumption that he still has a claim on her, and her anger at his infidelities. They both despise his second wife, Marianne, Julie’s successor, who is an extremely rich widow, but who is not noble, unlike Julie and Espivant.

Aristocratic snobbery fuels their pride, and Colette describes this so persuasively that it seems quite reasonable to accept that the lower classes, rich or not, are as nothing in the French understanding of blood and birth. Despite the clearly historical setting, this is a modern novel of manners and strategies to survive daily life. We warm to Julie because she is poor and prefers to uphold her sense of good taste rather than make money by ignoble behaviour. We applaud her feelings of superiority about the banality of her lover and her nightclub singer friends; and we rather wish that she and Espivant would get together again, and get rid of Marianne. However, this is not a love story. Julie does not care enough about Espivant to put any faith in his moneymaking scheme, even though she considers becoming his lover again. I love the atmosphere in this novel of fierce fighting against fate, the strength of Julie’s free will. She’s a very strong person, but she can change her mind on a whim, and suddenly be kind, or chilly, or frivolous, or depressed.

Another poster for the 1950 film, with a stronger wartime feel
Another poster for the 1950 film, with a stronger wartime feel

I am fascinated by the historical detail of maintaining standards of living in a shabby but still respectable studio flat, where a lady can still be a lady even if she is desperately poor. Julie’s capability with her hands, and her housekeeperly knowledge of how to take the shine off the elbows on an old suit, and how to mend a broken chair leg, are not what we expect from a lady at all. Julie comes from a different kind of aristocracy to, say, the English aristocrats described in Nancy Mitford’s novels of the same period. Contrasting with this making do and mend, Julie saves money where she can, and spends freely when she feels like it. She is generous when she can’t afford it, because her generosity is an impulse. It’s cherished as an expression of her free will.

I am also fascinated by Julie’s decisions to allow herself to accept a lover from the trading classes, and to reject him when his bourgeois mind becomes too boring and distasteful. She despises poor Coco Vatard because he fusses over his father’s car, he worries about not getting an early night before a working day, because he talks so importantly about the factory that he runs. She doesn’t bother mentioning her brother to him, because Coco is not significant enough in her life to be told about her family. She won’t talk about what moves her deeply, because she will not share such intimacy with him. She despises Coco’s bourgeois aspirations, and refuses to be part of his domestic fantasies. In the end she refuses to continue this relationship with a man who is simply not up to her standards. She would prefer someone who didn’t care about scratches on a car or who could dance all night. If she can’t have that, she won’t make do with less. She’s picky, but for all the right reasons. Her disdain, and her easy efficiency in getting rid of the poor man, are magnificent.

Caroline Cellier in the 1990 film
Caroline Cellier in the 1990 film

The main upset to Julie’s emotional equilibrium is Espivant, who is a devious manipulator. Julie cannot resist him, but she is too proud to fight back. He uses her shamelessly, like a hired negotiator, to get money from his wife. A spirited traditional heroine would throw the cash back in his face, despising his attitude, but Julie does not care enough about Espivant for that. She also needs the cash: her charlady must be paid, and so must the rent. Her debts are more important than her personal feelings. But he makes Julie vulnerable. We can see why she married him, and also why she left.

Aristocratic pride is the theme of this novel. It makes Julie real, and makes her brother Léon real. They are both middle-aged with few prospects of getting any richer, but they refuse to abandon their family’s standards of behaviour for money. This is attractive behaviour because it is quixotic: it doesn’t look likely to lead to a happy ending, but they will reach their ending with their heads high. When Léon sells up, and moves his last three horses back to the collapsing family castle in Brittany, Julie abandons her rackety, pointless Paris life to go with him. Their rejection of Paris and a miserable life, is profoundly moving. It has the romance of a new beginning, and of making a last throw of the dice before inevitable poverty and death. Julie is escaping the inward-looking circuit of Paris gossip which knows her entire marital history, and also her two humiliations by marriage. She leaves no-one of any importance behind, and we have no reason to think that anyone will care, except poor Coco Vatard and the little nightclub singer Lucie, who think that Julie is a miraculous dream of sophistication.

Finally, a happy ending
Finally, a happy ending

The subtext to this novel is that war is about to descend on France. It was published around the time of the German occupation, and, if Léon, and Coco, had gone into the army as it is suggested that they will, they are unlikely to survive. But Julie might survive: she is tough enough, and knows how to endure poverty. That’s probably why I love this novel so much, because it’s about the importance of survival.

The loucheness of the conservative novelist: Angela Thirkell writes about camp

Here’s an extract from my next book, due out in July. This bit is about how Angela Thirkell, that most proper and dictatorial enforcer of correct social behaviour in her novels from the 1930s to the 1950s, let herself go when chortling with the girls about sex. 

Angela Thirkell
Angela Thirkell

Thirkell’s great lesbian creations of Miss Hampton and Miss Bent, who first appeared in Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940), are two marvellous hard-drinking eccentrics unconnected with the aristocracy or the gentry (who are Thirkell’s usual subjects). Their lesbianism is celebrated briskly with sly innuendo, and Miss Hampton is one of Thirkell’s strongest authoritative figures. Thirkell had introduced homosexual characters in some of her earlier novels, but with less affection or admiration, and with a clearly gendered treatment.

Thirkell’s male homosexuals were defined by their petty malignancy and coded dressing. In Wild Strawberries (1934) Lionel Harvester of the BBC wears his Fair Isle sweater tucked inside his trousers, and his friend Mr Potter has hair that waves ‘quite naturally’. Mr Harvester’s aunt, Lady Dorothy Bingham, brays: ‘I’d let my girls go out with him, but I don’t know that I’d let my boys’. But when he inherits four thousand a year, this persuades Joan Stevenson to accept his proposal of a companionate marriage. Money overcomes effeminacy, and gives a girl independence. In Marling Hall (1942) Lionel continues to be associated with malice and petulance. He has written a book about the BBC after inheriting his fortune (so he no longer needs his job), but his scathing exposé hardly sells at all. The even more horrible Fritz Warbury carries his embroidery around with him in a handbag, which establishes him as being either a foreigner or camp, since no British male character since E F Benson’s Georgie Pillson has embroidered in public. Thirkell’s appreciation for the performance of male camp behaviour is revealed in an unpublished letter of 1945, in which she describes meeting Ivor Novello in a very malicious manner. Her resentful depiction of male homosexuals seems mean-spirited when contrasted with her affectionate portraits of Miss Hampton and Miss Bent.

Miss Hampton’s obvious homosexuality accentuates her social authority and the awed respect she receives for her capacity for strong drink. She is a noted author, and first appears in Cheerfulness Breaks In as ‘a rather handsome woman with short, neatly-curled grey hair, not young, in an extremely well-cut black coat and skirt, a gentlemanly white silk shirt with collar and tie, and neat legs in silk stockings and brogues, holding a cigarette in a very long black holder’. Her first words are ‘Come in and have a drink’, which she and her companion Miss Bent do with no obvious effects. She is also a direct challenge to mealy-mouthed attitudes to sex and sexuality. ‘“So you keep a boys’ school; and in London; interesting; much vice? […] We’re all men here and I’m doing a novel about a boy’s school, so I might as well know something about it. I’m thinking of calling it ‘Temptation at St Anthony’s’.”’ British obscenity laws were stringent between the wars, making an amusing joke of Miss Hampton’s award of the Banned Book of the Month. Thirkell makes quite a few stealth jokes about sexuality that have a camp insouciance, in strong contrast to her otherwise default tone of extreme social conservatism. Miss Bent mentions Rory Freemantle in passing, and the narrative voice adds a reference later to Aurora Freemantle, but only those who had read Compton Mackenzie’s roman-à-clef Extraordinary Women (1928) would have known that this was a lesbian character. Miss Hampton’s bracing though faithful lesbian lifestyle must have been eye-opening for conservative readers. Miss Bent remarks, adoringly: ‘“Hampton does plunge so in bed when she is Writing.”’


Policing the supernatural, with Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series

Grant 1If you like the idea of a policeman who uses magic, give Ben Aaronovitch’s series a try. If you loved Lindsey Davis’s Falco, the Marlowe-channelling detective from Ancient Rome, but want something a bit more contemporary, Peter Grant is your man. If you like the idea of a series that references Harry Potter characters as part of its world, and shows what London crime-fighting might be like if policemen could work spells, this is the series for you. If you like fast-reading, sharp-talking, lore-laying down the law about the ways a north London constable can learn to combat killer chimerae and sonic vampires in the heart of London, start with Rivers of London. In this, Peter Grant hears a ghost tell him whodunit, chases a deranged Mr Punch and nearly falls in the water with the daughters of Mama Thames. Never accept an offer of a drink or a biscuit from a goddess unless she’s promised you you’ll be able to leave. The mess that magic can make of a face is not the end of the world, or a career, but it’s a damn waste of Peter’s best mate’s sick leave.

grant 2In Moon over Soho, Peter’s jazz hero father comes out of retirement and Peter starts seeing a lot of Simone, a very active young woman with a keen interest in getting them both out of their clothes, marked by a disconcerting smell of honeysuckle. Inexplicable deaths of musicians around Soho seems to be connected to a nasty piece of body-warping magic that takes Peter and his governor to the Radcliffe Camera and back into Soho to track down the magicians who should never have been trained. This is a novel designed to test your knowledge of jazz, or simply bludgeon you into accepting that the author knows what he’s talking about.

grant 3In Whispers Under Ground the river goddesses give Peter trouble again, as does a very cryptic FBI agent sent to investigate the murder of a Senator’s son while emerging from the sewer with a chunk of pottery in his back. There’s a half-goblin and an earthbender getting involved in this novel too, but you’ll have to make up your own snappy assessment for this one because I haven’t finished Whispers Underground yet. It’s waiting on the table, I’m up to page 346, and I’ll get back to it just as soon as I’ve posted this review. I’ve pinched book no. 4, Broken Homes, from my husband’s reading pile so don’t tell him. I’ll buy the fifth novel, Foxglove Summer, when I get back from my travels at the end of May.

grant 4Aaronovitch’s writing is light and deceptively enticing, the perfect accompaniment to dull flights and packed waiting-rooms. The voice of Peter Grant, a London boy out of Sierra Leone and the Hendon police training college, is utterly persuasive. The biggest charm of these novels for me is their totally realistic depiction of multiracial and multicultural Londoners who might or might not have been to university, but don’t give a toss about it. Isn’t it great not to be bored catatonic by a middle-class novel of sex, shopping, dinner parties or house prices? You’ll never find Aaronovitch’s characters being foodies in Waitrose or reviewing each other’s documentaries in the Guardian. They’ll be down the market, up at the school, out clubbing, or just listening to music. The weirder ones will be down the floating market dealing in dodgy magical items. Black and brown faces, Greek and Tunisian names, are as routine and normal in this London as the Glaswegian accent of Dr Walid. The chalk-white face of Molly, the manga-faced and piranha-teethed housekeeper who cooks and cleans and irons like the demon she probably is, is different: she’s part of The Folly, the Metropolitan Police’s special department for what they colloquially refer to as ‘weird stuff’. Inspector Nightingale and Constable Grant (and also the fast-recovering Constable May, hurray) are the supernatural police, London’s finest alternative to Ghostbusters, and an addictive set of characters. Read them now, and have a great time.

Discover Ben Aaronovitch’s novels here.

Update from July 2015: Broken Homes blew me away, a dark story with an agonising ending episode that has a time-bomb cliffhanger that is simply cruelty to readers. Foxglove Summer is lighter, has a lot of skinny-dipping, and explains fairies properly, nasty creatures. (It’s good to see that Aaronovitch follows the Pratchett line on the Fae.) But, exciting news! Aaronovitch has created a Rivers Of London comic! Read my review here.

Vintage knitting with Paton’s and Baldwins’ Woolcraft


This was one of my grandmother’s knitting books. It dates from the later 1920s, and she kept it all her life, probably because she (her name was Kathleen Matthews, née Fare) was a countrywoman who made do and mended for her children, grand-children, nieces and nephews and half the village. She was certainly a fine knitter, making us jumpers regularly, and one of my earlier memories is practicing my knitting under her tuition. Along with her embroidery stash and her knitting basket, I inherited her inability to sit and do nothing. If I haven’t got something to do with my hands when I’m sitting listening, I fidget and feel I’m wasting an opportunity, so knitting keeps me happy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs you can see, the cover is falling apart. Were this in the British Library, where I’ve worked on magazines in the same fragile state, the pages would be conserved in their amazing transparent paper webbing that holds the original woodpulp in place but lets you turn pages without fear of covering yourself in orange dust and shards of ancient paper. The inside of the book is made of tougher coated paper, so only the inside pages are coming loose from the gradually rusting staples, but on the whole, for a book that’s clearly been used a fair bit, it’s in excellent condition. It was probably a very welcome supplement to a knitting magazine, a free gift that has lasted for nearly a century longer than its original parent magazine.

I was given the book after my grandmother died, but even if I had had no idea who had once owned it, I’d have kept it for its fabulous cover art. Look at those angular lines, the bold block colours, the use of symmetry and asymmetry, and the elegant stylised fall of the hank of wool in her left hand. She holds the knitting needles in their work close to her as a goddess would hold a cornucopia or a sheaf of wheat. Her hair is bobbed, full and shiny with health, and her eyebrows and features are marked with definition and no wasted line. She wears a thick, shapely, high-necked sweater, an advertisement for knitting with modern style. She is a modernist figure demonstrating a traditional craft.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInside, the patterns are absolutely traditional, and absolutely of their time. The angularity of the cover design is clearly heading towards the 1930s, but inside, the patterns lag a little, back to the mid-1920s (the same age as my grandmother). These are ladies’ jumpers and sweater blouses, and cardigans for men and children. They require knowledge, or experience (since all instructions are given in the patterns), of how to make the difficult inset pockets, and precision knitting for the button bands and collars. These are patterns for the habitual knitter who routinely clothed herself and her family through the work of her fingers when she didn’t have her hands in the sink.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbout half the patterns in the book are for children, all sorts of combinations of shawls, bootees, hats, coats and leggings. Girls’ coats are flared, boys’ coats are straight up and down. All the models in the photographs are knitted in pale wool to show where the ribbing lies and the details of stitch changes. I went to Fully Fashioned, the really marvellous Pringle exhibition at the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, a few weeks, ago, and gazed in awe at the giant stretching boards that held and fixed the freshly washed sweaters and long underwear to dry to the right size, just as these models would have been fixed. The fluffiness of the toddler’s leggings and coats had its own special Paton’s Teazle wool, and photo instructions for how to use a teazle brush to fluff out the wool to a superbly heat-capturing texture, lovely for keeping small children warm when they were immobile in their prams.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy favourite patterns exude domestic elegance, or its possibility. I simply love these bedjackets and shawls, with their intricate openwork and quietly distinguished fall over the shoulders. These were garments for houses where draughts were normal, and you would always need something at hand to fling round the back of your neck as you sat knitting in bed, or maybe even reading (my grandmother also kept novels from the 1920s). What we now call a shrug was called a shoulder wrap in the 1920s (the centre model in the bottom row). I have my doubts about how well these would stand up to movement: these are garments for sitting in, not for work or for rapid body action.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd finally, what of the men? These patterns show how men dressed. Their lives were expected to need active footwear of great endurance, giant over-the-knee socks for wearing in waders for fishing, or out playing golf under their plus-fours. The many different ways of turning a heel are demonstrated with close-up photographs, and some pretty decorative bands for fancying up the tops, to keep one big man’s socks from being confused with another’s in the same wash.

I’d love to knit up some of these patterns, but every time I think, ‘right, I’m going to work out the gauge and the yardage’, I’m halted by the proprietary names, and the quantities. Like all wool of the period, Paton’s and Baldwins wools were spun into different ply thicknesses and sold by the ounce (all Barbara Pym novels have a character quietly worrying if they need to buy anther ounce of wool), whereas modern wool comes in weights and has complicated names like ‘fingering’ and ‘sock’ that vary from country to country. Though old-style British needle sizes can be converted easily to US or metric, the wool is much more difficult to guess at, and, up to now, I’ve given up weakly at this first hurdle. But I use the book to check up on stitches mentioned gaily but without illustration in modern patterns, to see if I’ve got them right. And its heel-turning advice is incomparable, almost as good as having my grandmother looking over my elbow.