I 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.
But 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.
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.)
Jonathan 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.