As a way of avoiding having to come up with a new, creative blog entry today, I’m re-posting my recent review of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’ on Goodreads here. I tried to match the book’s style (complete with footnotes). There are mild spoilers here, but it’s really people who are already familiar with the book who will (hopefully) appreciate it the most. In my case, I was listening to the audiobook version, which kept me entertained through many days of commuting (26 discs!)
Miss Clarke has achieved something truly remarkable with her novel, which relates the circumstances surrounding the recent wars on the Continent and the return of magic to England. Inevitably, we find ourselves in agreement with those reviewers who have likened her work to that of Miss Austen. Nor can we deny the possibility of influence from Mr. Dickens as regards the darker or more humourous elements of the story; notwithstanding the trifling circumstance that he has yet to publish and in fact, only recently succeeded in being born.
In any case, Miss Clarke has rendered a unique service to the friends of English magic. Her work contains many insights and anecdotes that fail to appear even in the pages of Mr. Segundus’ excellent biography of Mr. Strange. Likewise, she illuminates Mr. Norrell’s life and character to a surprising degree, presenting many scenes where only the great man and his closest advisors play a part. She even provides an explanation, fantastic though it may seem, for the strange disappearance of Sir Walter and Lady Pole’s most trusted servant, Stephen Black.
The seeming omniscience of Miss Clarke’s narration has given rise to various speculations. Some opine that she was a frequent participant in the dances at Lost Hope and obtained much of her information there, while others suggest that she was actually a confidant of the two magicians from the beginning, and is suppressing her own part in the narrative out of natural modesty.
It seems unlikely, however, that she has actually met either gentleman, inasmuch as Mr. Strange is bound by various promises to his wife regarding the fairer sex, and Mr. Norrell is well known for his aversion to female society. As for the Lost Hope conjecture, there is no evidence that Miss Clarke’s family tree includes any ancestors from Faerie. Nor does she exhibit the demeanour of one who is under enchantment. Those stolen away by fairies do not, as a rule, have sufficient leisure time for writing a novel, much less the inclination to do so.
The likeliest explanation, then, is that Miss Clarke is herself a magician. This accounts for her wide knowledge of spells and the lore of the Raven King, as well as her story’s manifest powers of enchantment. But regardless of where the truth lies, it is our decided opinion that discerning readers will find a visit to Miss Clarke’s magical world both diverting and improving.
1. We are reliably assured by Mr. Vinculus that Mr. Dickens’ first novel will appear in 1836.
2. We refer, of course, to ‘The Life of Jonathan Strange’, John Murray, London, 1820.
3. Among other things, Mr. Strange has undertaken to avoid contact with any young lady who has been, is now, or has ever considered sojourning in Venice or indeed, any other city in Italy.