I just finished reading this last night. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clark is a hulking read. I’m pretty sure you can bludgeon someone to death with it and you know what? I wish it was longer. Not to say that I didn’t like I the ending (I thought it was perfect), but I still want to know what happens next. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I’d like to talk about three things that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel that I really, really enjoyed. A straight-up review or plot recap doesn’t really interest me and I’m sure you can find that elsewhere — but I do recommend you get this book. The BBC’s apparently going to make a miniseries out of it, doubtlessly with great British actors that you’ll recognize from other shows/movies in all the roles, so maybe that will inspire you. Also, I guess there will be spoilers ahead, if that bothers you. Anyway, here’s three features of JS and Mr. N ( is that a good shortening of the title?) that made the book work.
1. Not So Merry Old England
There is something superficially appealing about the old English class system. Lord and Ladies, men using ‘sir’ as punctuation, servants puttering about, everyone cruising around in coaches — it’s got a certain charm. Watch Downton Abbey for a little bit and you can feel that kind of charm. You might want a valet of your own, to dress you and exchange delightful conversation about the upcoming cricket match.
J-Strange and Mister N is set in the Napoleonic Era, about a hundred years before Downton, but it’s a similar kind of milieu. The two main characters are both men of means. They’ve got manor homes with names, a certain number of pounds a year and as magicians for the British government, they’re friends with Lord and Lady So-and-So. However, take a closer look at this kind of English lifestyle and you’ll find that it’s pretty awful for everyone who isn’t a white, wealthy Christian male.
Susanna Clarke knows this and uses Strange and Norrel to show that the reality of such a society really isn’t that great. A major character, Stephen Black, is a Black butler for a wealthy nobleman and no one ever lets him forget his race. He falls under the favor of a capricious fairy who points out that England has mistreated him and Stephen, the descendant of a Jamaican slave, has to agree. Later, Jonathan Strange takes on some apprentices and one of them is a converted Jew, which causes a minor scandal. Clarke also shows how women have their agency taken away. Mr. Norrel’s first magical act is to resurrect Lady Pole, a nobleman’s dead wife, but the fairy that he uses steals her soul away to his castle. She’s enchanted so she can’t really explain what’s happening to her and her husband ignores the fact that she’s in trouble and eventually locks her up in an insane asylum. When she finally breaks free, she’s bursting with justified rage at magicians in particular and men in general. The novel’s conclusion, where a bunch of stuffy Yorkshire magicians see the newcomers to their club — which include poor men and a young woman — seems to offer a change, if a minor one, from the class-obsessed world of old England.
That kind of examination — about how awful the past was for minorities — is something that writers then and now often forget about — you never see Jane Austen concerned with the servants, for instance, and it’s a welcome change in Strange and Norrel.
2. Some Really Excellent Fellows
I feel there is a tendency in fiction, particularly urban fantasy fiction, to favor anti-heroes. We like the idea of a badass who plays by his own rules and is a bit of a jerk — apart to the special people who can pierce his gruff exterior, of course. Even back in the time period in which Strange and Norrel takes place, everyone liked stories about the doomed, tortured Byronic Hero who we all had to write about in high school. But Clarke is better than that. She knows that making her protagonists likeable is a good way to make you care about them. That’s not to say they don’t have flaws, but overall, they’re people who you sympathize with.
Take the two title characters. Jonathan Strange is an amiable young man who is, as my mother would say, a luftmensch: that is, he’s got his head in the clouds and is forgetful, disorganized and messy. I am all of these things, so I can sympathize with him. But beyond that, you can see that Strange cares deep for his wife, Arabella, and misses her deeply when he’s off fighting in Spain with Lord Wellington. When she apparently dies, he’s absolutely crushed. He understands the awkward Mr. Norrel enough to befriend him and, though he can dispense witty bon mots with the best of them, he also genuinely wants to help people — especially the common soldiers who he serves with in Spain. Mr. Norrel, on the other hand, is a bookish, introverted recluse. He has a lot of trouble being sociable and is always awkward, but he’s determined to bring English magic back to its former glory and also wants to help people — even when he gets terribly over his head. When Norrel and Strange quarrel and split up, you’re well aware that both of them are sad to see a real friendship shattering.
The same sympathy is extended to all the characters. Stephen Black is a polite person and a good butler who tries his best to help people — even when the cruel fairy is trying to conspire with him to do them wrong. That fairy himself is even a little sympathetic. He’s a monstrous, conceited asshole, of course — but you get the feeling that’s par for the course with the Fair Folk. He really wants a friend and finds one in Stephen. Arabella Strange is a strong supporter of her husband, who still treats his obsession with magic with a sort of sarcastic good humor. John Segundus is a bit of a fanboy who just really likes magic and wants to study it. Childernmass, Mr. Norrel’s servant, is kind of a lovable rogue. The only real character with no redeeming values is the foppish Lascelles and you get the feeling he’s very much a product of his time.
You like these guys and you want to know they’re okay. Clarke makes that seem effortless and that’s some real magic right there.
3. A Gothic History
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel is alternative history and a particular variety of alternative history where something counter-factual happens to the factual past. A lot of the stories I write follow this kind of formula. For instance, Dinosaur Jazz is, um, 1920s Jazz Age + Dinosaurs. The novel I’m working on right now is 1920s Jazz Age + Robots. (I like the Twenties, I guess). See also the Deadlands Roleplaying Game which is Wild West +Magic. Strange and Norrel is Napoleonic Age + Magic and while that may seem like an easy recipe for some cool stories (make Napoleon a vampire, make the Spanish guerillas into werewolves! Or just add zombies everywhere because zombies are real popular with the kids these days!), it’s pretty easy to mess it all up. Clarke could have focused too much on history or too little. Instead, I think she had just the right amount to make her story work.
Historical characters do pop up — but they never overstay their welcome. Clarke knows that this isn’t Lord Wellington and Lord Byron’s story, it’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel’s. So while Wellington and Byron do have some amusing cameos, they don’t become major forces in deciding how events play out. The other historical cameos, like Goya painting some corpses that Strange brings back to life, are clever little touches that show how magic might change the history we know — but without wallowing in ‘it’s the Napoleonic wars but with golems everywhere’ that it might have been. History sort of plays out as it does in our world, with Napoleon losing in Spain, coming back and ending his reign in Waterloo. Lord Byron is still a kook and is probably going to end his life fighting in Greece. The goal of Clarke’s alternate history isn’t to do a historical ‘what if,’ but to use the backdrop of the Napoleonic Age to tell some good stories involving magic.
That said, I totally want to know how magic changes British society. The novel ends around 1820, with magic firmly returned to England. What’s the Victorian Age going to be like? Will other countries get their magic back? And I really want to see more about the adventures of the eponymous Strange and Norrel, who become a pair of inter-dimensional travelers in a magically teleporting mansion. See what I mean when I say that I wanted this book to be longer?
However, that’s just the eager fan in me. The serious critic of literature sees that it ended on the right note. Strange and Norrel brought magic back to England and to the people. They achieved their goal and can now go off for more adventures in other worlds– a kind of Happy Hunting Grounds for magicians. I’m just happy that I got to read about them. I’m sure I’ll be happy to watch them whenever that BBC miniseries comes out. Why not talk about what Game of Thrones/Doctor Who/Downton Abbey/Other Assorted British actors will be cast as what characters in the comments section? In the mean time, I’ll be imagining my own magic Victorian Age and the further adventures of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel.