What do you get when you mix together fantasy and historical fiction with the writing styles of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen? You get author Susanna Clarke’s seven hundred and eighty-two page novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Learn more after the jump.
Magic, which used to be prolific, has disappeared from England. The men who call themselves magicians are only so in the academic sense. They study magic. They engage in lively debates about the use of magic, but they cannot so much as lift a feather. There is only one known practicing magician, an introverted, pretentious gentleman by the name of Gilbert Norrell.
Mr. Norrell takes pride in keeping magic to himself. He believes that magical knowledge would be too dangerous in the hands of the masses, or women. Mr. Norrell has no desire to dazzle others with acts of prestidigitation. Instead he would much rather curl up with a good magical text and a cup of tea, but as the war with Napoleon rages on, he feels that it is his duty to offer his special talents to the cause.
At first he is laughed at by the military who feel magic has no place in war, but when a government official’s bride-to-be dies, Mr. Norrell reluctantly brings her back from the dead to prove his usefulness.
The problem, Mr. Norrell did not revive the young lady all on his own. He had to summon a malevolent fairy to help in the task of bringing the soon to be Lady Pole back from the dead; a detail that Mr. Norrell keeps to himself.
Lady Pole is alive, but it appears that the magic used to bring her back from the dead has caused a deterioration in her mental health. What is actually happening however is that the summoned fairy, called The Gentleman, took a fancy to Lady Pole and one of her servants, Stephen Black. The Gentleman places an enchantment on his new ‘friends,’ and each night the two find themselves in The Gentlemen’s faerie castle, a place called Lost-Hope. Every evening Lady Pole and Stephen are forced to attend The Gentleman’s balls and take part in processions that celebrate the violent vanquishing of the fairy’s many enemies. Stephen and Lady Pole loathe their predicament, but the enchantment leaves them unable to tell anyone in the non-faerie world.
While Lady Pole and Stephen dread nightfall, there is a new practical magician in England. A charming, enthusiastic young man named, Jonathan Strange. Where Mr. Norrell hates attending balls and other social functions, refusing to use his magic as a source of entertainment for those in the upper-crust, Jonathan Strange has no problem socializing and amusing the elite with small tricks. He soon becomes the more popular magician. People admire and appreciate his easy going, charismatic nature, and his willingness to discuss exactly how magic is done, a thing Mr. Norrell would never do.
Jonathan possesses natural talent, but he lacks knowledge. Though reluctant as always, Mr. Norrell, agrees to become Jonathan’s mentor,sharing his knowledge, and vast library of magical texts with the fledgling magician.
Mr. Norrell grows to become quite found of his pupil, but like many master and apprentice relationships, the two part ways when disagreements arise. For much of the book they are rivals.
The book sways back and forth between the magicians’ narrative and the story of The Gentlemen and his captives at Lost-Hope. It at times feels like reading two separate books until everything intersects at the end.
If the reader is expecting a satisfying ending, there is none to be found. The novel’s conclusion is open ended; purposeful perhaps on the part of author Susanna Clarke who is said to be hard at work on the story’s second installment.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a fascinating, creative book, but if I must be honest, the first word that comes to mind when I think of it is, tedious. I’m the kind of reader who likes things to get straight to the point. This book is like taking a journey on a main road, then suddenly finding yourself wandering down winding, rambling paths for hours, only to find yourself at the main road at the same exact spot where you left it. The lengthy descriptions, long-winded dialogue, and added footnotes, make it a bear to read, but with persistance, you are rewarded with an amazing plot and memorable characters.
When I first heard that a Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell movie was in the works, I was enthusiastic. Converting the novel to screen would encourage the story to get to the point, and I could not wait to see Lost-Hope with its creepy decaying halls and enchanted balls. The various acts of magic, if executed correctly, would make for some spectacular viewing.
The project stretched on for years with nary a word, and then it crumbled completely. It seemed that the book would never get its chance to grace a screen, until it was announced that a seven episode television mini-series was being developed to air on the BBC. It seemed to be an even better prospect than a two or at most three hour movie. A mini-series could certainly do the enormous novel justice, or at least that’s what is hoped.
“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” premieres on the BBC America – Saturday, June 13th at 10/9c.