When asked why she decided to become a writer, and what inspired her to write her novel, Susanna Clarke said, “Boredom, probably. And a restless, intrusive sort of imagination. I could always imagine more interesting places to be than where I was. And more interesting people than me being there.” Sound familiar?
Susanna Clarke’s novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, came out in 2004, at a time when many of us were working on assigned school reading. Clarke cleverly brings the reader into a reimagined history of magic in England that seems so real, a reader finds themselves questioning everything they ever knew about magic’s place in the real world.
And while the main critique of the book is that it begins slowly, readers who persist will be rewarded by Clarke’s bold stylistic choices and gripping story. The novel is written in the style of the era in which it is set – the early 1800’s – which may sound dull to some, yet Clarke utilizes the period to her own mischievous ends, and in doing so, proves to be just as sneaky as the fairies in her work. She uses the diction to convey a sense of authenticity to a fantastical story. After a few pages, I found myself asking the friend who had recommended it, “Is this real?”
In an interview, Clarke said: “I didn’t consider the reader at all when I was writing this book…despite working in publishing and having published these short stories, I was writing this novel for myself.” Writers are often told to consider their audience, for good reason, but the fact that Clarke threw common writing adages aside and simply wrote a story that intrigued her, and many people were similarly fascinated, reveals the strength of her characters, setting, and overall tale. Readers who work through the first few chapters will find themselves immersed in a vivid world, and may even find themselves appreciating the slow, rich beginning.
Arabella is my favorite female character in the novel. She is in her twenties, and although she is not generally considered beautiful, “She was always very ready to smile and, since a smile is the most becoming ornament that any lady can wear, she had been known upon occasion to outshine women who were acknowledged beauties in three counties” (Clarke 201). She reminds me of a likeable character from a Jane Austen novel, who is witty and smart and yet somehow reminds us of ourselves. (In fact, Jane Austen is one of Clarke’s top 5 favorite authors!) Arabella is a supporting character, yet the crux of the novel hinges on her fate, and she drives the page-turning action near the end of the novel. Arabella is a good friend to Jonathan Strange, and first impressions of Strange reveal that he is willing to do anything to convince her to marry him. “He supposed he ought to allow a proper interval between his father’s funeral and his proposal of marriage. Three days seemed about right…” (194). Yet Arabella is able to look past Strange’s bravado to the goodness beneath. And it’s not as though Strange has good looks to aid him in his pursuit; when Mr Norrell meets him later, he notices: “He was nearer thirty than twenty and, as far as another gentleman may be permitted to judge these things, not handsome at all” (225).
All of the characters interact as real people would: they tell carefully selected stories to make themselves seem greater, or they purposely conceal critical details; they procrastinate on magical articles due shortly, and they manipulate others to their own ends. Mr Norrell is happiest in the company of dusty old books, Jonathan Strange is impulsive and rather arrogant, and Arabella is kind and patient yet can still fall into the habit of nagging Strange. Throughout the course of the book, however, they are challenged by their circumstances and change in startling ways.
Clarke reveals a further aspect of her innovation in copious footnotes that for once are worth reading. Through the footnotes she bolsters the illusion that her tale actually happened. Readers find themselves ready to Google Faerie and the Raven King to seek out other historical accounts, or looking up The History and Practice of English Magic by Jonathan Strange on Amazon.
In a day when much of our ideas and images of magic come from Harry Potter (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Harry Potter fan!), Clarke offers a unique perspective on the world of magic. On her website, she said: “I always really liked magicians. I’m not even sure why – except that they know things other people don’t and they live in untidy rooms full of strange objects.” Clarke’s world is gritty and reveals the hardships of magicians, for in the time period of her tale, magic is just beginning to reemerge, and anyone wishing to study magic must search for missing links in bits of crumbling manuscripts to create a spell. The characters look back wistfully to the golden age of English magicians, and long for their skill. They struggle to regain lost knowledge, and their efforts draw readers in to the vibrant world and story.
As the weather begins to cool, grab a mug of steaming hot cider, snuggle under a blanket on the couch, open up Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and let your imagination wander down a new path.
Lacy Cooke has been writing since she was 8 years old. Although she would move to Middle Earth and live in the Shire if possible, her favorite Earth place is Lake Tahoe. She is a California native recently transplanted to Connecticut. In California, she earned her degree in English from Westmont College, and fell in love with John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway in the process, as well as her husband. Lacy loves her amazingly supportive family, cats, chocolate, Game of Thrones, dill pickles, and Jane Bennet, in that order. Her experiments in life can be found at Sputnik Prose.