Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Billed as a combination of Harry Potter and Jane Austen, with some Dickens tossed in, which says more about marketing than anything, but is a start. The plot is about magicians who revive practical magic in early 19th century England, when it had become almost entirely a matter of disputatious theory and fusty history. The two main characters are begin as mentor and protege, but the younger, more romantic, bold, and gregarious character becomes the rival of his more cautious and reclusive mentor.
Like Austen the heart of the book is comedy and satire of manners. Austen’s main topics are marriage and money. The book has a few marriage plots but they are tertiary. Clarke’s emotional themes are vanity and ambition, revenge, betrayal, and loyalty. Two of the best characters are a pair of Norrell’s hangers-on, Drawlight and Lascelles, who make a life and a living from treachery and malicious gossip. An evil fairy enchants two of the characters; he compels them to spend their nights dancing in endless balls in gloomy castles, and sleepy days back in the human world; and he does his best to persuade them that their benefactors in the human world are their betrayors.
The book won’t do much for readers who don’t like fantasy at all, but for readers who can tolerate some of it, the theme can be easily translated to the loss and search for enchantment in the rationalist modern world; the replacement of religious experience with ritual and pedantry, the ascendance of literary theory over storytelling. It’s no coincidence that Strange hangs out with Byron in Italy.
As for me, I really liked Clarke’s vision of an enchanted world — the rambling buildings with extra doors, closets, and starecases; the mirrors and crossroads heading off into alternate universes; the trees, birds, water with a life and language of their own; the music that transports people into a lonely and melancholy place; the Boschian scenes of grisly horror.
Clarke’s magic creates painterly fantastic panoramas and anecdotal miniatures — it is not at all like the Harry Potter rule-based system. The pace is quite slow to get started, but picks up when Strange enters the stage. Unlike Rowling and Neal Stephenson, whose long, 18th century Baroque Cycle is a cousin of “Strange”, Clarke feels no compulsion to add cinematic chase scenes; the dramatic action is fantastical, without extra effort to make it filmable. It will be darn hard to make a good movie or miniseries from the book.
Like Dickens, Austen — and Stephenson — Clarke deals with social marginality and mobility. Two of the characters are talented servants who feel a mixture of dissatisfaction, accomodation with their lot, and loyalty to their masters. The literal enchantment to a fairy king parallels real life bondage, physical and mental, to an aristocratic class structure. In the end (spoiler….) Clarke sets the white character on a path to a more democratic success; the black character has no choice but a fantasy world.
19th century novelists are more firmly within the class structure; they would either engineer the plot so they take their true place among the nobility, or engineer a sorry ending for untoward aspiration. Stephenson’s American, and doesn’t get the mental bonds; his upwardly mobile characters work around their limitations, and don’t feel conflicted about aspiring behind their station.
Like Tolkien, Clarke uses footnotes for backstory. Tolkein’s footnotes convey the impression that there’s a fully realized world and history beyond the story at hand. Clarke’s footnotes have an ironic and pseudoscholarly air, and walk the border between mock-pedantry and just pedantry.
To Peterme, who always asks whether I’d recommend the book — I really liked it, and would recommend it to people who find it appealing after reading this post, and recommend against it to people who think it sounds dull and trivial.