Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Gilbert Norrell is a scholarly gentleman whose singular goal is to purchase and hoard every book on Magic in England. Through the counsel of his “friends” he is encouraged to move to London and bring magic back to the British Isles. This he achieves in a moderate sense, but he refuses to acknowledge the influence of the last great magician John Uskglass, “The Raven King”, and magic involving the consultation with Fairies, for fear of magic becoming an uncontrollable force. Despite this fear, one of his initial feats of magic involved bargaining with a Fairy – the gentleman with the thistle down hair – to bring back the Lady Pole from the dead. This request has great repercussions for the future of the Lady, and to the magicians.
Johnathan Strange never thought he would be a magician, until he stumbles across the vagabond Vinculus, who spouts a prophecy and claims Strange to be one of two magicians who will rise in England. Strange has no reservations regarding the use of The Raven King’s lost magic, that is if he can work it out for himself – the actual historical texts having been lost (or locked up in Norrell’s sacred and secret library). Strange for a time becomes Norrell’s pupil, but later abandons his study to assist Lord Wellington on the battlefront, fighting the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
In a parallel story, Steven Black, the black servant of Sir Walter Pole has gained the favour of the gentleman with the thistle down hair, and is led to believe that he is the “nameless slave” who is destined to be King of England. Despite Steven’s protestations, he is showered with gifts of unfathomable value. He, along with Lady Pole, and even Johnathan Strange’s wife all fall under the enchantment of the gentleman with the thistle down hair, and are subjected to unending nightly dancing in the Fairy land of Lost-Hope.
From the battlefields of Spain and France, to the canals and architecture of Venice, through the hillsand seasons of England, Strange seeks to understand and learn more about the magic done by The Raven King, John Uskglass, particularly as Norrell either cannot or will not aid in the acquisition ofknowledge that is not contained within his own collection of books. Ultimately Strange’s final objective is to release his wife from her enchantment, and return her to the human world.
Although this novel contains a fine story which spans continents and other realms, the sheer length of the book, at 1006 pages, provided a battle for the reader in itself! That combined with the copious footnotes – referencing fictional academic articles or publications, and folk-tales which are referenced within the narrative, but don’t fit within the flow of the current narrative – force the reader to jump around the page (sometimes these footnotes span several pages for one additional explanation or side-story). For me, this made the novel somewhat disjointed; and hard-going in places. So many footnotes!
I enjoyed the BBC TV adaptation of this novel. Clearly they omitted or abbreviated several sections into the shorter format, which worked very well for the show – and could possibly have created a more condensed version of the written novel – without sacrificing important emotional events or backstory. The novel itself is broken down into three “books” anyway, which if they had been published separately as a trilogy, may have made it psychologically easier for the reader to assimilate.
All in all, this was a good story. I can see why the BBC chose to adapt it for the screen.