A couple of years back, I was going nuts. It was the end of my sophomore year and I was tired of writing papers and reading textbooks. So I looked through the outrageously large selection of books I’d brought with me from home, hoping to find something to read. As you probably guessed, you astute reader you, I picked Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I’d heard good things, and it was a nice cross between “literary fiction” and fantasy, that both the snobby English major side of me and the nerdy side of me could agree on. I was a little skeptical at first, because it didn’t seem to be what I expected from the “adult Harry Potter set in the 19th century” I’d been promised. As I got into the book though, I was completely blown away.
Well. Kinda. See, it took me about a month to read it, continuing on into the summer. This isn’t something I’m used to. I’ve been known to whip through thousand-page novels in two weeks flat. So at first I was a little frustrated with the pacing and the writing style, but I couldn’t stop reading. And when I was done, I didn’t know what to do with it.
Two years down the road though, I have to say, it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. In a bizarre way, it is kind of like an adult Harry Potter. There’s no wizard school, but there’s an older magicianteaching a younger, daring one. There’s no dark lord, but there is an angsty faerie (a faerie of the old school. The school that steals children and makes soul-stealing deals). But there’s a feel about the whole thing that reminds you a bit of the Potter books. And I mean, that would be pretty cool in and of itself, right? That’s a solid start for a fantasy novel. But Strange is so much more than that.
It’s written like a 19th Century British novel in a lot of ways, and some of the dialogue between the British aristocracy are reminiscent of Jane Austen. There’s also that post-modernist cliche of footnotes, that I find either completely annoying or incredibly fun. Here, it’s the latter. Back story, usually in the form of literal stories that characters reference, is provided to the reader for our convenience. Reading only the footnotes in this 800 page book, it’s easy to walk away with a decent understanding of the magician-king John Uskglass, the King in the North, and the founder of English Magic, who has shades of King Arthur and every fairy tale king you’ve ever heard of. It’s also brilliantly funny in places, and the magic system (for all you fantasy fans) is excellent. As Lev Grossman says, “it seems like there are rules to it, but you can’t quite figure out what they are.” And really, that’s OK with me.
My favorite thing about the book I think, is the character of Mr Norrell. He’s a crotchety old academic, very much of the traditional English upper class. He’s secluded himself away in his deliciously named home Hurtfew Abbey, where he rediscovered the lost art of magic, systematically collected every known copy of magical books in his library, and informed the society of magicians (really a group of wealthy magic history buffs) that they must stop calling themselves magicians. He makes a gruesome deal that lands an innocent woman in her own private hell and with that, Clarke does something that I find really interesting. It would be easy to have turned Norrell from a grumpy, prideful old codger standing in the way of progress into a terrible villain, but there isn’t a time when you every truly hate the man. He’s annoying as can be, and you want to hit him, but I never caught myself thinking of him as anything less than a man who’d fallen prey to his pride. He’s a distinctly British character, and like everything in the novel, so charming in his jerkiness and his frustrating behavior that once you close the book, you can’t help but look back on him fondly.
In taking my course on the British Novel this semester, I keep coming back to Strange. It really is a great modern novel that’s a pastiche of the older writing styles of writers like Dickens and Austen. It’s hard to write a pastiche that doesn’t come off ironic or derivative, but somehow Clarke manages to find the perfect tone to show the sincerity and love that she clearly has for those writers. If you’ve got some time on your hands, bump Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell up to the top of your reading list and curl up with Clarke’s alternate vision of the history of England. It’ll be well worth your time.