JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL
By Susanna Clarke
Illustrations by Portia Rosenberg
Bloomsbury. 782 pp. $27.95
On the back cover of Susanna Clarke's eagerly anticipated first book, Neil Gaiman calls Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell "the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years." To set this encomium in perspective, this means that the very well-read creator of The Sandman regards this epic tale of magic in early 19th-century England as a greater achievement than Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan trilogy, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and T.H. White's Once and Future King.
Clearly Gaiman likes this book a whole lot. And so do I, and so will most people. Still, any reader is likely to wonder, "Just what was the finest English novel of the fantastic prior to this one?" If we take "seventy" to mean anything between approximately 67 and 73, my guess would be The Hobbit, which appeared in 1937. Yet Clarke's book isn't at all like Tolkien. Her antiquarian romance more accurately resembles Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, Lawrence Norfolk's Lempriere's Dictionary and John Crowley's Aegypt sequence -- deeply learned novels that reimagine the nature of history.
For Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is at heart a book about the present's relationship to the past. In its pages Clarke takes the accepted fabric of English culture and inserts just a single new thread: that during the Renaissance, magic actually worked. Alas, the actual ability to perform magic gradually faded away, even as the centuries-long reign of the powerful magician-sovereign of the North -- John Uskglass, the Raven King -- passed into the popular mind as a lost golden age.
By 1806, when Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell opens, all that remains of "English magic" is squabbling groups of antiquarians who collect old spell-books and never seriously attempt to communicate with the Realm of Faerie and who, when they stare in a basin, don't glimpse the future but simply wonder what they've missed. Everything begins to change, however, when a society of "theoretical" magicians in York disturbs the reclusive, self-centered Mr. Norrell, who, it turns out, can really and truly perform "practical" magic. But how unpleasant to know Mr. Norrell! Or so it turns out for the surprised York antiquaries.
Deciding that his time of triumph has come round at last, the fussy Mr. Norrell, in company with his sinister factotum John Childermass, travels to London to offer his services to the government. There he hopes that his wizard skills will help defeat Napoleon, bring luster to himself and inaugurate a new and glorious era in English magic. But to gain the favor of the influential Sir Walter Pole, Mr. Norrell soon finds himself performing just the sort of black magic he has hitherto abjured: After his lordship's beautiful but sickly fiancee dies, he agrees to cast the spells that will allow her to come back from the dead. But to accomplish so difficult a task, Mr. Norrell must summon up the vain, amoral king of Faery -- referred to only as "the gentleman with the thistle-down hair" -- who extorts a singular recompense, one with consequences that will shake both our world and, ultimately, the Other World as well.
Though gripping enough, the overall story line driving Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is fairly conventional -- the fulfillment of a prophecy attributed to the Raven King: "Two magicians will appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second long to behold me. . . ." What makes the novel so impressive, however, is Susanna Clarke's flair for pastiche and her astonishing explanatory footnotes.
Over the course of nearly 800 pages Clarke channels the world of Jane Austen, the Gothic tale, the Silver-Fork Society novel, military adventure a la Bernard Sharpe or Patrick O'Brian, romantic Byronism and Walter Scott's passion for the heroic Northern past. She orchestrates all these fictive elements consummately well, though I wonder if this encyclopedic mirroring of so many Romantic styles and situations doesn't slightly weaken the novel by making it too capacious, too loose and baggy: We never quite know what kind of book we're supposed to settle into, as it constantly shape-shifts from the genteel to the uncanny, from contemporary satire to alternate history, from the macabre to the mythic. Amid so much richness, I occasionally found myself yearning for a somewhat leaner narrative, but other readers may wallow in just this triple-decker plumminess. At any event, here is God's plenty, and there's plenty of it.
If one can raise doubts about Clarke's leisurely pace, there are none about her footnotes: They represent dazzling feats of imaginative scholarship. To gloss the background of English magic, the novel's anonymous narrator provides elaborate mini-essays, relating anecdotes from the lives of semi-legendary magicians, describing strange books and their contents, speculating upon the early years and later fate of the Raven King. Some of these notes are simply wonderful folktales, others recall the gossipy 17th-century style of John Aubrey's Brief Lives, and still others convey the slightly prissy voice of an Oxford don correcting popular misconceptions:
"When people talk of the 'the Other Lands,' they generally have in mind Faerie, or some such other vague notion. For the purposes of general conversation such definitions do very well, but a magician must learn to be more precise. It is well known that the Raven King ruled three kingdoms: the first was the Kingdom of Northern England that encompassed Cumberland, Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire and part of Nottinghamshire. The other two were called 'the King's Other Lands.' One was part of Faerie and the other was commonly supposed to be a country on the far side of Hell, sometimes called 'the Bitter Lands.' The King's enemies said that he leased it from Lucifer."
"And part of Nottinghamshire" -- that use of "part" shows real genius.
While Clarke's generally formal style and slightly arch tone may suggest a mid-Victorian narrator (who isn't so much telling us about English magic as reminding us of it), her characterization is very 20th-century. She keeps us guessing about the true natures of her dramatis personae, whether the toady Drawlight, the caddish Lascelles, the courtly Stephen or the thuggish John Childermass. No one in these pages is purely good or evil, though her greatest creation is certainly the fairy king -- vindictive, frivolous, self-deluding, charming, utterly full of himself. And very, very dangerous to cross. Stephen, Sir Walter Pole's black servant, finds himself the unwanted focus of the gentleman's benevolence:
"Suddenly Stephen heard someone say in a vivid whisper. 'You are quite right to pay them no attention! For when all is said and done, what are they but servants and drudges? And when, with my assistance, you are elevated to your rightful place at the very pinnacle of nobility and greatness, it will be a great comfort to you to remember that you spurned their friendship!' It was only a whisper, yet Stephen heard it most distinctly above the voices and laughter. . . . He had the odd idea that, though only a whisper, it could have passed through stone or iron or brass. It could have spoken to you from a thousand feet beneath the earth and you would have still heard it. It could have shattered stones and brought on madness."
Eventually Mr. Norrell begins to conquer London -- and yet the Raven King's prophecy spoke of two magicians: Who is the other? Certainly not Vinculus, the gypsy-like fortune-teller -- even though he is rumored to possess a lost book written by John Uskglass. (Only the youngest or most unimaginative readers will fail to guess the nature and location of that magical text.) So who will arise to rival Mr. Norrell?
Despite a name worthy of a DC Comics superhero, the long-nosed, red-haired Jonathan Strange is a prickly, Mr. Darcy-like young man who discovers that he possesses an almost innate capacity for magic. With his new bride, Arabella -- herself a witty cousin to Elizabeth Bennet -- he sweeps into London, and there, to everyone's surprise, is accepted as Mr. Norrell's pupil, his only pupil. Can this partnership last? The pair appear complementary -- the secretive bookworm, the headstrong over-reacher. While Norrell performs his magic from the security of his enchanted library, Jonathan Strange actually joins Wellington in the field and proves of pivotal importance in the Peninsular Campaign and at Waterloo. Indeed, the hundred pages devoted to his use of magic to shift the tide of battle are so brilliantly integrated into known history that they seem as true as anything in a reliable life of Wellington or in David Chandler's classic Campaigns of Napoleon.
Nearly all stories about magic are, in the end, variants on The Sorcerer's Apprentice. If we meddle with the natural order of things -- and what else is magic but such meddling? -- eventually we will go too far, matters will escape our control, and the consequences will redound on our own head or on those we love. After her resurrection, Lady Pole seems highly animated, then grows more and more listless, incoherent and strangely desperate. Whenever Arabella visits the zombielike invalid, she encounters a charming gentleman with thistledown hair whom nobody else seems to notice. He keeps offering her gifts, which Mrs. Strange properly refuses. But why is he so interested in her? And why does almost no one else ever see him?
Many books are to be read, some are to be studied, and a few are meant to be lived in for weeks. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is of this last kind. Clarke reportedly took 10 years to write her novel, and she counts on our willingness to linger over conversational repartee and Gothic hugger-mugger, to attend to the inventiveness of each episode, to slow down and savor the period style:
"It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week."
Though I admire Susanna Clarke's imaginative dexterity and deeply enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I didn't find it quite as spellbinding as expected. To a large extent Clarke treats magic as simply an arcane branch of learning, like medicine or physics, and its practitioners as essentially applied scientists. I found myself longing for just a bit more lyricism and poetry. This is, for instance, a very masculine book, with no particular interest in the female characters, who all seem typecast: tubercular invalid, spirited wife, resourceful ingenue, et.al. Moreover, sex plays virtually no role in the story. In Clarke's Faerie, beautiful women may be forced to dance all night, rather like Grimm's 12 princesses, but that's about it: One looks in vain for the corruption of the innocent, the Walpurgisnacht orgy, the vampiric Lamia and the Belle Dame sans Merci.
So Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell may or may not be the finest English fantasy of the past 70 years. But it is still magnificent and original, and that should be enough for any of us. Right now all we really need to do is open to chapter one and start reading, with mounting excitement: "Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. . . ." *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His weekly live online book discussion takes place on Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.