English magic has a fine tradition. One that goes back through the centuries. Of course there are always prophecies and street magicians who make a living being charlatans, but it’s a recognized profession. And one that’s filled with controversy.
I talk about fantasy a lot here, but I should probably add that I love classical writers. I love Jane Austen’s work for the snappy dialogue and snarky side-comments, and Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray is one of my favorite novels. I enjoy the world of the past. I also love the flow and side comments of the narrative, and the sheer power of the words in such books. Older novels seem as a whole to rely on good writing to drive their story, whereas in comparison, modern tales tend to rely more on characters and situation. Language as a whole seems to come as a secondary interest, and while this isn’t to say that modern novels are bad, the structure of the writing itself doesn’t seem to be as important to writers as it once was.
This is one reason among many that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell amazed me. Susanna Clarke was somehow able to capture the tone and voice of a nineteenth century novel and completely capture the world of the Napoleonic Wars- while writing in the twentieth century (the novel was published in 2004). And to cap it off, it’s the Napoleonic Wars- with magic.
The story itself is immensely complicated and rather difficult to summarize without massive spoilers. There’s a long tradition of English magic. And at the time the novel begins, it has just been elevated from an academic and theoretical pursuit to a practical one. The novel largely deals with the aftermaths of this sudden rise of practical magic and the consequences for the two magicians dealing in it, who approach their craft in very different ways.
I have to admit that I haven’t read very much alternate history fantasy. It just hasn’t ever really come my way, and the few examples I’ve seen just haven’t caught my eye sufficiently for me to become intrigued. But I love the concept of re-writing history in the context of magic- it combines one of my favorite academic subjects with my favorite pleasure reading. And Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell combines my favorite era with fantasy in a way that is both believable and stunning. To give you a sense of how much this book captivated me, I read the last 500 pages in a day. I just didn’t want to leave this England, where long academic tomes are written about the history of English magic and where magicians bicker about which spells and magicians have most authority. To be immersed in a world like that was an amazing experience that I didn’t want to end.
Some people have argued that the beginning of the book is too slow and dry, and while I can see where they’re coming from, I think the long set-up is integral to just how good this book is. Susanna Clarke is asking the reader to believe that England has had a long history and tradition of magic, and that it’s an accepted, if not normal part of life in certain parts of the country. The reader has to believe that a fairy kingdom exists and these fairies meddle in the affairs of mortals with occasionally earth-shattering results. She has to set the stage for how magic is to be integrated into nineteenth century life.
And it works. At any rate it worked for me. I found myself wishing so hard that this England existed because it seemed so possible and believable. But I doubt I could have done this if Susanna Clarke had not taken the trouble to show the world of the nineteenth century, describing the people and their class prejudices and troubles in detail. As soon as I found myself immersed in the world of the book, I realized that I was accepting the footnotes about magicians like Martin Pale and biographies of one of the main magicians. I could believe that this world had magic because I was able to believe and visualize that world itself. By starting with the mundane and slowly incorporating the fantastic, the novel feels like a seamless telling of history. There’s no sense of patchwork or of incompatible concepts. Everything- even magic- has a place in this world, an established place that has a history and repercussions and effects.
The characters in this novel themselves are fascinating to me, largely because they do feel so real. They aren’t told or developed in the way most modern readers are accustomed to, largely because the narrative is very different, but they do develop and change. One example is John Segundus, even though he is a lesser character in the grand scheme of the novel. He’s a magician, an honest man, and he’s not an idiot. In fact he’s rather more genre-savvy than most of his colleagues, and yet he’s easily the most morally upright character the novel has to offer. As someone says of him, “I do not believe you have ever given your friends a moment’s anxiety- except for worrying that this wicked world quickly take advantage of someone so honest.”
I love this passage for many reasons, not only because it says a great deal about John Segundus’s character, but also because it’s a beautiful line of dialogue, and I rarely see that kind of speech written outside an older novel. There are other bits, some witty, others more serious, but all of them have the mark of having been written by someone who understood the craft of making sentences. Though there are far too many to name here, here are a few examples that caught my eye:
A man who marries for the first time at the age of forty-two knows only too well that almost all his acquaintance are better qualified to manage his domestic affairs than him.
“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange.
Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted. “But a gentleman never could.”
To young men of a studious turn of mind, who did not desire to go into Church or the Law, magic was very appealing, particularly since Strange had triumphed on the battlefields of Europe. It is, after all, many centuries since clergymen have distinguished themselves on the field of war, and lawyers never have.
I don’t know yet if I can say that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of my favorite books. I’m still too fresh off the euphoria of finishing it and never once having been bored through over a thousand pages. I’m still too delighted with combination of things I love to adequately judge whether or not it’s a book I can emphatically list as one of the best books I’ve read.
But I can honestly say that it has been one of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had.