Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
Review by Chris Ferrier
The lack of a period after Mr in the title is not a mistake. The setting of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is England during the years 1806 to 1817. The book is faithful to the period not only in its depiction of society and manners, but also in spelling and punctuation. The plot unfolds in a leisurely, perhaps slow to some readers, fashion. The author intrudes to provide descriptions or point out facts otherwise unavailable to the reader in the main text. Then there are the numerous footnotes. They range from more authorial comments, to recitations of anecdotes and songs, to excerpts from books about historical characters or the characters in the novel, to excerpts from books written by the characters in the novel. The footnotes may contain useful information or may simply be entertaining.
The novel evokes the world of William Thackeray, Jane Austin, and Charles Dickens, although they would find the casual acceptance of magic among the general population disconcerting. They also wouldn't recognize the alternate history of England. In the year 1110, an army of Daoine Sidhe or Fairy Folk attacked the north of England. King Henry set out to meet them with his troops and was soundly defeated. After his defeat, the king surrendered the northern part of England to their leader, a young man later known as John Uskglass. John Uskglass, also called the Raven King, ruled his kingdom for three hundred years. His rule was the foundation of magic in England and the beginning of the Golden Age of magic. In time, magic declined into the Silver Age. Finally, it ceased.
The book begins with a meeting of the York society of magicians. The members are theoretical magicians. Not one of them has ever cast a spell for no magic has been performed in England for 200 years. This is about to change. The theoretical magicians of York are about to meet Mr Norrell who, by his own account, is "quite a tolerable practical magician". His ambition is to bring practical magic back to England.
Mr Norrell believes he is the only practical magician in England. But Jonathan Strange, setting out through the countryside to court a young lady, meets a strange vagabond who tells him he, Jonathan Strange, is a magician. So he decides to try a spell and impress the lady. He succeeds. In time, Jonathan Strange becomes Mr Norrell's student, then his rival.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is the story of two magicians and how their magic changes both England and their own lives. Events in the first part of the book start an inevitable movement toward the events in the later chapters. The numerous characters are all fully developed by the author. The prose is quite readable in spite of the period spelling and the footnotes. The author's use of humor and irony are reminiscent of Thackeray. Clarke has written a successful first novel
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