Fantasy is my (not so) secret (not so) guilty pleasure in reading. Fantasy introduced me to reading through The Hobbit and Tolkien. Fantasy was my escape from teenage tedium … my family was far too middle class to have angst!
And I still enjoy a healthy dollop of fantasy, as readers of this blog will realise. It’s comforting and secure to read; a familiar cast of characters whose joy is not hindered by their being clichés but rather derived from their being clichés. The dark mages drawing sinister powers; the green warlocks and Druids steeped in nature lore; white healing clerics; a dark focus of malevolence seeking to subdue the world; wise old men; gifted young disciples; innocent maidens. The quest. The Force, the Dark Side, Jedis, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke, Emperors… formulaic and predictable but comfortable.
Nowadays the fantasy world is dominated by giants: Brandon Sanderson, George R. R. Martin (is it possible for anyone with an alliterative double-R. middle name not to write fantasy in a post-Tolkien world?), Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan… Even J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer.
And where in this world does Clarke fit?
Off to one side I think.
She does not simply shake the dice of fantasy writing elements (no doubt dice hewn from the bones of some chthonic beast whose ribs even now tower over the city of New Crobuzon) and roll to see what combinations appear. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is utterly unique and enthralling.
The first thing Clarke tells us is that magicians exist in England and, specifically, in Yorkshire. Not just one but an entire Society of magicians. Note: the Learned Society of York Magicians. No coven, no cabal, no caste. Not even a fellowship. A “Society”. Because these “magicians” perform no magic but study magic. Magic has died out centuries before.
What Clarke gives us is in fact a rather authentic sounding Austenesque pastiche of social satire. Even when Mr Gilbert Norrell is discovered as a practising magician he is neither the Dark Lord nor the Wise Mentor nor the precocious Apprentice. He feels as if he has stepped from the pages of Dickens: a
a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone… a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
These words of Dickens describing Scrooge could just as easily be applied to Norrell in his Regency powdered wig, his jealous covetousness of all things magical – especially books and knowledge – and his tendency to tire his listeners with long, tedious and not-terribly interesting historical accounts.
And Strange? Strange, on something of a whim after hearing a prophecy to do with magic, decides to become a magician too. Strange is perhaps the closest to the clichéd Precocious Apprentice. Norrell teaches him but, whereas Norrell’s knowledge come from books, Strange has a more intuitive and perhaps more innate magical touch. He is younger, more dashing, more daring in his exploits in the Napoleonic Wars, more charismatic. More Byronic. Whom he meets and doesn’t terribly like in the latter part of the book.
These two eponymous gentlemen meet, bicker, admire, fall out with, fear and reconcile throughout the novel and their relationship is fascinating. And they surround themselves with a vibrant cast of supporting characters: Lasselles and Drawlight, the disreputable gentleman-friends of Norrell; Arabella Strange, Jonathan’s wife; Lady Pole; Vinculus, the ambiguous street magician and vagabond; Stephen Black; the Johns Childermass and Secundus; Flora Greysteele. Even the shopkeeper who is in love with Stephen Black and plays absolutely no part in the drama is beautifully written and wholly credible.
The heart of the novel, though, lies in neither them nor their relationship but in their work: English Magic. And the noun is preceded by the adjective almost exclusively. Divisions and antitheses abound in the novel: north and south; master and servant; Christian and Faery; Norrellite and Strangeite; reality and fantasy; sanity and madness; black and white; day and night. At its heart, however, is a core of Englishness.
An Englishness represented by an utterly key character: John Uskglass, The Raven King, The King of the North, The Nameless Slave. Uskglass, stolen to faery as a babe and returning as a youth to conquer and rule Yorkshire and Northern England for centuries through magic is spoken of, sought, sworn by, denigrated and discussed so much in the text that he feels ubiquitous. He is a legendary figure. Arthurian. Not quite trusted.
He does appear as a character. I think twice. Possibly for a total of three or four of the thousand or so pages of the book. I struggle to recall a character who is so monumental in a novel but so (almost) entirely absent from it. Even when he does appear, his presence is ambiguous: he is no returning saviour, no hero; he does not defeat the enemy nor aid either Strange or Norrell.
But then, is he absent? The trees and birds and hills and snow and (inevitably) rain of England are woven into the fabric of Uskglass as they are parts of the fabric of English magic and the very landscape of England and landscape of Englishmen is a character in its own right. It is this which defeats the enemy in the end: the country of England. Not its magicians nor its politicians but its own self. There is no pseudo-scientific system of magic here as some (more often American) writers tend to labour – and I’m not knocking that, Sanderson, Rothfuss et al, there’s a clear and genuine pleasure in your creation of and our exploration of your systems – but here the magic is so much more effective for remaining mysterious, mythical, not always even useful. It is so English that the final defeat of the threat is achieved by a combination of mistakes, misnomers and misconceptions.
And Clarke’s antagonist, the Gentleman With The Thistledown Hair is remarkable. She manages to create a genuinely creepy and potent antagonist, clearly extraordinarily powerful and dangerous, without making him evil. He is just himself: avaricious, capricious, self-centred, fearful and utterly lacking in empathy but also generous and to an extent loyal. He is faery and possibly mad by human standards and wholly amoral with no conscience. But he is as astounding a character in his self-centred loquaciousness as Uskglass is in his self-effacing quietude.
One of Clarke’s stylistic features which I loved but many have been irked by us her use of copious footnotes. Every chapter bears up to a dozen, which by the end of the novel become self-referencing. They also reference folklore (which is where a lot of the depiction of John Uskglass derives), historio-magical texts, collections of letters and articles and even future biographies of the main characters. I can understand why there was a danger of them becoming tedious and gimmicky but, for me, they worked extremely well and created the illusion of a massively extended, immersive and patently English universe.
And I have to say that listening to this was a pleasure with the dulcet tones of the wholly apt Simon Prebble! Extremely good casting from Audible!