Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
is historical fantasy. It is Jane Austen writes magical realism
; it is Harry Potter
for the Classic Romance crowd; it is a Regency-era Silmarillion
. It is all these things and so much more. It is a novel in the most traditional sense - and it is bloody brilliant
That isn’t to say everyone will enjoy it; far from it. If the mere mention of 19th century fiction brings you out in a flourish of hives, then I think it’s a very safe bet that you’re going to absolutely hate this book. Clarke manages to emulate the style of Georgian/Regency fiction convincingly and deliberately - Austen in particular, though there’s more than a pinch of Mrs. Radcliffe, and some of the characters are downright Dickensian in their eccentricities - right down to the use of archaic alternative language. It’s all very immaculately constructed and, certainly for the first half of the novel, you may find yourself forgetting that this is the work of a contemporary author. Thankfully, Clarke doesn’t leave her modern sensibilities completely behind, and sticky issues like 19th century gender politics and racial discrimination are treated with tongue firmly in cheek.
The story itself concerns the return of magic to England, via the eponymous Norrell and Strange: the former being rather dour, dry and utilitarian; the latter young, charismatic and eager to impress. Of course, in order for magic to return
to England, it must have existed at some point in the first place - so to this end, Clarke constructs an elaborate, extensive mythology to her version of England’s history via footnotes and exposition, weaving together little pieces of faerie folklore to breathe life into the legend of the Raven King - which is actually so well-realised that you’ll want to believe that it’s actual folklore and not just made up for the book (and, yes; I’m well aware folklore isn’t really
real, but you know what I meant - it’s still rather fascinating!).
I was particularly impressed by Clarke’s use of the ‘Fae Folk’, actually - these faeries are certainly not the diminutive, butterfly-winged forest spirits romantically popularised by the Victorians and sensationalised later by the Cottingley photographs; nuh-uh. These are traditional faeries. The kind that made fairy-stories the cautionary tales that would strike fear into the hearts of their listeners. The kind that see mortals as mere playthings; that kidnap both children and adults alike; or offer promises of power and wealth to the hapless and unwary, only to deceive and betray them for their own amusement. Beautiful, arrogant and, above all else, dangerous. Proper faeries.
Given that this is a book primarily about magic and faeries, I find it quite astonishing how well all the fantasy weaves seamlessly into the actual history of the period. The growing popularity of our titular magicians gives Clarke reason enough to introduce a number of famous names and events into the story, from the Duke of Wellington to Lord Byron, with some suitably wonderful encounters. Clarke even rewrites the events leading up to the end of the Napoleonic war to include England’s newly rediscovered ‘secret weapon’!
A thoroughly enchanting novel, in every sense of the word.
If this sounds even moderately interesting to you, then I’d advise that you remove yourself from the drawing room post-haste (the servants can show the guests out), and retire to your favourite fireside chair in the library with a pot of tea and a small tray of cakes and other delicate fancies. Oh, and don’t forget the book. You can thank me the next time we cross paths at one of the more fashionable balls in Bath.