Magic shall be written upon the sky by the rain but they shall not be able to read it;
Magic shall be written on the faces of the stony hills but their minds shall not be able to contain it.
~The Prophecy of John Uskglass, the Raven King
Once upon a time, there was magic in England; the roads to Faerie stood open and a human-born, fairy-raised King ruled the northern half of the country. But that time is long past; centuries ago, the Raven King withdrew from his English lands, and the magic began to decline. The Golden Age passed into the Silver and thence into history. The modern heirs of the Aureate magicians are scholars of magic only, studying and debating the feats of the greats who preceded them, but never attempting to repeat them. That is, until a Mr. Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey, Yorkshire, issues a challenge: he will demonstrate that he is an actual, practicing magician, if upon said demonstration the Learned Society of York Magicians will agree to give up all further study of magic and claim to the title. That is, he will prove to the scholars that English magic has not died out, at the cost of preventing them from ever attempting it themselves. Mr. Norrell is a man on a complicated mission; he wants to re-establish English magic, and be the only magician in England.
This goes largely to plan–the Yorkshire magicians aren’t the only branch Norrell has stunted by one means or another–and Mr. Norrell’s reputation grows. He uses his money to acquire every magic book he can track down, the better to keep the knowledge to himself; he uses his growing influence to sweep London clean of the charlatans and hedge-wizards who prey on the populace and tarnish the noble profession of magician. The worst of these, Vinculus, refuses to go quietly, and declaims a prophecy upon Mr. Norrell:
Two magicians shall appear in England.
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand.
The first shall pass his life alone; he shall be his own gaoler;
The second shall tread lonely roads, the storm above his head, seeking a dark tower upon a high hillside.
Two magicians in England is not at all in accordance with Mr. Norrell’s plan! Yet, when the prophesied second magician appears, Norrell surprises himself by agreeing to take the young man on as an apprentice. Thus is formed the partnership of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and for a time, it prospers; Strange proves an avid and gifted pupil. The two offer themselves to the service of England–Napoleon is making trouble on the Continent again, and poor old King George has gone off on one of his mad turns. Mayhap there is something a talented pair of patriotic mages can do to assist their nation on both counts?
Before long, however, the essential personality differences between the reclusive bibliomane and his worldly student set them at odds. At the heart of their disagreement lies the greatest magician England ever knew, John Uskglass, the Raven King. Norrell wants to remove all trace of Uskglass from the record, to scour any taint of fairy magic from the profession; Strange argues that John Uskglass is the very foundation of English magic: erase the former, and you obliterate the latter. Strange strikes out on his own, and the former partners become bitter rivals, proceeding from irreconcilable differences to open warfare–and all England begins to take sides.
And that, my friends, is barely an outline of all that occurs in this weighty tome. There are also enchanted maidens, a wicked fairy causing endless trouble for innocent people, and a lowly-yet-noble servant bound for a great destiny; there is warfare both mundane and magical; there are books and battles, mighty works and foul deeds; there is romance, intrigue, betrayal, and undying loyalty.
When presented with thesis (book-learned, orderly, miserly Mr. Norrell) and antithesis (instinctive, experimental and generous Mr. Strange), I will automatically start looking for synthesis. I don’t like dipolar arrangements; I am always looking for the middle path, a third side to bring things into balance. Thus, from early on, I was watching for the Raven King. I didn’t know if he would return in the form of the historical John Uskglass, or if he would be embodied by the “nameless slave” destined to become a king. For that matter, maybe he was an amalgam of Strange and Norrell together, or one of the many other magicians we met in the course of things–for, despite Mr. Norrell’s best (worst!) efforts, there are many more than just two magicians in England, and their numbers and powers are only growing. I won’t tell you if I got anywhere near the truth of thing, but will say that John Uskglass’s hand in matters does, indeed, become clear.
I read a review that said this book could have been called “Sense and Sensibility”, if that title weren’t already taken, and it’s a good point. A lot of what the book is ‘about’ is the tension between rationality and irrationality, the dynamics of their interaction, and the dangers inherent in tending too far in either direction. There is a clean and tidy approach to magic, and a messy, dangerous approach–which is not to say there are two kinds of magic. That’s the heart of the argument between the titular pair–whether magic can be sorted into bins marked “acceptable” and “unacceptable”; whether you can separate the sublime from repellant. The book has a clear opinion on the matter, but that doesn’t stop all interested parties from dividing up into Strangeite and Norrellite camps and settling in for a nice, long argument about it.
The greatest strength of JS&MN is the lovely, intricate detail of the world Clarke created. She does a wonderful job evoking a Georgian England that never was, and yet feels as if it might have been. The footnotes are much commented-on in reviews, and I’m firmly in the “loved them!” camp–they cite a whole library of nonexistant scholarly works and a large, completely imaginary body of folklore and history. They are frequent and lengthy and rather digressive, when not wholly irrelevant. But they contribute much to the reality of the storyworld. If you’re of the bookish bent yourself (and you’d almost have to be, to even pick this book up), you will find much to fuel your candle-lit, leather-bound, oak-panneled library fantasies. Even the ultimate fate of Strange and Norrell, far from a happy fairy-tale ending, won’t seem too terrible to a reader with even the slightest touch of bibliomania.
If I could change one thing about the book, I would give a female character–any female character–something more to do than be a hostage of and/or accessory to the men around her. I had hopes for Mrs. Brandy, but her delightful romantic pursuit of Stephen Black was cut short (BAD FAIRY!) and never resumed. Lady Pole came nearest to self-actualization; she certainly had ambitions and acted on them at one fateful moment, but still, all she was and did was due to her position as a pawn of the men. I was pleased by the revelation of Flora Greysteel’s role in matters, but again, she was only completing a task assigned her by a man, for his own interests, not hers. You could say that was the reality of female life in the 19th century…and I would point out that MAGIC WORKS in this version of history–is it so much harder to envision one self-directed female than to imagine that fairies exist?
If I could change two things about the book, the second would be to front-and-center Stephen Black. All the way through, he struck me as the true hero of the tale, and I kept feeling the urge to peer over Norrell and around Strange to get a better look at his story. He was the most interesting, and most worthy, character in the whole book.
If I could change three things about the book, I would somehow write myself into its pages. You mustn’t take my criticisms as a rejection of the book itself. No, indeed! If there were a way to open a road into Clarke’s magical, bookish England, I would pack my valise and set out today. The interplay of the gracious and the grotesque, the sheer crystalline beauty and bloody muddle of it, is irresistible. Without a doubt, I will revisit this book, to spend what time I can, in the only manner I may, in the enchanting world of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.