Monday, 20 October 2014

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

When you've spent most of your free time reading books for the greatest part of your life, you get used to having books fall more or less neatly into defined genres. There is of course nothing wrong with this – but those couple of times when you do meet a book that defies categorization, the whole world of literature suddenly feels a lot wider and full of things yet to explore. Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of these books.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell certainly manages to fit many things into its almost 800 pages. The setting is England and some other familiar parts of Europe in the early 1800s, so you could call it historical fiction. The title characters are two magicians striving to bring magic back to England, so you'd be compelled to call it a fantasy novel. All this is narrated and described in a confidently satirical style that bends itself to witty humour as well as pinpointing the most despicable qualities of human nature; look up any review of this novel, and it will always be likened to the style of Dickens and Austen, aka the gold-diggers of irony, with good reason.

I was probably eleven or twelve years old when I first tried to read this book, and I couldn't get past the second chapter. This review will show that I found great appreciation for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell now, at the age of 23, but I would still say that it doesn't show its most favourable face in the first chapters. Even I, who adore big, slow-paced novels like The Lord of the Rings and Les Misérables, think that it takes Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell a little too long to get properly started. The starting premise for the story is that Northern England was reigned by a mysterious Raven King, also known as John Uskglass, who brought magic with him from the land of Faerie. By 1806, the Raven King's realm has been a part of regular England for hundreds of years and magic has dwindled into a purely theoretical, academic pastime of educated gentlemen. Suddenly, Mr Norrell steps in; in his Yorkshire home he has hoarded himself England's most impressive collection of magic books, and now he claims to be capable of practicing magic as well. The first chapters of the book are all about the Learned Society of York Magicians finding out about Mr Norrell and debating back and forth whether he is really capable of magic. It takes ages for Mr Norrell to actually prove himself right and subsequently decide that he must move to London and make magic more widely known. Then it takes an even longer time for the other leading man, Jonathan Strange, to appear.

Mr Norrell is a very well-written and unknowingly hilarious character with his deadpan-snarky, book-hoarding habits and I had loads of fun reading about him, but he is not the go-to man for making a dynamic storyline. As I read on about him awkwardly establishing himself in the London social life and making some very questionable friends, I got more and more impatient to meet Jonathan Strange. He serves as a charming, energetic, over-confident foil for Mr Norrell, and he is exactly what the story needs to reach a natural flow. By the middle of the book, there are a lot of great characters and mysterious story lines to look out for; first of all, there's the diabolical fairy whom Mr Norrell summons in order to complete a magic spell. He is never given any other name than "the gentleman with thistle-down hair" and he forces a Cabinet minister's wife and butler to attend all-night balls in his fairy-kingdom Lost-Hope, while also encouraging the butler, Stephen Black, to take revenge on all white Englishmen for making his people slaves. Meanwhile, Mr Norrell's servant Childermass appears to be hiding things from his employer, such as his acquaintance with Vinculus, whom Mr Norrell dismisses as a street charlatan who has nothing to do with real magic, but whose crucial importance is quite obvious to everyone else – for one, he makes a very mysterious and sinister prophecy about two English magicians and John Uskglass.

As you will notice, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell picks up its pace considerably after the somewhat stationary initial chapters. I don't think I've read anything except Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as obsessively as I did the last third of this one. Little by little, the whiplash-witty Jane Austenish comedy of manners had morphed into a very dark tale of magic beyond human understanding and I had absolutely no idea where the story would end up, and I had to know. Boy, did this big book turn out to be the complete opposite of dull.

Illustration from the book, by Portia Rosenberg
Let's talk about the brilliance of the characters first. Susanna Clarke knows how to bring characters to life to the extent that you start seeing their faces in front of you and hearing their voices in your head. Mr Norrell, Jonathan Strange, Strange's wife Arabella, John Childermass, Stephen Black, that completely insane gentleman with the thistle-down hair – all of these characters and many others are masterfully done, but Mr Norrell was an especially great accomplishment. He isn't exactly likeable most of the time, but I got to know him so well in just the space of a couple of chapters that whenever he did those petty, self-centered things that he does, I found myself thinking "oh yes, that's exactly the kind of thing Mr Norrell would do", as if I was despairing over an irredeemable relative. (Not that I have any, especially if my relatives happen to be reading this.) The novel also features a couple of real historical personalities, and the best of these was Lord Wellington, later made Duke. Of course, the point that sealed my appreciation for this book was when Jonathan Strange got involved in the Napoleonic Wars – the little war nutter just loved all the exposition about the movements of Wellington's and Napoleon's armies, and all that soldierly atmosphere. Oh, and Lord Wellington – instead of going overly reverential about Britain's greatest war hero, Susanna Clarke once again creates a personality that you really feel like you get to know, and who is more hilarious than he probably intended.

The war campaign sections remind me of another aspect, besides the characters, that I really appreciated in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – the way it treats its fantasy element. It took me quite a while to grasp what "practicing magic" actually means in the universe of this book, and the solution is beautifully simple in the end, like all exceptionally clever concepts tend to be. Clarke manages to establish the existence of magic in the English history so convincingly that it supports the setting in the book's timeline as well, even though the reader is only given little snippets of the history of the Raven King and his once-realm in Northern England. You really get to understand what a fickle job Strange and Norrell are undertaking, trying to revive something that hasn't existed in England for hundreds of years. The portrayal of magic in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell makes a very interesting comparison with most typical works of the fantasy genre, as it feels both smaller and bigger; smaller, in the sense that there are no climactic wizards' duels, no quests to save the world from an evil force, and Strange and Norrell often deliberately dismiss most of the flashy stuff that we are most used to associating with fantasy and magic as impractical; but bigger, because as the element of magic slowly takes over in the narrative, it places people's lives and fates at stake. If these characters are battling with anything, it would be the darkness in their own selves.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was the first book in a very long time that I read as a Finnish translation, and I want to say a couple of words about the translation – because it was the best translation of a novel that I have ever read. Helene Bützow (whose other translation works include Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy) has done a fantastic job in providing the kind of vibrant, flowing translation that Susanna Clarke's writing deserves. I learned English at a very early age, and I soon started reading all English books in their original language, because the quality of the language almost always suffers in the translation process. There's always something in a translation that doesn't feel quite natural, something that makes it obvious that you're not reading the words of the original writer. Bützow, however, manages to convert the unabashedly  British atmosphere of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell into Finnish that is not only tolerable, but actually beautiful to read. She demonstrates how expressive and descriptive the Finnish language can be at its best by putting in absolutely lovely words such as hailakka, juurakko and villavatukkainen herra (which is the translation of "the gentleman with thistle-down hair"). The only thing I found a bit curious was that "Raven King" had been left untranslated. Not that any reader should have trouble understanding what those words mean (the novel is quite clearly targeted at adult readers, after all), but "the Raven King" is used as a title rather than a name, which is apparent by the inclusion of the article in the English version. "Raven King" translates into "Korppikuningas" in a very straightforward way, and in my opinion that translation has the same dark, mysterious feel as the original title. What would you say, Finnish readers?
Finnish readers could also tell me their opinion of this review on Helsingin Sanomat, from 2005. While I've been on the subject of Finnish language at its best, I was truly appalled at how that review shows our language at its worst. I don't despise that piece of writing just because it rates the book so negatively, but because that's supposed to be the leading newspaper in the country and the use of language is so... Well, what would you say?

So, if someone wanted to broaden their perspective of fantasy literature, I would point them towards Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – especially if they happened to share my love for historical fiction and/or British irony. Susanna Clarke's novel is a very thoughtful and absorbing experience once you get past the first chapters, and it will have you both sniggering out loud and turning the pages in feverish excitement. Although, if you're a hardcore feminist, you might be somewhat disappointed about the use of female characters – I have to admit I was a bit, and I'm not in the hardcore feminist habit of looking for faults in every female depiction in every work of literature.

Now then, to finish off the post (which has been unusually long, like my couple of last posts have been too – what happened to my appreciation of concise writing?) I would desperately like to set up some discussion about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. You see, despite the fact that the book got quite a bit of attention on its publication and was marketed as "Harry Potter for adults", it doesn't seem to be nearly as widely-known as it deserves. I myself know exactly two people (excluding myself) who have read it, and because this book was such a thought-provoking experience for me I would love to be able to properly discuss it with like-minded people! So let's get some conversation going on in the comments, shall we? And in order to give us the freedom to discuss whatever aspects of the book we want to, I'll say that people who don't want spoilers, don't read the comments, or the discussion questions I'm about to put up next. Yes, discussion questions! Of course, you can say absolutely anything you like about this novel, but I thought ready-made discussion topics might help kick off the conversation. And if you're interested in further reader participation, I could point out that I included a poll in my Hobbit review just for you readers!

  • What do you think about the female characters in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? The ones that can be described as "major" or at least important in any way are Arabella Strange and Lady Pole, and their main job in the narrative seems to be getting enchanted by the gentleman with thistle-down hair. This doesn't really lessen my enjoyment of the book, it just struck me as somewhat odd – given that Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, whose works had a great influence on this one, wrote hugely important female characters in their novels.
  • Who else was completely shocked about what happened between Mr Norrell, Lascelles and Childermass when they returned to Hurtfew Abbey in the end? Returning to Yorkshire where the story began was a very refined move in my opinion, I liked it a lot, but oh my God, that scumbag Lascelles cut Childermass' face. And Norrell chose to let him stay in the house. Now excuse my language, but what the Hell Norrell?! Mr Norrell did a fair share of not-so-great things in the course of the narrative, and that last one was The Worst. Do you think that sharing the curse of darkness with Strange was enough of a punishment to him, and did he ever realize how wrong he had been in some of the things he did? I would say no and no. At least, the book itself never shows us Mr Norrell repenting his actions, and that bothered me. Especially as I absolutely loved how Childermass developed in the book and cried like a baby when he went to the stables to ride away from Hurtfew Abbey and all the servants were there to show him respect.
  • I'm tremendously interested in cultural differences within countries, but I know very little about the North/South differences in England. Can anybody enlighten me on this? Does the division of the Raven King's Northern England and the "regular" Southern England serve some pre-existing perception on those cultural differences? 
Anyone who joins the discussion in the comments will have my eternal gratitude for giving me the opportunity to converse about a book that it seems nobody in Finland has heard of. Thank you in advance! Should I start putting discussion questions in all of my reviews?


  1. Yeah, I finished this last year.

    I say "finished" instead of read, since for some reason I got halway through it when I first bought it in... let's say 2005, and then left it in the shelf for eight years.

    I blame the size. I have the trade paperback edition, which weighs a ton. I have the same problem with my copy of Sinuhe.

    The Napoleonic War bits were great. It was interesting to compare the depiction of the Battle of Waterloo with the one in Les Misérables. (Waterloo in fiction in general is an interesting topic, since it's one of the pivotal battles of the 19th century and our knowledge of the events is so very detailed. Pérez-Reverte's The Ninth Gate also flirts with it, incidentally.)

    I can't comment on the other two points since my memory is imperfect, but I think that the North/South division in England is generally that the north is poorer and less educated, while the South has better farmland, London, the big and famous universities. The South was the seat of the Roman government of Britain, while the North corresponds to the Viking-ruled Danelaw. In general, less educated, more superstitious, more in touch with the land (indeed, while the southerners farmed it, the northerners dig holes in it). Also, closer to Scotland and the Scottish tradition of fairy tales, which never got gentled like the English one was during the Victorian era.

    The Northerners (mostly Yorkshiremen) are also the butt of all the English equivalents of hillbilly jokes when they're not told about the Welsh.

  2. - This is a brilliant review! One of your very best I think :) I love this book so, so much and I loved hearing your thoughts on it. It's just so... amazing! I was blown away by Clarke's imagination and her writing. I love all the humour and the darker touches of the book (some of her descriptions are Faerie are wonderfully eerie!) The characters and all of the rich historical detail is just fantastic. It's just plain awesome!

    - When it comes to the major female characters I really liked Arabella but Lady Pole didn't leave that much of an impression on me. I neither liked or disliked her. Personally I wasn't at all bothered by the lack of female characters in this story to be honest. I do think that representation is important but just because a story doesn't have very many female characters that doesn't mean that the story is by definition "bad" or "anti-feminist". After all, the 'Twilight' books and movies all pass the Bechdel test but Bella is an awful heroine!

    - Oh, I wanted to scream at Norrell when that happened! That WAS infuriating. I've always got the impression that he felt some remorse for his actions though. He doesn't put into words as such but he seems genuinely humbled and shocked when he realises that Strange hasn't travelled all the way back to England to take revenge on him. I don't love Norrell as much as Strange but he is responsible for one of the funniest moments in the book for me. I love how upset he gets about Vinculus breaking into his house and Childermass points out that he all did was eat a pie or something. That really cracked me up! :D

    - Nitessine has pretty much summed up the north-south divide in England, especially that last point. Ha ha! :D Just to add a few more things... The south IS generally wealthier than the north but there are some exceptions. North Yorkshire, County Durham and parts of Cheshire are very "posh" and there are towns in the south (Bracknell) and parts of London that are rough. Northerners tend to be more direct in conversation whereas southerners tend to be more reserved. Northern and southern accents are very different. If you want to hear some northern accents then look up the Mancunian, Scouse, Yorkshire and Geordie accents. The north was much more heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution than the south was. Cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle rose to prominence during that time. So did Birmingham but that's in the Midlands. And northerners tend to be more politically liberal than southerners. The north (and Scotland) tends to vote for the Labour party whereas the south often votes for the Conservative party. I hope all of these things are helpful! And you would probably love Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. Pretty much the entire book is about Victorian north and south differences!

    - It's such a shame that the fandom for this book isn't larger :( There used to be a really great fanf-orum for the book but it got shut down for some reason. The BBC adaptation should boost the book's profile though. I'm actually not that excited about the adaptation any more sadly. I'm not really excited about the cast but I still mean to watch it and give it a fair chance.

  3. Woohoo, those "exactly two people who have read it" found their way here!

    Nitessine - Nice to know I'm not the only one who didn't finish this on the first go. And yep, what a fantastic Waterloo bit. All the while I was imagining Marius Pontmercy's father and Thénardier running around there somewhere.

    Hannah - I'm glad you liked the review, I wasn't quite sure myself how it would turn out :D It's so easy to get a bit carried away when writing about something as thought-provoking as this book. I do agree with you that a lack of female characters doesn't automatically make a book bad – LOTR and Les Misérables don't have many notable women either and I still love those. And after finding out what the Bechdel test actually is, I don't really think much of it.
    Norrell does have the funniest moments earlier on in the book so I can't completely hate him despite that horrible Hurtfew scene. My favourite part was when he decided to send Strange off to Portugal just so he could hoard all the Roxburgh library books at the auction. I continued to snigger at the memory of that scene even when I was hundreds of pages past it.
    I'm not hyper-excited about the BBC series either. I mean, I'm not going to judge till I actually see it, but I recently saw pictures of some of the actors filming on set, and they're not giving me the Strange & Norrell vibes at all. Have you seen these?
    I LOVED your idea of having David Tennant as the gentleman, it's really too bad that it couldn't be :( That's going to be a damn hard part to play because he's both one of the funniest and the darkest characters in the book.

  4. Huh. No I hadn't seen those photos and, yeah, I'm not getting any vibes at all from them :( Also did you know that they've cast Marc Warren (aka that really annoying Elton from Doctor Who's Love & Monsters) as The Gentleman? Nooooo! To be fair I've not seen him in anything else but I certainly can't imagine him as The Gentleman! And they've not announced anyone to play The Raven King either. I know it's only a minor one-scene role but I love that scene and I was hoping that they might include some Raven King flashbacks. Then they could incorporate some of the footnotes into the story! I think Ben Whishaw or Harry Lloyd would make a great Raven King. Hmm, my expectations for this thing are now really quite low. Maybe that's actually a good thing?!

    I'd recommend Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu. It's a collection of short stories so it's obviously very different to JS&MN but it's really enjoyable. I especially love the Mr Simonelli story!

    1. Yep, I remember Marc Warren (I wish I could just eliminate that entire Love & Monsters episode from my memory but sadly, my memory's too good for that...). The casting choice that I'm most apprehensive about is Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange. I mean no disrespect for the man, looks like he's done some great musical roles, but I imagined Strange as something completely different... And I don't like the look of Lady Pole in those pictures. "Waaaa I'm a damsel in distress, look at me I'm wringing my hands dramatically!"

      I'm certainly interested in that collection of short stories, but once again there seems to be the "Finland has never heard of that book" problem. So I'll have to wait till I get the chance to travel to Britain. Or till someone I know travels to Britain and they can be my book mule (I've done this twice now).

  5. Marc Warren was excellent in Band of Brothers as Albert Blithe, and I seem to recall him not being the worst thing in the embarrassment that is Hogfather.

    What I'm most interested in is seeing Eddie Marsan in a serious role. He seems to have been mostly typecast into the buttmonkey of the team (The World's End, Filth), and I want to see if he can do a dramatic role with a straight face.

    I occasionally order books from Free postage, decent selection. They seem to have The Ladies of Grace Adieu for €8.68 or cheaper used.