I thoroughly enjoyed this hugely popular novel about supernatural magic and magicians in early nineteenth-century England. The descriptions of magic seem to suggest that the author has some first-hand experience of significant thaumaturgy, or perhaps good drugs; they present a sort of genuine psychedelia (“mind opening”), as contrasted with the hackneyed tropes of occultist and drug subcultures. But the sorcery is in many ways subordinate to the characterizations and interpersonal plots of the novel, which are rich and satisfying, showing a profound insight into just the sort of motivations and tensions that emerge among colleagues and competitors in magical craft.
Press reviews have attempted comparisons with many other authors of fantasy literature, as well as “literary” authors. (The book was not issued under a genre imprint.) I cannot help making two of my own. The story often reminded me of the deservedly lauded Little, Big by John Crowley. Although separated by the Atlantic Ocean and more than a century, it is easy to imagine Clarke’s and Crowley’s stories taking place in the same universe: the human and non-human dynamics of magic are similar, and the characters are equally vivid and engaging. The chief distinction between the two books is one not of scale, but of scope. Little, Big covers more time, but its concern is essentially a single household and family. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is oriented nationally, toward the condition of England and “English magic.”
The other resemblance that struck me was to Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Obviously, there is the “odd couple” of the titular characters, brought together for professional reasons, and subject to the stresses of difficult lives. But the deft use of metafictional elements in a historical framework, along with a vivid sense of humor, makes these two books into close kin. Unlike Pynchon’s protagonists, though, neither Gilbert Norrell nor Jonathan Strange is an actual historical person. While Clarke was perfectly willing to conscript Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington into her novel, the magicians are all thoroughly fictional. An odd consequence of this approach is that she offers many glimpses of a history of “English magic” from which have been deleted England’s various legended, alleged, and actual magicians: no Roger Bacon, no John Dastin, no John Dee, no Edward Kelly, no Robert Fludd, no Simon Forman—even Merlin barely rates passing mention. In their stead, she details with high verisimilitude the received histories and legends of such de novo characters as John Uskglass, Jacques Belasis, Gregory Absalom, and Martin Pale. And she single-handedly generates a bibliography of imaginary tomes that easily competes with the Lovecraft circle’s notorious catalog.
Early on in the book, I found myself nonplussed by Portia Rosenberg’s illustrations. They are charcoal renderings in a loose style, reminiscent of nothing so much as late twentieth-century children’s literature, putting them at odds with the archaic spellings, footnotes, and other period elements of the text. The drawings did not seem to manifest a creative imagination, other than at least one case (p. 632) in which there were details that uselessly contradicted the text. The fact that Clarke explicitly referenced caricaturists of the period, and at one point devoted an entire chapter to a story about the engravings prepared to illustrate Strange’s History and Practice of English Magic, just added to the sense of Rosenberg’s drawings as inappropriate and superfluous.
To conclude, I’ll offer some thoughts regarding the plot that might be considered spoilers. Somewhere past the midpoint of the book, the level of dramatic irony got so high that I was almost discouraged from reading on account of sadness for the characters. I also started to suspect that the story would ultimately be an account of how magic had been eradicated from England. Not only was I wrong in that suspicion, but I have seldom been so pleasantly surprised by a happy ending. [via]
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