New York: Bloomsbury, 2004
A review by
Colleen R. Cahill
Regency England is a great period to write about: you have a crazy King, Napoleonic battles, and rogue poets, all wrapped in a world of manners and magic. Magic? Yes, at least you do if you wander through the England of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. In a novel that is being called an adult Harry Potter, you will find attractive mix of history and wizardry all done in a very English way.
In 1806, magicians in England are more scholars than spell casters: none of these gentleman-magicians has ever activated the smallest spell. Enter Mr. Norrell, a magician who proves he can perform wizardry, causing fashionable society to take interest in this new phenomena. A reclusive man, he is also ambitious and to climb the social heights, he restores life to the fiancee of a government Minister. He also opens the door to a dark power, one that brings chaos for the poor bride and eventually many others, too.
Jonathan Strange originally wants to impress his sweetheart and thus discovers he has a talent for magic. A more charming and extrovert man than Norrell, Strange is also willing to leave England to assist with the fighting against Napoleon. He becomes the field magician to Lord Wellington and faces much hardship, but his greatest battle comes when his beloved wife is taken by the fairies and he must use all his wit and power to bring her back.
My humble story summary cannot show the wonderful use of language and character that Clarke employs in this book. This is a work that centers on a compelling plot, fascinating characters and a terrific sense of atmosphere, all accentuated by the fine black and white illustrations that are scattered through the book. Norrell and Strange are wonderful, being a bit myopic about their nation and having a bit of eccentricity, as one would expect for men who spend hours with dusty tomes. The supporting cast is as lively and well-drawn, from the mild-mannered John Segundus to the boot licker Mr. Drawlight and especially Mr. Norrell’s man of business, Childermass, whose unknown goals make him a mysterious person. The descriptive names have a touch of Charles Dickens, with interesting hints at the people they represent. The most intriguing character from my view point is the Raven King, who centuries before ruled the three kingdoms: one in England, one in Faerie and one on the far side of Hell. The clever use of footnotes, which are often a story with the story, reveal his influence on England has not ended.
To compare it to Harry Potter is not fair, as these two works are like apples and oranges: both have magic, but their characters, language and intent is quite different. Adult Harry Potter fans should read this, but so should those who enjoy Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or any wonderful, imaginative, well-written book. Spend some time with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, you will find it bewitching.