It took me years to read this book. One day, sometime in high school, my dad brought this enormous book home and said that it was critically applauded, was super popular, and that we should read it. Alas, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is incredibly long, and as a high school student with a lot of homework and a desire to not read immense tomes, I put it to the side and did not pick it up.
When I went home after graduating this year, though, I decided to read it — and I got hooked. This book is, granted, definitely not for everyone. It includes magic and other fantastical elements like fairies, but is too long, adult, and serious of a work to appeal to anyone who exclusively likes Young Adult — because Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is nothing if not mature and maturely written. It has quite an extensive and complex plot with a cast of nicely fleshed out characters, at the forefront of which are two magicians: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
There is so much to talk about in this book. But I suppose first and format is the way the book is written. It is not your typical quest-fantasy, and while the plot is very … well, plotty, and very present, the plot is presented in a very different way. It’s written like a history book — a very good, engaging, dynamic, and thought-provoking history book. It follows a very specific timeline, spanning over years. It includes many facets of the characters’ lives and work, and has a sprawling focus — that is, English magic.
This is really where the book’s first main brilliance lies: Clarke has created an alternate history of England, Europe, and occassionally America, in which magic has played a hugely influential role. Magic, in this book, has been around for centuries, but now only a few people, “theoretical magicians,” study it. Until Norrell and Strange come along, practical magic had not been done for centuries. In this history, it’s a well-established fact that our world is not the only one that exists; there’s also a fairy world, a hellish one, and perhaps others. This well-established history is often explained in footnotes, and because it is a blend of our own history and Clarke’s created one, real life personages come into play (including King George, Lord Byron, and Napoleon, among many others) but their actions and the outcomes of well-known events are changed slightly and tinted with bits of magic, bits of influence from Strange’s and Norrell’s magic workings.
The book is written in prose a little reminiscent of the old classics; the spelling of certain words, including “choose” (which is “chuse” in the book), and “scissors” (“scissars”) is authentic to the time period in which the tale takes place. As someone very attuned to spelling, I was a little irked at this at first, but then once I realised it was not a whim but rather the author’s attempt to make the text not a book about the early 1800s, but a book from the 1800s about the period, it ceased to bug me.
I must admit that I’m not usually one for footnotes, and originally, like the spelling, I found it a little annoying to have to read extensive paragraphs in background information and then return to my place in the “real” story, but the footnotes grew progressively more interesting and delightful, providing other additional little stories to flesh out the greater narrative.
In terms of the characters: They felt real to me. While I did not much like Mr. Norrell — he is so utterly pathetic, but then, that’s the point — I did see a real person in him. The women in the book, though not the main focus, were wonderfully written and distinct; Arabella Strange, in particular, was very compelling. There were no characters that I hated, no characters that made me think they could not possibly be real. The gentleman with the thistle down hair — who was never given a name throughout the novel — was delightfully maniacal, and gave such an incredible vision of fairy society that it was almost breathtaking. Vinculus, Stephen Black, Lady Pole, Childermass, and even some of the more mundane characters, like Sir Walter Pole and Lord Wellington, drew my interest and kept it.
Strange, of course, was my favourite character of the lot — I connected with him, wished so dearly for him to succeed, and, at the end, I felt satisfied with where he had ended up, though a little sad about how it had come to be.
It’s important to note that the episode with King George was one of my favourites, and that I wished we could have seen more of him — his madness was — can I even say this? — almost adorable, and certainly endearing. I enjoyed him immensely.
I should also make a quick note that the book is not fully serious. There are some great comedic moments, and Clarke really knows how to turn a phrase. Sometimes the wording is hilarious — I recall a brilliant sentence about “an elderly bunch of celery” that had been placed “promiscuously in close companionship” with charcoal, which had me laughing hysterically. Maybe I just think elderly celery is hilarious and nobody else does, but still.
I have very few negative things to say about this book. In fact, the only one I could really point out is this: while we get such a huge load of information about magic and magicians, and we see Strange and Norrell do a lot of it, I never got a very good sense of how the spells worked, or how Strange, for instance, moved rivers or produced illusions, or summoned the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. What was the process? I got the sense that there were incantations and rituals involved, but I wanted to see, at least once, how these spells worked. But it did not bother me — it was more a vague pricking of a question in the back of my head after I finished reading.
That said, I’d recommend this book to everybody; I think its size and subject matter is a little alarming to many people, and while I recognize it certainly is not everyone’s cup of tea, I did love it intensely, and would certainly read it again. All I can say is that I’m a little sad it sat unread so long on my shelf — but the wait was worth it.