Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a difficult book to classify. It reads like historical fiction, but it’s also definitely a work of fantasy. The fact that Clarke’s historical fiction includes English magic comes across as a mundane fact of life, no more astonishing than if she were writing a fictional biography that included military history or an awareness of the changing tides of commerce or industry.
In Clarke’s world magic existed during the reign of John Uskglass, also known as the Raven King. When Uskglass vanished from England he (mostly) took magic with him. However, hundreds of years after Uskglass has vanished and tales of English magic are starting to seem like dusty fairy-tales, Mr. Norrell demonstrates his magical power, proving that magic still exists and is still a force to be reckoned with.
Mr. Norrell is a bibliophile (a character trait I can appreciate). He is an obsessive collector of magical texts, both books about magic and books that describe how to do magic. By the time the story opens Norrell has compiled the most comprehensive library on magic in England (and probably the world). The one thing he’s missing in his life is someone with whom to discuss his books. He has a low opinion of theoretical magicians who sit around all day arguing about the arcane trivia of historical magic. In fact, he makes his own magical ability known to the world, only with the condition that his local group of theoretical magicians disband and never attempt to practice again.
Once the world knows of Mr. Norrell’s ability, he decides to move to London in an effort to rehabilitate the reputation of English magic, and possibly help the political leadership of his nation. They are, after all, engaged in battling the charismatic tyrant Napoleon.
Once in London he accepts Jonathan Strange, a young, entitled gentleman, with mercurial aspirations, as his student. The novel is largely a tale of their relationship, which waxes and wanes as their interests coincide, but their personalities clash.
Entwined with their story is the history of English magic. Clarke uses copious footnotes to explain obscure references to historical magic and magicians. The use of these footnotes, and the ability to treat the history of magic as if it is a historical period known to every school child, provides Clarke’s work with its considerable charm.
Clarke spent ten years working on Mr. Norrell & Jonathan Strange, but her hard work paid off in 2003 when Bloomsbury Publishing offered her a one million pound advance.
If you don’t already have a fondness for fantastic fiction, then I’m not sure if you’d find this book appealing. Magic doesn’t play the same role in this work it does in the Harry Potter books (for example), but it is nonetheless clearly and boldly woven into the fabric of the story. However, magic is presented in the “most real” way possible (if that even makes sense when discussing a work of fantasy fiction). If you can happily accept the fantastic elements of some of Woody Allen’s movies (think characters stepping off the screen in Purple Rose of Cairo, or the magic potions in Alice, or time travel in Midnight in Paris) then you might enjoy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a Tolkien-esque world of ancient kingdoms and mythical races, you won’t find it here. Clarke creates a world of magic that is so mundane you can almost believe she’s quoting from authentic historical texts.
And ultimately that’s what makes this novel so compelling. The concept of magic is developed so matter-of-factly that it allows the characters to take center stage.