The Romance of the Library

  • Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Bloomsbury, 2004.

Like something from a fairy tale, three farfetched things had to happen before an 800-page literary fantasy by a British first-time novelist in her forties could shoot to the top of the bestseller lists. First, the success of the Harry Potter books gave credence to the idea that fantasy novels could be purchased by adults with no history of lurking in the sword-and-sorcery aisles at Barnes and Noble. Second, the internet matured as a place where serious readers and writers evaluate books and make recommendations to other readers. Since January, the comic-book writer, best-selling novelist, and influential blogger Neil Gaiman has praised Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell repeatedly, and partly as a result Clarke’s novel became a top-ten bestseller on Amazon more than a month before publication, with bound galleys reportedly fetching as much as $200 on eBay. The novel also made the Man Booker long-list in England, where the bookmaker William Hill now lists Jonathan Strange as the third favorite, just behind David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

One other condition remained, of course: the novel had to live up to its hype. And it does. Set in a version of early 19th-century England whose history reeks of magic, the novel recounts the numerous adventures of two rival magicians, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, who try to revive magic in an England threatened by Napoleon from abroad and by social and political unrest at home. In actions reminiscent of the real-world Luddites and followers of Captain Swing, people in Clarke’s world break machines and vandalize property in the name of the country’s legendary past leader, the Raven King. The novel makes a sustained argument for human equality, Jonathan Strange countering Norrell’s elitism with the idea that magic can be taught to anyone. There’s a leveling streak here, and—behind the magic—the novel retells the story of England’s 19th-century movement from oligarchy toward democracy.

Its willingness to admit the social turmoil of the English countryside distinguishes Clarke’s novel from many of its forerunners in the fantasy genre. Tolkien’s Shire is pastoral allegory, his magic part Wagnerian fireworks and part old Norse philology. Clarke’s writing has more in common with the humorous excesses of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone or the Faerie whimsy of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist. The distinctive character of Clarke’s magic resides in books and scholarship—more particularly in a collection of volumes hoarded by Norrell, who can hardly bear to let Strange into his library—and the two men’s magical productions are much like anything else you could buy in a shop in London circa 1815, including engravings of popular paintings and books of poetry.

When Strange and Norrell are tapped by the Admiralty and the War Office to help Britain’s government beat Napoleon, their efforts are chiefly artistic. Moments after the French retreat at Waterloo, Strange clears away the smoke so soldiers across the entire battlefield can cheer for Wellington, his figure now picked out by a single ray of sunlight (think of Benjamin West’s hugely influential “Death of General Wolfe,” only with a happy ending). Strange’s powers make him indispensable to the war effort, while Norrell, a more natively cautious practitioner, is less useful. The bad dreams he sends to Napoleon, for example, have scarcely any effect:

Privately Sir Walter and Mr Canning [two of the ministers] thought that the plan had failed because Mr Norrell had no talent for creating horrors. Mr Canning complained that the nightmares Mr Norrell had sent the Emperor (which chiefly concerned a captain of Dragoons hiding in Buonaparte’s wardrobe) would scarcely frighten his children’s governess let alone the conqueror of half of Europe. For a while he had tried to persuade the other Ministers that they should commission Mr Beckford, Mr Lewis and Mrs Radcliffe to create dreams of vivid horror that Mr Norrell could then pop into Buonaparte’s head. But the other Ministers considered that to employ a magician was one thing, novelists were quite another and they would not stoop to it.

“Beckford” is William Beckford, the reclusive author of Vathek (1786), Matthew Lewis wrote a best-selling novel called The Monk (1796) and was thereafter known simply as “Monk” Lewis, while Radcliffe’s name is synonymous with the Gothic novel, due to her authorship of best-sellers like The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Unlike the pedantic and scholarly Norrell, Strange has a lot in common with these famous practitioners of imaginative work; on top of everything else, he lives in “the sort of house . . . which a lady in a novel might like to be persecuted in.”

A great part of the novel’s originality stems from this thorough effort to rewrite the cultural history of England to make these fictional magicians seem as much at home in it as Coleridge or Erasmus Darwin. As well as making magic that’s like writing, they do quite a bit of actual writing in the form of essays and reviews. Jonathan Strange doesn’t much like Lord Byron when he encounters him in Italy, but it’s clear that this dislike results from how much the two men have in common. In these scenes, Clarke displays an appealing skepticism about Byronic glamour: at one point, in response to the appearance in the street of a beautiful young Italian girl, “Byron tilted his head to a very odd angle, half-closed his eyes and composed his features to suggest that he was about to expire from chronic indigestion,” with the result that his companion “could only suppose that he was treating the young woman to the Byronic profile and the Byronic expression.” But the mockery is more fond than hostile. When asked whether a magician can kill a man by magic, Strange replies with appropriate Byronic disdain, “I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could.” Clarke allows both the absurdity and the delightfulness of such a sentiment, and the reader appreciates the latter even more in retrospect, when Strange’s agonies (including the loss of his wife and a horrifying bout of madness) have eroded his naïveté.

Clarke has a superb feel for the material culture of Regency England, its prints and caricatures and pamphlets and so forth. But she sets herself apart from the spate of recent encyclopedically detailed and tone-deaf historical fiction (cf. Barry Unsworth) by the allusive charms of her prose. The language and the leisurely pace of the narration here are as important as the substance. Above all, Clarke invokes Austen, an influence signaled at the outset by period spellings (scissars, chuse, shew, freind, surprize), though Clarke has too good an ear to lapse into the “Regency” slang invented by the British romance novelist Georgette Heyer. Clarke’s narrator shares with those of Austen a dry appreciation of the quirks of human nature, as when we learn that Mr. Norrell is well pleased by Lord Liverpool’s visit to his library, Liverpool being “exactly the sort of guest he liked—one who admired the books but shewed no inclination to take them down from the shelves and read them.” There is also a strong dose of Dickens, especially in the grotesquerie of the physical descriptions: one character “looked as if he had been put into the oven and baked for too long, and was now rather overdone,” his skin “the color of a coffee-bean and the texture of a dried-up rice-pudding” and his hair “black, twisted and greasy like the spines and quills you may observe on the lesss ucculent parts of roasted chickens.” Indeed, hardly a single major 19th-century novelist isn’t alluded to here. Yet the effect is not of undigested pastiche but of great freshness. “So many, / I had not thought death had undone so many,” says the narrator of the first canto of The Waste Land, and somehow the quotation from Dante’s Inferno helps the voice come into focus as Eliot moves into his unreal city; Clarke has a similar gift for sounding like no-one but herself even as she calls to mind a host of precursors.

Against the backdrop of the conduct of the war (its outcome, however, never in much doubt), the novel’s other central drama concerns a mysterious character known as the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, whom we most often see in the company of Sir Walter Pole’s black butler, Stephen Black. The gentleman willfully misunderstands everything Stephen says, taking Stephen’s modesty (part natural, part learned, and partly the result of sheer terror) for good manners or true nobility: confirmation that Stephen is really a king in disguise, as the gentleman insists in the face of the daily degradations experienced by a black man in England.

Despite his genuine though topsy-turvy absence of racial prejudice, the gentleman is the most frightening figure in the novel. It is beyond his comprehension that Stephen can ever have been enslaved, and yet he himself holds sway over the inhabitants of England and Faerie with as iron a grasp as the most tyrannical slaveholder. Late in the novel, Strange must try to save a young woman from the gentleman’s desire to bind her to a life of “slavery and subjugation to a wild spirit! . . . . Wicked, wicked!” But Strange is too intellectually honest not to qualify the adjective: “And then again, perhaps not so wicked after all—for what does he do but follow his nature? . . . How can he help himself?”

Perhaps Strange owes this insight to what he shares with the gentleman. The gentleman with the thistle-down hair is someone for whom others simply do not exist as real people (think of the Cat in the Hat, and then raise that power to disrupt and destroy by several orders of magnitude). Strange is kinder and more humane and more scrupulous, of course, but not so much so that he bothers to return the cities, rivers and mountains he’s moved at one point in the novel to their original locations, despite the loud protests of their inhabitants. In short, Clarke’s novel tells a cautionary tale about the costs of wielding power. Because of his experience of slavery, his present status as a servant and the daily reminders of what his skin color means for his position in England, Stephen is always aware of those costs; Norrell is temperamentally incapable of understanding them; and Strange only begins to comprehend them as he grows up over the novel’s course.

As well as exploring the ethics of power, Clarke’s other great theme is the loneliness you feel when your special talent or abilities set you apart from those you live with. For a novel of such length, it is extraordinary how infrequently Clarke’s characters have a real conversation with one another. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are England’s only practical magicians, and while they’re set apart from everyone else because of what they know, they don’t find it easy to listen to each other either. Being a magician turns out to be a lot like being a writer: both involve solitary imaginative work that reflects the personality of the individual performing it. Norrell is a fussy middle-aged man set in his ways, a perfectionist and a slow and tedious writer afflicted with writer’s block, while Strange dashes off compelling prose on short notice. (There is nothing so agonizing as the slow writer’s envy and dislike for his effortlessly fast-writing friend.) Strange and Norrell are alike, though, in being so immersed in the theory and practice of magic that other people are barely present to them—a kind of inattention amounting to an ethical failure, and for which both men pay a high price before the novel’s end.

The pleasures of Jonathan Strange reminded me of nothing so much as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin novels, which skillfully and subtly translate the intimacy and charm of Austen’s fiction into the public masculine world of the British Navy. Austen’s cultural prestige has never been greater, and the most interesting recent reformulations of her art are those which depart most radically from the actual material world of her fiction. What happens if you hold on to Austen’s wry, knowing voice and psychological acuity while eliminating female characters and courtship plots? What if you set your action on the broad stage of international politics, only ever obliquely alluded to in Austen’s novels? For Clarke as for O’Brian, the debt to Austen doesn’t forestall the centrality of the relationship between a pair of male characters. And just as you don’t need to care about sailing in order to immerse yourself in O’Brian’s world, you don’t need to like novels about magic to enjoy what Clarke’s done here.

Because Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are far less attractive characters than Aubrey and Maturin, and because Clarke is interested in exploring their moral and ethical lapses as well as their humanity, this novel has far greater moral heft than anything of O’Brian’s. (Aside from everything else, it takes on the subject of race, a topic neglected by most of Britain’s major white novelists, as Hanif Kureishi and Caryl Phillips have recently gone on the record to complain.) Clarke does pay a price, though, for sidelining female characters. The only two major ones are both curiously absent for part or all of the novel. Early on, Mr. Norrell makes a bad bargain with the gentleman with the thistle-down hair for the life of Lady Pole, bringing her back from death without comprehending that she will exist henceforth in a halfway state, dancing every night away in the dreary ballroom of Lost-hope like one of the princesses in the fairy story. Jonathan Strange’s failure to pay attention to his wife Arabella means that he hardly notices when the gentleman whisks her away to his realm, leaving in Arabella’s place an enchanted log of moss-oak. The novel ends by suggesting that this husband and wife quite literally cannot live in the same world as one another, and that such separation is more typical of marriage than not: a bleak conclusion, but not a surprising one in a world where books are often more alive than people.

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