Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was Susanna Clarke’s debut novel, and it took her almost ten years to complete. After two rejections, Bloomsbury read the unfinished manuscript, offered her a one million Sterling advance, and printed 250,000 hardback copies.
The entirety of this doorstop-sized book, all 782 pages of it, covers a relatively short timeframe – Autumn 1806 to Spring 1817. The story is set primarily in England, but also France, Portugal and Italy, and it’s clear these are all places the author knows well. The genre is fantasy/magic and oh, my goodness, what a story – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is magical, moving, funny and scary, all in equal measure, a story that’s liable to intrude on the reader’s dreams. The whole book, from start to finish, is like some sort of magical parallel universe, interwoven with historical fact as we know it.
I approached this book and author with little to no previous knowledge or context, other than being pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading Piranesi during Covid-19 Lockdown. Piranesi is Clarke’s third book, another fantasy story, and it became the worthy winner of the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Committing to read a heavy hardback such as this is neither for the weak nor the fainthearted. That’s why I propped up my copy on two cushions for the five days (and evenings) of dedicated reading it took me from start to finish. Many’s a regular length novel I’ve abandoned after thirty pages, my Litmus test for worthwhile reading. Life’s just too short. I read to be amused, entranced, distracted and educated. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell ticked all those boxes, page after sumptuous page. It’s testament to the strength of Clarke’s storytelling above all else, though, that I felt compelled to keep reading.
Clarke uses lengthy footnotes as clever storytelling devices, in my opinion, with which to present background and context for the reader. Don’t let this put you off for one second; these footnotes are integral to the overall story, and are often laugh-out-loud funny in their own right. They become shorter towards the last third of the book when, in fact, they begin to reference previous Chapters and footnotes within the book, which just added to the humour for me. An example here, along with its footnote, discusses the national importance of the Duke of Wellington:
‘Wellington embodies every English virtue. He is Englishness carried to perfection. If the French carry Napoleon in their bellies (which apparently they do), then we carry Wellington in our hearts2
2Of course it may be objected that Wellington himself was Irish, but a patriotic English pen does not stoop to answer such quibbling.’
Aside from the footnotes, there are other multiple components to Clarke’s storytelling that make this book memorable, as well as a thorough joy to read. These include well-defined characters with unique and memorable names: John Childermass, Christopher Drawlight, Arabella Woodhope, and ‘the gentleman with the thistle-down hair’, a malevolent character who is never referred to as anything else. Likewise, with her fictitious place names: Hurtfew Abbey, Starecross House and Great Hitherden.
Clarke’s descriptive prose is not only funny, but precise and specific:
‘Delaying only to write another paragraph, look up three or four things in a biography of Valentine Greatrakes, blot his paper, correct some spellings and blot his paper again, he went immediately to the drawing-room.’
As someone who was raised in Wales, speaks Welsh, and is inclined to tearfully sing along to the Hen Wlad fy Nhadau at rugby matches, I was nonetheless highly amused, again and again, by deliberate derogatory remarks made about Wales. Here, Clarke is referring to Jonathan Strange’s parents:
‘Laurence Strange’s estate was in Shropshire, in a retired part of the country near the Welsh border. Mrs Strange knew no one there. She was accustomed to city life, to Edinburgh balls and Edinburgh shops and the clever conversation of her Edinburgh friends; the sight of the high, gloomy hills forever shrouded in Welsh rain was very dispiriting. She bore with this lonely existence for five years, before dying of a chill she had caught while taking a solitary walk on those same hills in a storm.’
Elsewhere, too, Clarke alludes to Wales being the butt of ongoing geographical jokes: ‘… South England, North England, Scotland and Other places.’ All of this made me laugh.
Fictional character consciences are fluid things in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Having committed a dreadful psychopathic act, the character Lascelles reflects on accounts of murders and hangings he’s read about in The Newgate Calendar and The Malefactor’s Register:
‘A prominent characteristic of these histories was that the murderer, however bold he was during the act of murder, would soon afterwards be overcome by emotion, leading him to act in strange, irrational ways that were always his undoing. Lascelles doubted there was much truth to these accounts, but for safety’s sake he examined himself for signs of remorse or horror. He found none.’
Yikes, creepy, but we have the measure of Lascelles as a character from this extract. Then, there’s this from a speech given by the story character, Lord Liverpool:
‘Great Britain already has a mad King [King George III]; a mad magician would be the outside of enough.’
None of these extracts will detract from or spoil the story for any reader eager to embark on this fantastical journey. But how gorgeous is that description of ‘too much’?
Several people have commented to me, in real life, that they read this book a long time ago and they say, ‘I’m still a bit haunted by it…’, and that the story is, ‘…utterly absorbing and staggeringly imaginative, a classic.’ I couldn’t agree more.
The hardback copy I read is enhanced with atmospheric charcoal drawings by illustrator, Portia Rosenberg. It came from our local free public library – a handsome weatherproof bookcase with clear glass doors, handmade by our local Men’s Sheds group. What an extraordinarily lucky find.
(c) Jo Nestor
Jo Nestor is a retired Adult Educator. Her writing features in the 2021 edition of the broadsheet, Autumn Leaves; also, the Leitrim Guardian 2021 edition. She was long-listed in June 2020 for the FISH memoir competition, and won the 2020 Leitrim Guardian Literary Award. She chooses to live in hope.
Order your copy online here.