RogerBW's Blog

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke 30 July 2020

2004 fantasy. In Regency England, magic is much more an historical curiosity than an occupation for gentlemen… until Mr Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey starts actually doing it again.

This is a gentle and subtle book – and a very slow one, at least to start with. In spite of its setting, the style does not seem like that of Austen; it reminded me very much more of Trollope's The Warden in its careful insinuations about people's characters and motivations (though without the desperate lack of subtlety of that book, where Trollope fears the reader might miss a joke unless it's explained three times).

The problem, though, is that while there are interesting and even good people in the book, the narrative spends very little time with them, preferring to deal with Norrell's social climbing (by buying and hiding away the old books that are the only way to learn magic he attempts to be the only magician, and to be valued for that reason in spite of his lack of charm) and Strange's unfocused pursuit of whatever seems interesting at the time. Most of the troubles they encounter are caused by their own carelessness. I don't like these people. (I'm not meant to, of course. But I don't enjoy reading about people I don't like.)

And magic is undefined. I'm not asking for a table of spells with casting costs and ranges; but the magicians seem to be able to do whatever the plot needs them to do (such as rearranging the terrain of Spain for Wellington's benefit, before breakfast, then moving Brussels across the Atlantic) but not anything that would be inconvenient to the progression of the plot. One never knows whether a problem will be solved by actual work or by someone saying "aha, why don't we try (this spell that's never been mentioned before)", which works against any tension that might be built up.

These problems are more unfortunate because the rest of the book is so good. Clarke's narrative voice is lovely, a pleasurable pastiche of the early 19th-century style, and while it's vanishingly rare for me to say this about a book of more than 300,000 words, I really don't believe it would have benefited from cutting. Everything that's here needs to be here. The research is clearly deep, but no more than is necessary has made it onto the page. There's a huge and complex world that's gradually revealed as needed.

It's a good book, quite possibly a great book, but I couldn't love it.

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  1. Posted by Jon Hancock at 09:57am on 30 July 2020

    Unusually for me this is a case where I've seen the television adaptation but not yet read the book (Tina has it, so a copy looms from the bedroom shelves). In some ways I think the weaknesses you mention are lessened in the adaptation, although inevitably it has failings of its own. Rather excellent casting means that the main characters are not likeable people, but Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan are so delightful in their performances that it's actually hard not to feel at least affectionate towards them.

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