Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: Part 1

Hello, everyone! Welcome the reread of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This week’s post covers chapters 1 through 4, in which magic returns to England after more than two hundred years; we meet the second of our title characters (and are introduced to the first, albeit in a footnote); and an impressive number of themes are established.

You can find the full schedule for the reread in the introduction post, or check out Tor.com’s other posts about this book through its tag.

Please note that reread posts will contain spoilers for all of JS&MN (as well as The Ladies of Grace Adieu). Spoilers are, accordingly, also fair game in the comments—and comments are highly encouraged.

Chapter 1: The library at Hurtfew
Autumn 1806 – January 1807

What Happens

(For those of you who didn’t follow the Tolkien rereads, my chapter summaries tend to the barebones, partly because of personal preference, and partly because I usually have more quotes in the commentary section.)

John Segundus joins the Learned Society of York Magicians to ask why magic is no longer practiced in England. Though most of the magicians scorn his question as unbefitting a gentleman, he finds an ally in Mr Honeyfoot. Together, they undertake a comfortable local quest in search of answers, specifically, a visit to “the other magician,” Mr Norrell, at Hurtfew Abbey.

On the way there, Mr Segundus tells Mr Honeyfoot of a street magician he met who told him that “one day magic would be restored to England by two magicians.” At Hurtfew Abbey, Mr Norrell shows off his superior knowledge of magical history and his vast library of magical books. (He does not show off his man of business, Childermass.) Mr Segundus is troubled throughout the visit by a feeling that “the light within the room did not seem to accord with” the visible light sources; and on the way to the library, he loses his customary ability to orient himself with respect to the compass. The chapter ends with Mr Honeyfoot asking Mr Norrell why no more magic is done in England, and Mr Norrell responding,

I cannot help you with your question, sir, for I do not understand it. It is a wrong question, sir. Magic is not ended in England. I myself am quite a tolerable practical magician.

Commentary

Let’s start with something that’s technically outside the chapter. Volume I’s title is “Mr Norrell,” and its epigraph was also the jump-quote for this post: “He hardly ever spoke of magic, and when he did it was like a history lesson and no one could bear to listen to him.” This brings me to an interesting post by Doris Egan—or it would, if her site were not, as I write this, experiencing a disastrous WordPress failure. Fortunately, I previously copied out quotes for my own reference.

Egan points out that the book doesn’t start with Strange, who she finds considerably more appealing than Norrell. She believes Clarke made this choice because Clarke was principally concerned with the worldbuilding. That is, the book doesn’t “open with the life of Jonathan Strange” because “[t]hat would claim our emotions and our identification from the very beginning, and the entire shape of the book would be different.” Instead, “[t]he very first sentence just gleams with the light of fairy-stories: ‘Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.’” For Egan, then, her fond feelings about the book are given not to the characters but “to the sheer wonder of the artifice—to the footnotes, the lore, the cleverness.”

I do like a lot of the characters, though I’m curious to see how much I like Strange on this reread. But the thing that drew me into the book was what Egan calls the artifice: the wit and precision of the prose, the fairy stories, the alternate history. As Ferrett Steinmetz points out in a blog post analyzing chapter one (note: at least one web filter blocks this as NSFW, but it’s not), that wit—and Clarke’s control over her tone—is on display from the first two paragraphs:

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic—nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

(My emphasis.) Steinmetz claims that what Clarke writes “is not about plot, but rather about tone and surprise.” I’m not sure I’d make that as a general statement (we’ll find out!), but I agree that Clarke gets a lot of mileage out of quiet, non-malicious juxtapositions that convey the omniscient narrator’s opinions of the characters she’s writing about.

And yes, I said she: the omniscient narrator is a woman. She opens chapter 9 by saying, “It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry”; and, though less conclusive, in chapter 4, her description of how “you” and “we” experience a London party includes the comment, “Your only wish is to preserve your favourite gown from the worst ravages of the crowd.”

Two other points that sometimes come up about the narrator: first, she is also the author of the footnotes (chapter 5, note 4, “[What] made Mr Tubbs so certain he was a fairy I do not know”) (emphasis added). (As best I could tell on a prior reread, those footnotes do not refer to any events later than 1836 (chapter 40, note 3).) Second, I prefer to believe that the narrator is just the narrator, the same way the narrator of Jane Austen’s books is the narrator, and not a character within the story. Otherwise I start questioning the sources of her knowledge and then I become grumpy. (If you believe in the relevance of authorial intent (which I only intermittently do), the author agrees with me: “She isn’t anybody. She is a perfectly ordinary, nineteenth-century, all-seeing, all-knowing narrator.”)

Going back to footnotes and how the narrator chooses to frame things: the first magician introduced in the chapter is Jonathan Strange, for all that he won’t appear in person for some time. The third paragraph opens, “A great magician has said of his profession…”, which is footnoted to “The History and Practice of English Magic, by Jonathan Strange, vol. I, chap. 2, pub. John Murray, London, 1816.” And when Mr Norrell is first referenced, he is set in opposition to Jonathan Strange: “the other magician.” Even when his name does appear, it does so only as a parenthetical: “The other magician (whose name was Norrell) was in the hall to receive his guests.”

This chapter also introduces us to two additional magicians who will also be set in opposition to each other, partial shadows of Strange & Norrell. There’s John Segundus—whose name evokes “second” via the Latin “secundus” and the Spanish “segundo”—who is “exactly what a gentleman should be… modest and quiet and kind-hearted.” And there’s Childermass, Mr Norrell’s decidedly non-servile servant: “With his long hair as ragged as rain and as black as thunder, he would have looked quite at home upon a windswept moor, or lurking in some pitch-black alleyway, or perhaps in a novel by Mrs Radcliffe.” We get a lot more about Childermass than I’d remembered this early in the book, signaling his overall importance.

From magicians we turn to magic. As Farah Mendlesohn points out in Rhetorics of Fantasy, magic in JS&MN is both intrusive, a rising changing disrupting force, and “part of a palimpsest,” one of the layers of reality that is observable depending on one’s perspective. While at Hurtfew, Segundus feels that reality contains something—specifically, light sources—that he cannot perceive with his physical senses. And this feeling, that reality is more than, or different from, what it is ordinarily perceived to be, is also present on the drive to Hurtfew:

The day of the visit was preceded by stormy weather; rain had made long ragged pools in the bare, brown fields; wet roofs were like cold stone mirrors; and Mr Honeyfoot’s post-chaise travelled through a world that seemed to contain a much higher proportion of chill grey sky and a much smaller one of solid comfortable earth than was usually the case.

We’ll see much more of this kind of thing throughout the book.

Finally, two broader sources of divisions are introduced in this chapter. First is geographical regions, as referenced in the Learned Society of Magicians of Manchester’s decision that “the Raven King was an invention of the northern English to keep themselves from the tyranny of the south.” Second is class: practical magic, Mr Segundus is told, “had low connexions. It was the bosom companion of unshaven faces, gypsies, house-breakers; the frequenter of dingy rooms with dirty yellow curtains. Oh no! A gentleman could not do magic.”

Miscellany

Reference notes about the characters

  • Mr Honeyfoot is “a pleasant, friendly sort of man of fifty-five, with a red face and grey hair”; “a tall, cheerful, smiling gentleman with a great deal of energy, who always liked to be doing or planning something, rarely thinking to inquire whether that something were to the purpose.”
  • Mr Segundus is “a single gentleman and not rich.”
  • Mr Norrell is “small,” with a “rather quiet” voice,” and “small blue eyes [that] seemed to peep out at them from some secret place inside himself.”

Reference notes about the history

  • The Golden Age or Aureate magicians were: Thomas Godbless, Ralph Stokesey, Catherine of Winchester, the Raven King (no dates given here), and Dr Martin Pale (1485-1567). The Silver Age or Argentine magicians were Thomas Lanchester, Jacques Belasis, Nicholas Goubert, Gregory Absalom, all of the 1500s; but they were “flickering candles in the twilight,” magically speaking.
  • The footnotes contain the story about the magician Martin Pale, the fairy known as Cold Henry, and a pair of boots, the upshot of which seems to be that fairies don’t understand Christian morality.

Favorite quote not already mentioned

It seemed that it was not only live magicians which Mr Norrell despised. He had taken the measure of all the dead ones too and found them wanting.

 

Chapter 2: The Old Starre Inn
January–February 1807

What Happens

The Society meets at the Old Starre Inn to hear Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus’ news. Opinion is highly divided, especially since they cannot describe Mr Norrell’s magic or even his library. The Society decides to invite Mr Norrell to give them a demonstration, and Dr Foxcastle, the President, writes an intentionally insulting letter.

In return, Mr Norrell send an angry letter and, subsequently, an attorney named Mr Robinson with “a draft of an agreement, drawn up in accordance with England’s long-forgotten codes of magical law.” In it, Mr Norrell undertook to do magic at a particular place and time, and if he succeeded, each member of the Society “would publicly withdraw his claims to be a practical magician—indeed to be any sort of magician at all, and he would give his oath never to make any such claims again.” All the Society signs except Mr Segundus, which Mr Norrell permits.

On the appointed day, Mr Segundus and the rest of the Society meet at the Cathedral of York. Childermass (who Mr Segundus does not remember meeting at Hurtfew) informs them that Mr Norrell will work the magic from his home, and directs them to go into the Cathedral.

Commentary

A much less dense chapter, which is a relief to me and probably to you, too. *looks ruefully at length of the above chapter 1 section*

Let’s start with the crowded meeting at the inn of the title, at which Dr Foxcastle sits upon a chair “which rather resembled a throne” and presides with “a deeply magisterial air.” This comes back in the last chapter, in which there is another crowded meeting at the same inn, but Dr Foxcastle is shut out of the “most comfortable seats” and must watch Childermass, who called the meeting, at “some distance from the fireplaces.”

(The meeting and its lead-up also briefly mentions a gentleman’s duty and the war with France, which will take up a significant portion of the book.)

This chapter also introduces the book’s pervasive concern with speaking and silencing. Elizabeth Hoiem, in an essay at Strange Horizons, discusses this at length; but for now I’ll note that (a) Mr Norrell’s magic has prevented Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus from speaking of their experiences at Hurtfew; and (b) the price of Mr Norrell’s demonstration is the contractual silencing of all the Society but Mr Segundus. (Who, by the way, touched my heart with his refusal to sign the agreement: “For magic is my life and though Mr Norrell is quite right to say I am a poor scholar, what shall I do when it is taken from me?”)

The description of the Society at home, before they all go to the Cathedral, brings up two points. First is the intrusion or overlay of a different perception of reality, this time explicitly compared to the fantastic: because of the snow,

the breakfast rooms where these gentlemen sat were changed from what they had been yesterday. The winter gloom was quite gone and in its place was a fearful light—the winter sun reflected many times over by the snowy earth.… It was as if the table were laid with fairy silver and crystal.

Second, the women of the Society’s households are still asleep, and thus “the pleasant female domestic chat, which the gentlemen of the York society affected to despise so much, and which was in truth the sweet and mild refrain in the music of their ordinary lives, was absent.” I will have a lot more to say about the roles of men and women in this book, so I’ll just note that it’s been raised for the first time here.

Finally, a shout-out to Clarke for a clever use of her narrator’s personality to provide useful exposition to the actual reader. The narrator says, “And I hope that all my readers are acquainted with an old English Cathedral town or I fear that the significance of Mr Norrell’s chusing that particular place will be lost upon them.” But she immediately goes on to say, “They must understand that”—and then explains what, with bonus thematic resonance:

It is as if the town contains within itself something larger than itself. When going about one’s business in the muddle of narrow streets one is sure to lose sight of the Cathedral, but then the town will open out and suddenly it is there, many times taller and many times larger than any other building, and one realizes that one has reached the heart of the town and that all streets and lanes have in some way led here, to a place of mysteries much deeper than any Mr Norrell knew of.

I just admire the deftness of that pivot.

Miscellany

Reference notes about the characters

  • “As to whether or not Mr Norrell was in fact old, he was the sort of man who had been old at seventeen.”
  • Childermass: “He was a dark sort of someone, a not-quite-respectable someone…. His ragged hair hung about his shoulders like a fall of black water; he had a strong, thin face with something twisted in it, like a tree root; and a long, thin nose; and, though his skin was very pale, something made it seem a dark face—perhaps it was the darkness of his eyes, or the proximity of that long, black greasy hair.”

Reference notes about the history

  • This is not significant, but it’s delicious, so I’m going to quote it anyway: footnote 1 advises, “The conquerors of Imperial Rome may have been honoured with wreaths of laurel leaves; lovers and fortune’s favourites have, we are told, roses strewn in their paths; but English magicians were always only ever given common ivy.”

Favorite quote not already mentioned

Mr Robinson was a polished sort of person. He was so clean and healthy and pleased about everything that he positively shone—which is only to be expected in a fairy or an angel, but is somewhat disconcerting in an attorney.

(Oh, you knew I had to quote this one, being an attorney myself.)

 

Chapter 3: The stones of York
February 1807

What Happens

Mr Norrell’s magic causes the statues inside the Cathedral to speak, beginning with a small one who witnessed a murder five hundred years ago and demands vengeance upon the murderer, who is buried in the Cathedral. (Some statues outside the Cathedral are also affected.) Childermass most likely uses magic to convince Mr Segundus to write a letter to the editor of The Times describing Mr Norrell’s magic.

Most of the disbanded Society take poorly to idleness, but Mr Honeyfoot attempts to carry out the wishes of the small statue who was first to speak and cheerfully occupies himself with that. Mr Segundus misses the chance to buy any of the Society’s books, but learns that Mr Norrell is going to London.

The footnotes provide a ballad called “The Raven King,” about an abduction of a woman by the Raven King, which will be quoted later:

This land is all too shallow
It is painted on the sky
And trembles like the wind-shook rain
When the Raven King goes by

Commentary

A very short chapter, full of wonderful descriptions, again carrying through the theme of silencing and voices. I only have a couple of additional points to make.

The description of magic outside the Cathedral is suggestive in two ways. First, the narrator deliberately leaves it ambiguous whether Mr Norrell had intended to affect statues outside the Cathedral, thus raising the possibility that magicians may not be fully able to control magic or to understand the consequences. Second, the statues in question were so old that their faces were no longer identifiable, and the mason was “intending to fashion [one] into the likeness of a pretty saintess” when “the statue cried out aloud and raised its arm to ward off the chisel.” In other words: don’t go changing things that have their own senses of self just to suit your own tastes.

Second, I don’t think I previously noticed that Childermass is almost certainly bringing magical persuasion to bear on Mr Segundus:

Snow began to fall; a few flakes at first—then rather more than a few; until a million little flakes were drifting down from a soft, heavy greenish-grey sky. All the buildings of York became a little fainter, a little greyer in the snow; the people all seemed a little smaller; the cries and shouts, the footsteps and hoofsteps, the creaks of carriages and the slammings of doors were all a little more distant. And all these things became somehow less important until all the world contained was the falling snow, the sea-green sky, the dim, grey ghost of York Cathedral—and Childermass.

And all this time Childermass said nothing. Mr Segundus wondered what more he required—all his questions had been answered. But Childermass waited and watched Mr Segundus with his queer black eyes, as if he were waiting for Mr Segundus to say one thing more—as if he fully expected that Mr Segundus would say it—indeed as if nothing in the world were more certain.

No, the narrator doesn’t say it outright, but the description makes it extremely likely, to my reading.

Miscellany

Reference notes about the characters

  • “Childermass was one of that uncomfortable class of men whose birth is lowly and who are destined all their lives to serve their betters, but whose clever brains and quick abilities make them wish for recognition and rewards far beyond their reach.”

Reference notes about the history

  • The Raven King “was not a fairy, but an Englishman.”
  • There’s an association between bells and fairies; I can’t remember if that comes up again.
  • In 1279, the Raven King gave voice to statues in the town of Alston in hopes of identifying a murderer.

Favorite quote not already mentioned

Now, had you and I the power to seize by magic any human being that took our fancy and the power to keep that person by our side through all eternity, and had we all the world to chuse from, then I dare say our choice might fall on someone a little more captivating than a member of the Learned Society of York Magicians, but this comforting thought did not occur to the gentlemen inside York Cathedral…

 

Chapter 4: The Friends of English Magic
Early spring 1807

What Happens

Mr Norrell goes to London on the advice of Childermass. He takes an expensive house in Hanover-square and then does not go out until—in a breach of etiquette—he is invited to a party by a Mrs Godesdone, who mentions that someone named Drawlight claims his acquaintance. Childermass prods Mr Norrell into going, where he accidentally avoids giving his name and, deeply uncomfortable, wanders around overhearing conversations.

Mr Drawlight and Mr Lascelles, who both had been quite unpleasant in those overheard conversations, come into a nook where Mr Norrell had retreated and argue over whether Mr Drawlight actually knows Mr Norrell. When the gentleman in question settles the matter, it turns out that Mr Drawlight mistook Childermass for Mr Norrell, and also had been cultivating Mr Norrell’s servants Davey and Lucas. The chapter ends with Mr Drawlight declaring them “great friends… chatting so comfortably to one another!”

Commentary

This transitional chapter is mostly characterization. It opens with a long discussion of Mr Norrell’s dullness: “Consider, if you will, a man who sits in his library day after day; a small man of no particular personal attractions.” But despite all that, the narrator informs us that within his “dry little heart there was as lively an ambition to bring back magic to England as would have satisfied even Mr Honeyfoot,” and so he goes to London.

…where, it becomes clear, he would never get anything done without Childermass. It is Childermass who explains the necessity of Mr Segundus’ letter to the newspaper, who gets the house, who gets him out of the house to talk to people. (I strongly suspect that he was behind accepting Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus’ request to visit in the first place.) In this light, it is not merely a joke that Mr Drawlight assumes Childermass is the magician, even though he bases it solely on his “wild, romantic looks.”

Otherwise, I’m not finding much to say about this chapter. Two worlds clash again, as Mr Norrell is wildly out-of-place in what the narrator tells us “was a fashionable London party, no different from any other that might be held at any of half a dozen houses across Town every day of the week.” Mr Drawlight and Mr Lascelles are nasty pieces of work (but the description that “these two gentlemen positively jousted in smiles” is delightful). And the comic timing on the reveal of Mr Norrell’s identity, though we all saw it coming from a mile away, is also delightful:

The tall man chose to disregard this particular piece of impertinence and instead remarked coolly, “I believe that gentleman wishes to speak to you.”

The gentleman in question was Mr Norrell who, quite amazed to hear his fortune and property discussed so openly, had been waiting to speak for some minutes past. “I beg your pardon,” he said.

“Yes?” said the small man sharply.

“I am Mr Norrell.”

The tall man and the small man gave Mr Norrell two very broad stares.

There are two bits in these first chapters that I suspect will be useful benchmarks for my opinion of the TV series: the Cathedral is one, and this exchange is the other.

Miscellany

Reference notes about the characters

  • Mr Norrell is somewhere over thirty years old, as he has lived in Hurtfew Abbey “for more than thirty years.” If Mr Drawlight was correct that he inherited from an uncle (and that is the kind of thing Mr Drawlight might be correct about), he may not have grown up at Hurtfew Abbey. He has, unsurprisingly, no sense of humor whatsoever: he “knew there were such things as jokes in the world or people would not write about them in books, but [he] had never actually been introduced to a joke or shaken its hand.”
  • Mr Drawlight is “rather small,” dresses “very carefully,” and has features that are “very regular and rather good; he had short, dark hair and his skin was very clean and white—except that about his cheeks there was the faintest suggestion of rouge. But it was his eyes that were remarkable: large, well-shaped, dark and so very brilliant as to have an almost liquid appearance.”
  • Mr Lascelles is “tall” and “handsome.” The relative amount of detail in these descriptions should suggest something to me, but doesn’t at the moment.

Reference notes about the history

None (no footnotes, either).

Favorite quote not already mentioned

Childermass assured him that the time was propitious and Childermass knew the world. Childermass knew what games the children on street-corners are playing—games that all other grown-ups have long since forgotten. Childermass knew what old people by firesides are thinking of, though no one has asked them in years. Childermass knew what young men hear in the rattling of the drums and the tooting of the pipes that makes them leave their homes and go to be soldiers—and he knew the half-eggcupful of glory and the barrelful of misery that await them. Childermass could look at a smart attorney in the street and tell you what he had in his coat-tail pockets. And all that Childermass knew made him smile; and some of what he knew made him laugh out loud; and none of what he knew wrung from him so much as ha’pennyworth of pity.

And that’s all for this week—more than enough, I’m sure. I hope future posts will be less ludicrously long, now that we’ve got a good deal of setup out of the way. And as always, I really enjoy hearing everyone’s different perspectives and reading experiences in the comments, so please chime in!


Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.

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