Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: Part 2

Hello, everyone! Welcome back to the reread of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. You can find the full schedule for the reread in the introduction post; catch up on past posts at the reread index; 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 plus The Ladies of Grace Adieu. There’s accordingly no need to warn for spoilers in the comments—and comments are highly encouraged.

This week, the reread covers chapters 5 to 10, in which we meet Sir Walter Pole, Miss Emma Wintertowne, and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.

 

Chapter 5: Drawlight
Spring to autumn 1807

What Happens

Mr Norrell is initially reluctant to associate with Mr Drawlight, but Childermass convinces him that Mr Drawlight is useful and Mr Drawlight manages to make himself agreeable. Mr Drawlight uses Mr Norrell as an attraction for society, but society finds him disappointing, as he performs no magic, speaks of magic “like a history lesson,” and disparages every past magician—including the Raven King—except the astonishingly boring Francis Sutton-Grove.

Mr Norrell also finds society disappointing, because he had come to London to offer magical aid in the war against France (and not to see other magicians, though Mr Drawlight and Mr Lascelles offer to introduce him to Vinculus). Though Mr Drawlight declines to introduce him to any members of Government, Mr Norrell obtains an introduction to Sir Walter Pole, a Minister, through a distant family member.

In the footnotes, two lengthy stories are related. The first is the case of Tubbs versus Starhouse, in which Starhouse brought a defamation action against Tubbs for claiming he was a fairy. The second is the cautionary tale of Simon Bloodworth’s fairy-servant “Buckler,” who in 1310 persuaded seventeen people to enter a cupboard so they could learn wish-fulfilling spells.

Commentary

I surprised myself by finding Drawlight somewhat amusing in this set of chapters. I mean, considering that he threw a cat out of a window, I expected to loathe every second of his presence, but I didn’t. Perhaps it’s because he’s just so unabashed? And, to be fair, he is the cause of wit on the narrator’s part: “The moral, as Mr Drawlight explained it, was that if Mr Norrell hoped to win friends for the cause of modern magic, he must insert a great many more French windows into his house.”

Besides the comedy of Mr Norrell discovering society and interior decoration, this chapter is mostly significant for more context about magic.

The two long footnotes serve dual purposes. First, of course, they explain the references that had been dropped into conversation without an easy way for the narrator to expand on them. Second, they complicate the main text in thematically-appropriate ways. The Tubbs versus Starhouse story, we are told, “serves as an illustration of the widely-held belief” that the English “are surrounded by fairies every day of our lives.” This ties back to the idea of magic in JS&MN being present but not perceptible to all. (It also reminds me of Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, which as Jo Walton has noted seems to have been a significant influence on this book; in it, fairies are also thought to be now absent, but are obviously (to the reader) present from very early on.) And the Bloodworth story gives a different view on Mr Norrell’s dislike for fairies; he objects to them because they detract from proper scholarship, but the footnote shows us that there are better, or at least more widely-applicable, reasons to be wary.

And then another footnote ends on this lovely bit of signposting:

Sutton-Grove foreshadows the great Mr Norrell in one other way: none of his lists make any mention of the magic traditionally ascribed to birds or wild animals, and Sutton-Grove purposely excludes those kinds of magic for which it is customary to employ fairies, e.g. bringing back the dead.

I’m sure I didn’t guess that we’d be seeing that particular kind of magic so soon when I first read this book. (Also note that the narrator does accord Mr Norrell a “great,” as she did to Jonathan Strange in chapter 1. Previously in the same footnote, Jonathan Strange is noted to be “Mr Norrell’s pupil.”)

Finally, the bit about Mr Norrell’s distant relative. First, it’s quite funny:

Even a magician must have relations, and it so happened that there was a distant connexion of Mr Norrell (on his mother’s side) who had once made himself highly disagreeable to Mr Norrell by writing him a letter. To prevent such a thing ever occurring again Mr Norrell had made this man a present of eight hundred pounds (which was what the man wanted), but I am sorry to say that this failed to suppress Mr Norrell’s mother’s relative, who was steeped in villainy, and he had written a second letter to Mr Norrell in which he heaped thanks and praise upon his benefactor…

(Emphasis in original.) Second, it demonstrates the extent of Mr Norrell’s resources, as £800 ten years or more before 1807 was at least £72,000 in 2013 money. Third, it brings up the connections between “the busy worlds of trade and government,” since the relative made his fortune in the East India Company. I don’t remember how much of this comes up later, but those of you who’ve read other British-focused books during this time period (such as the Aubrey-Maturin series) will remember the tight web of relationships between trade, the military, and the government (including the colonies).

Miscellany

Reference notes about the characters

  • Mr Norrell has “small, pinched features” and Mr Lascelles thinks of him as “old.”

Reference notes about the history

  • All in the post this time, except that the Raven King reigned for three hundred years and still appeared young at the end, and his “kingdoms were never more than three in number.”

Favorite quote not already mentioned

“I may tell you, sir,” said Mr Norrell, “that I heartily wish this duty had fallen to the lot of some other magician.” Mr Norrell sighed and looked as noble as his small, pinched features would allow. It is an extraordinary thing that a man such as Mr Norrell—a man who had destroyed the careers of so many of his fellow-magicians—should be able to convince himself that he would rather all the glory of his profession belonged to one of them, but there is no doubt that Mr Norrell believed it when he said it.

 

Chapter 6: “Magic is not respectable, sir.”
October 1807

What Happens

The narrator introduces us to the unpopular Ministers and particularly to Sir Walter Pole, who “told someone once that he hoped his enemies all had reason to fear him and his friends reason to love him—and I think that upon the whole they did.” He was, unfortunately, extremely poor because of inherited debt. This was to be solved by his marriage to the very wealthy Emma Wintertowne (£1,000/year).

Mr Norrell meets Sir Walter at the Wintertowne residence. He is initially unable to see Miss Wintertowne, but finally locates her in the room when she begins an extensive coughing fit. Mrs Wintertowne expresses her distaste for magicians, based on the failure of a magician to save her sister’s life; Miss Wintertowne disagrees with her mother before coughing overtakes her again, which everyone in the room studiously ignores. Sir Walter tells Mr Norrell that it would be too embarrassing for the government to accept magical aid, which Mr Norrell takes very hard.

Commentary

No, it is not at all thematic that Mr Norrell is initially unable to perceive Miss Wintertowne’s presence or that Miss Wintertowne cannot speak of a central condition of her reality to the people closest to her. Nope. No sirree Bob.

We’ll come back to that.

There’s a great deal of emphasis in this chapter on the multiple paintings of Venice decorating the room, which I am about to spend a surprising number of words on, fair warning. There are two textual things to say about them. First, of course, a good chunk of the book will take place in Venice. Second, the paintings add to the unreality and oppression of the scene. The poor lighting (rainy, no candles, no fire) means that Venice’s “aquamarine-blues and cloud-whites and glints of gold were dulled to the greys and greens of drowned things”; and this is the painting above Miss Wintertowne:

statues, columns, domes, palaces, and cathedrals stretched away to where they met a vast and melancholy sky, while the sea that lapped at the walls of those buildings was crowded with ornately carved and gilded barges, and those strange black Venetian vessels that so much resemble the slippers of ladies in mourning.

But now to draw some possibly-unwarranted connections. Mrs Wintertowne says that the paintings were bought by the late Mr Wintertowne before their marriage, and the unnamed artist “was then quite unknown in England. Later, emboldened by the patronage he received from Mr Wintertowne, he came to London.” Now, I know nothing about art history generally; but I read a social history of Britain as research for this project, and it mentioned paintings of Venice by Canaletto (1697-1768), who was very popular among British elites and did spend some time in London. The dates might be a little early (hard to say, we don’t know how old Mr Wintertowne was), but, well, if this painting isn’t what Clarke had in mind as the one above Miss Wintertowne, it must be a close cousin; and the illustration in this chapter includes a painting that looks similar in overall composition to this. (Canaletto’s historical patron was a Joseph Smith, who did not give his Venice paintings to his wife.)

The aforementioned social history argues that these paintings were attractive to British patricians because they were “views of Venice painted as if it were still in its fifteenth-century prime, the perfect maritime republic… a trading empire, proud of its freedom, yet securely controlled by an oligarchy. Venice… suggested that commercial energy, imperial dominion, a taste for liberty, and stable rule by an exclusive élite could all be painlessly combined.” [*] (Emphasis in original.) JS&MN upends the idea of magic, at least, being controlled by an oligarchy, and I think the “dulled” and “drowned” look of the paintings could foreshadow that development. Also, I strongly suspect this all foreshadows later events in the actual Venice, but we’ll get there.

[*] Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, p. 62 (1992).

Right, then. Let’s talk briefly about the new characters. Sir Walter is introduced as sharp-witted and sometimes “full of cheerful malice,” but on the whole the narrator approves of him, as I mentioned above. He is implicitly contrasted with Mr Drawlight, as Sir Walter maintains “[h]is cheerful manner, his kindness and cleverness, [and] the great station he now held in the world” despite his overwhelming debt. (Sir Walter is also yet another person to mention Vinculus.) And the magisterial Mrs Wintertowne genuinely loves her daughter—though, next chapter, we’ll see that this is a mixed blessing. She also asserts “that, in understanding and in knowledge of right and wrong and in many other things, women are men’s equals” and has only scorn for her stepmother for not taking charge of the household when her father died. Miss Wintertowne I’m going to save for below.

Miscellany

Reference notes about the characters

  • Sir Walter’s “features were all extremely bad; he had a great face half as long again as other faces, with a great nose (quite sharp at the end) stuck into it, two dark eyes like clever bits of coal and two little stubby eyebrows like very small fish swimming bravely in a great sea of face. Yet, taken together, all these ugly parts made a rather pleasing whole.”
  • Mrs Wintertowne is “a lady of mature years, great dignity and magisterial aspect.”
  • Miss Wintertowne’s appearance is described only in terms of her illness, but she has “a quiet, clear voice.”

Reference notes about the history

None, and no footnotes, either.

Favorite quote not already mentioned

Nor were [the unpopular Ministers], upon the whole, bad men; several led quite blameless domestic lives and were remarkably fond of children, music, dogs, landscape painting.

 

Chapter 7: An opportunity unlikely to occur again
October 1807

What Happens

Mr Drawlight tells Mr Norrell that Miss Wintertowne died that afternoon. The news throws Mr Norrell into an agony of indecision over whether to attempt her resurrection by magic. Mr Drawlight takes it upon himself to offer Mr Norrell’s services to Mrs Wintertowne and Sir Walter; Mrs Wintertowne accepts eagerly, and Mr Norrell (along with Mr Drawlight and Mr Lascelles) arrive at the Wintertowne residence.

Commentary

Here we have the dark side of Mrs Wintertowne’s love: it refused to see Miss Wintertowne as she actually was (look, a theme!), and therefore “has never allowed that Perfection might be ill—she could never bear to hear the subject mentioned.” Which means Miss Wintertowne never received any medical treatment.

Otherwise the only thing I have say about this chapter is that Mr Drawlight is its unlikely hero: out of pure self-interest, he sets in motion the rest of the book.

 

Chapter 8: A gentleman with thistle-down hair
October 1807

What Happens

Mr Norrell is taken to the room where Miss Wintertowne’s body lies; he sends away Drawlight and Lascelles over their objections. He summons a fairy, the gentleman with thistle-down hair. The gentleman finds Mr Norrell unaccomplished and, when Mr Norrell declines to accept the gentleman’s offer to aid him in all things, ungrateful. He remarks that perhaps he will offer his services to “the other one,” Mr Norrell’s “dearest friend in all the world,” but Mr Norrell has no friends and no idea what the gentleman is talking about.

The gentleman nevertheless agrees to help, because he thinks Miss Wintertowne would make him a charming companion. Mr Norrell agrees that the gentleman should bestow on Miss Wintertowne an additional 75 years of life, half of which will be the gentleman’s, on the condition that no-one will know that he made the bargain. The gentleman takes one of Miss Wintertowne’s little fingers to signify his claim, as Mr Drawlight discovers to his embarrassment when the resurrected Miss Wintertowne thanks him.

Commentary

And suddenly… plot!

The gentleman is—okay, here you just have to imagine me waving my hands while I try to sum him up. Terrible, and fascinating, and scary, and funny, and alien. I mean: when he’s examining Mr Norrell to try and figure out who he is, he “plucked Mr Norrell’s wig from his head and looked underneath, as if Mr Norrell were a cooking pot on the fire and he wished to know what was for dinner.” That’s both humorous and unsettling at the same time, and I love it.

(He also confirms offhandedly that Mr Norrell is “destined to restore magic to England,” which I don’t think Mr Norrell knows is a prophecy or that it refers to two men.)

Let’s go back to Miss Wintertowne. In the last chapter, Mr Norrell was literally unable to see her for some time; the opening of this chapter has him arrive in the room “where Miss Wintertowne was” (from the prior chapter) to find:

There was no one there.

Which is to say there was someone there. Miss Wintertowne lay upon the bed, but it would have puzzled philosophy to say now whether she were someone or no one at all.

Besides signaling “liminal liminal liminal!” in letters a foot high—Miss Wintertowne’s state for most of the book—these two incidents signal that Mr Norrell doesn’t recognize her, doesn’t see her, as a real person. Which means he can bargain away half her life—more precisely, give her to the gentleman for that time—and only be concerned about “what would her friends say” if they found out. Oh, his reasons are understandable and he believes he’s serving the greater good, but it makes me furious all the same.

Finally, since I spent so much time talking about the Venetian paintings, I must note that as Drawlight and Lascelles wait, “One by one all the candles went out and the light from the fire grew less and less until the Venetian paintings upon the walls became nothing but great squares of deepest black hung upon walls of a black that was slightly less profound.”

Miscellany

Reference notes about the characters

  • Miss Wintertowne had “clear dark grey” eyes and long eyelashes. The illustration for the chapter gives her dark hair.
  • The gentleman was “a tall, handsome person with pale, perfect skin and an immense amount of hair, as pale and shining as thistle-down. His cold, blue eyes glittered and he had long dark eyebrows, which terminated in an upward flourish. He was dressed exactly like any other gentleman, except that his coat was of the brightest green imaginable—the colour of leaves in early summer.”
  • Jonathan Strange has “red hair and a long nose. And he is very conceited—as are all Englishmen!” (according to the gentleman).

Reference notes about the history

  • The gentleman claims to “have been the servant and confidential friend of Thomas Godbless, Ralph Stokesey, Martin Pale and of the Raven King,” though it’s unclear whether this is factual.

Favorite quote not already mentioned

[The spell] took effect almost immediately because suddenly there was something green where nothing green had been before and a fresh, sweet smell as of woods and fields wafted through the room.

 

Chapter 9: Lady Pole
October 1807

What Happens

That morning, public interest in Miss Wintertowne is enormous, and Mr Drawlight and Mr Lascelles, “(benevolent souls!)”, set about meeting it. Sir Walter and Mrs Wintertowne discuss their debt to Mr Norrell, and Sir Walter suggests the wedding should be delayed for a week or two. Mrs Wintertowne disagrees on logistical grounds. When they ask Miss Wintertowne, they find her back from “walk[ing] round Brunswick-square twenty times,” though she would rather have run. She declines to postpone the wedding or to have Sir Walter guard her public appearances, pointing out—accurately—that he is too busy with Government.

The next day they are married, and “[t]he man who drew most eyes, the man whom every body whispered to his neighbour to point out to him, was the magician, Mr Norrell.”

Commentary

One of the things I liked about the first of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books is that it did a good job of conveying something that gets lost in the current popular conception of vampires: it would be genuinely creepy to be dating someone who is, as that book’s title says, dead until dark. And I wonder if a related feeling is partly behind Sir Walter’s suggestion of postponing the wedding. Consummating an arranged marriage to someone you’ve barely talked to must be awkward enough; but if the other person in bed with you was a corpse two days ago… ?

On their marriage prospects generally (not about sex; I don’t recall that JS&MN anywhere acknowledges the existence of sex, but I could be wrong), there’s a very telling bit where Sir Walter thinks that he’s been meaning to get to know Miss Wintertowne better,

for he had begun to suspect that, setting aside the money, she might suit him very well as a wife. He thought that an hour or so of conversation might accomplish a great deal towards setting them upon that footing of perfect unreserve and confidence which was so much to be desired between husband and wife.… And being a man—and a clever one—and forty-two years old, he naturally had a great deal of information and a great many opinions upon almost every subject you care to mention, which he was eager to communicate to a lovely woman of nineteen—all of which, he thought, she could not fail but to find quite enthralling.

I like Sir Walter. But that… literally had me shaking my head at him.

(I should also note that this was hinted at in chapter 6, where Miss Wintertowne expressed an interest in history and her mother said she did not read novels. In response, “‘Yet I hope,’ said Sir Walter eagerly… ‘that you like novels as well, and then, you know, we could read to each other.’” That’s a very charmingly domestic plan that has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual person you are talking to.)

Turning to Miss Wintertowne’s statement that she walked around Brunswick Square twenty times: I don’t know if the dimensions are the same today, but using Google Maps, I calculated it to be about 2/3 of a mile around the outside. Even if it was much smaller then, twenty laps for someone who had been an invalid—also dead, let’s not forget!—is certainly remarkable. Here’s Sir Walter and Mrs Wintertowne’s reaction:

They stared at her. It was—apart from anything else—probably the longest speech Sir Walter had ever heard her utter. She was sitting very straight with a bright eye and blooming complexion—the very picture of health and beauty. She spoke so rapidly and with such expression; she looked so cheerful and was so exceedingly animated. It was as if Mr Norrell had not only restored her to life, but to twice or thrice the amount of life she had had before.

It was very odd.

That’s great construction: not only does it suggest that “half her life” may not be as simple as duration, that four-word paragraph thumps down and makes us wonder what consequences Mr Norrell failed to foresee.

 

Chapter 10: The difficulty of finding employment for a magician
October 1807

What Happens

The Ministers are also caught up in the excitement over Mr Norrell and are eager to employ him, but “[i]t had been two hundred years since the English Government had last commissioned a magician and they were a little out of the habit of it.”

The following suggestions are rejected: cast a spell over Lincolnshire so that young men there would volunteer (according to Mr Norrell, “The difficulty lies in confining the application of the spell to Lincolnshire—and to young men.”); resurrect Mr Pitt, the Prime Minister who died nearly two years ago (Mr Norrell “was heard to say something about the condition of the body”); and send Mr Norrell on a military campaign (“the admirals and the generals would never forgive the Government if they did it”). At the end of the chapter, no employment for Mr Norrell has been discovered.

Commentary

And then we have a comic interlude and a shift outward from the tightly personal action of the last few chapters. About which I have literally nothing else to say, so we’ll leave matters there until next week. See you then!


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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