Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: Part 3

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 these 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 11 to 16, in which there is a prophecy and Stephen Black and an unexpected room, and I loathe Jonathan Strange’s father with every fiber of my being.

Chapter 11: Brest
November 1807

What Happens

At many French ports, impossible rain appears, followed by hundreds of blockading British warships—more warships “than there were upon the face of the earth.” In Brest, Admiral Desmoulins’ servant Perroquet, a dark-skinned dwarf, observes the British ships for four days and concludes that they are “more like pictures of ships,” and further, one of them is “melting.” The Admiral, Perroquet, and a Captain sail out to investigate; Perroquet realizes that the ships are made of rain.

After two hours it stopped raining and in the same moment the spell broke, which Perroquet and the Admiral and Captain Jumeau knew by a curious twist of their senses, as if they had tasted a string quartet, or been, for a moment, deafened by the sight of the colour blue. For the merest instant the rain-ships became mist-ships and then the breeze gently blew them apart.

The Frenchmen were alone upon the empty Atlantic.

Commentary

I have only three small points to make about this short chapter.

First, Perroquet. That is likely not his birth name, as the narrator tells us it means “parrot.” He, like Stephen Black, is a highly competent and trusted servant despite his appearance: “no bigger than an eight-year-old child, and as dark as a European can be.” The Admiral is “very proud of Perroquet; proud of his size, proud of his cleverness, proud of his agility and most of all, proud of his colour. Admiral Desmoulins often boasted that he had seen blacks who would appear fair next to Perroquet.” And while this has, to me, more than a whiff of “bragging about your exotic pet”—again, note the name—the Admiral does seem to take him seriously (the Captain is jealous of his influence), and I think the narrative treats him as the equal of the other men.

Second, the narrator considers the idea of a metal ship to be “very whimsical,” which puts her before the 1850s, when ironclads were developed.

Third, the experience of magic is very sense-based and difficult to describe, which we’ll talk more about below.

 

Chapter 12: The Spirit of English Magic urges Mr Norrell to the Aid of Britannia
December 1807

What Happens

The blockade makes Mr Norrell a hero to both the public and the elite. He shows members of the Admiralty a vision in a silver basin, and gives speech to the mermaid figurehead of a captured French ship. Mr Drawlight and Mr Lascelles make themselves indispensable to Mr Norrell and agree to keep other people from gaining influence over him. Mr Lascelles suggests that Mr Norrell publish, and after initial reluctance, he creates a periodical called The Friends of English Magic, published by a bookseller named John Murray and edited by Lord Portishead, a theoretical magician who greatly admires Mr Norrell.

A footnote states that in 1815, Mr Murray and Mr Norrell quarreled and Mr Murray was forced to sell The Friends of English Magic to another publisher. “In 1816 Murray and Strange planned to set up a rival periodical to The Friends of English Magic, entitled The Famulus, but only one issue was ever published.”

Commentary

In comments to last week’s post, ChrisRichardson said that “What I particularly like about these chapters is that Mr. Lascelles really starts to become prominent and is a constant source of dark humor.” And I did indeed neglect Mr Lascelles then, but now is a good time to talk about him, as he comes fully into his role with regard to Mr Norrell. The narrator tells us that he

was one of that uncomfortable breed of men who despise steady employment of any sort. Though perfectly conscious of his own superior understanding, he had never troubled to acquire any particular skills or knowledge, and had arrived at the age of thirty-nine entirely unfitted for any office or occupation. He had looked about him and seen men, who had worked diligently all the years of their youth, risen to positions of power and influence; and there is no doubt that he envied them.

In chapter 5, the narrator calls him “a clever, cynical man” who provokes Mr Norrell for his own amusement. And, showing his cynicism, he is the source of the jump-quote for this post. I remember his end, but not the details of how he gets there; I just have this impression of him as hollow but dangerous with it—actually, he reminds me of Envy from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, now that I think of it—so I’ll be looking to see how this develops.

With regard to Drawlight, the foreshadowing from chapter 5 has come to pass: “Childermass had once said that it would be an odd sort of magician that would employ Drawlight, yet Mr Norrell now employed him constantly.”

Two new characters, as well. John Murray is “energetic and businesslike,” a Scotchman (Drawlight has some prejudice against him on this ground), and the survivor of a stunning act of violence that is barely tutted at by Drawlight and Lascelles: he is blind in one eye because “One of his schoolmasters stuck a pen-knife in it when he was [a] boy.” And Lord Portishead resembles nothing so much as an Ent: he is “a gentle soul whom everything made uncomfortable”; “very tall and thin with long, thin hands and feet”; and at one point becomes “so agitated that he began to sway backwards and forwards — which, taken in conjunction with his height and whitish clothes, gave him the appearance of a silver-birch tree in a high wind.”

They are both are quite the contrast to Drawlight and Lascelles—indeed, a footnote quotes John Segundus as writing that Lord Portishead “was besides a devoted husband and the father of ten children” and “could no more recognize evil than he could spontaneously understand Chinese.” And thus, the quarrel between Mr Murray and Mr Norrell in 1815 bodes ill; and the comment that Strange and Murray’s rival publication only published one issue is, I think, the first hint at Strange’s eventual disappearance.

This chapter also confirms that there are no known practicing magicians in France. This brings up the question of magic and location—which I’m going to save for the next chapter.

Miscellany

Favorite quote not already mentioned

While I love the image of the draymen discovering Mr Norrell’s carriage in the traffic jam and making a triumphal path for him at the start of the chapter, I’m going to have to go with the end here:

There is not much to interest the serious student of magic in the early issues [of The Friends of English Magic] and the only entertainment to be got from them is contained in several articles in which Portishead attacks on Mr Norrell’s behalf: gentleman-magicians; lady-magicians; street-magicians; vagabond-magicians; child-prodigy-magicians; the Learned Society of York Magicians; the Learned Society of Manchester Magicians; learned societies of magicians in general; any other magicians whatsoever.

 

Chapter 13: The magician of Threadneedle-street
December 1807

Though Vinculus is a proven charlatan, he “retained a certain authority, a certain native dignity which meant that he, among all the street-magicians of London, was treated with a measure of respect.” Mr Norrell refuses to visit him, but Vinculus sneaks into his library, disparages books as a means of learning magic, and tells him his destiny, all of which Mr Norrell finds discomfiting in the extreme. The servants physically evict Vinculus. Mr Norrell is later upset to find that some of what Vinculus was saying was echoed in one of his favorite books by the Argentine magician Thomas Lanchester.

Commentary

The rest of the book makes clear that the prophecy is a true prophecy of the Raven King in the sense that these are his words, he is the “I” in the text, and he is speaking accurately. Here it is in full. The punctuation is as in the text; the ellipses signal shifts to the narration away from Vinculus’ speech. For the sake of readability, I took the liberty of paragraphing it at the periods.

I reached out my hand; England’s rivers turned and flowed the other way…
I reached out my hand; my enemies’s blood stopt in their veins…
I reached out my hand; thought and memory flew out of my enemies’ heads like a flock of starlings;
My enemies crumpled like empty sacks.

I came to them out of mists and rain;
I came to them in dreams at midnight;
I came to them in a flock of ravens that filled a northern sky at dawn;
When they thought themselves safe I came to them in a cry that broke the silence of a winter wood…
The rain made a door for me and I went through it;
The stones made a throne for me and I sat upon it;
Three kingdoms were given to me to be mine forever;
England was given to me to be mine forever.

The nameless slave wore a silver crown;
The nameless slave was a king in a strange country…
The weapons that my enemies raised against me are venerated in Hell as holy relics;
Plans that my enemies made against me are preserved as holy texts;
Blood that I shed upon ancient battlefields is scraped from the stained earth by Hell’s sacristans and placed in a vessel of silver and ivory.

I gave magic to England, a valuable inheritance
But Englishmen have despised my gift
Magic shall be written upon the sky by the rain but they shall not be able to read it;
Magic shall be written on the faces of the stony hills but their minds shall not be able to contain it;
In winter the barren trees shall be a black writing but they shall not understand it…
Two magicians shall appear in England…
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand…
The first shall pass his life alone; he shall be his own gaoler;
The second shall tread lonely roads, the storm above his head, seeking a dark tower upon a high hillside…
I sit upon a black throne in the shadows but they shall not see me.

The rain shall make a door for me and I shall pass through it;
The stones shall make a throne for me and I shall sit upon it…
The nameless slave shall wear a silver crown,
The nameless slave shall be a king in a strange country…

First: wow, that’s so good. It doesn’t have the ear-worm quality of The Dark Is Rising’s prophetic poem (apparently I am feeling very comparative, this post), but it makes me want to read it out loud in an entirely different way.

Second: what a lovely sleight-of-hand in those last two lines. There is absolutely no reason to think that the second appearance of “the nameless slave” is a different person than the first appearance: yes, they’re in the future tense, but so were the two lines just before, and those were “I.” And we haven’t met Stephen yet and we won’t know for some time that he doesn’t know his birth name. But it all falls into place so well by the end that even if you didn’t spot it (I didn’t; did anyone else?), it’s not surprising when it’s revealed. (I don’t think there’s an argument for the two magicians also being people other than Norrell & Strange, but I’ll keep an eye out for that.)

Third: magic. This is why I was saving “no magic in France” for this chapter: the Raven King says, “I gave magic to England” (my emphasis). And the prophecy refers to the land and natural elements acknowledging his Kingship and being a source of magic that Englishmen cannot understand. Magic comes from the physical elements of England.

Textually, there is magic in at least one other country: there’s a reference very late (chapter 63) to “a very powerful Scottish magician, the Magician of Athodel.” I didn’t remember this reference; I found it in an interview with the author, who also points out that the Raven King identified as Norman and that Jonathan Strange is half-Scottish (that is, English magic, and thus Englishness, comes from location and self-identity not ancestry), and—to my personal delight—cites a fanfic called “Introduction to the Caribbean Books of Magic, Second Edition”, a JS&MN/Pirates of the Caribbean crossover to say that “Other countries do have their own magics — I can’t see why they wouldn’t.” England is just fortunate because of the Raven King.

It’s this connection to nature that causes the very sense-based descriptions of magic, as experienced by the French all the way back in the first chapter for this post (see, I didn’t forget!). Normally, I get impatient at anti-intellectual mysticism (yikes, something I have in common with Mr Norrell!): no, Luke shouldn’t put away his targeting system and use the Force, he should use the Force in conjunction with the other tools available to him! But this works for me because I can’t expect the sky and stones and trees to speak in ways that I comprehend intellectually, and so I can’t expect that of the magic that comes from them, either.

Miscellany

  • Vinculus is “a thin, shabby, ragged hawk of a man. His face was the colour of three-day-old milk; his hair was the colour of a coal-smoke-and-ashes London sky; and his clothes were the colour of the Thames at dirty Wapping.… He stood very erect and the expression of his fierce grey eyes was naturally imperious.” He also has “a curious curving mark of a vivid blue, not unlike the upward stroke of a pen” on his neck, which “most resembled was that barbaric painting of the skin which is practised by the natives of the South Sea islands.”
  • His booth is opposite the Bank of England. I was in England and Ireland this summer and made a small effort to organize tourism around this project and Regency-set novels generally: Wellington’s house, the Bath Assembly Rooms, that kind of thing. Unfortunately, though I did walk around the Bank of England, the brute fortress of a thing I trudged past was built later; at the time, Sir John Soane was well underway with his extremely well-regarded renovations. But I suspect that then, as now, it was an extremely busy location.

 

Chapter 14: Heart-break Farm
January 1808

What Happens

Laurence Strange is a money-obsessed asshole who neglects his wife, who dies; alienates his son, Jonathan, who he regards as “like a boggy field or a copse full of diseased trees — worth money on paper but failing to yield a good annual return”; and deliberately attempts to injure or perhaps kill a servant, but freezes to death himself instead.

Commentary

…I’m sorry, everyone. I couldn’t bear to spend any more time summarizing Laurence Strange’s behavior. He is such an asshole.

He is a cautionary tale/the flip side of Sir Walter, in that he also married an heiress to get out of debt (“a young Scottish lady with £900 a year”); unlike Sir Walter, as we will see in a moment, he sequesters her in a rural area near the Welsh border and “made it quite plain that her society and conversation were irksome to him.” And since he caused Jonathan to spend half the year with his mother’s family in Edinburgh, “it is not to be wondered at if [Jonathan] grew up a little spoilt, a little fond of his own way and a little inclined to think well of himself.”

In a chicken/egg moment, his despicable actions are part and parcel of the social and economic hierarchies of the time. His wife possibly had the legal ability to control some of the fortune she brought to the marriage*, but apparently did not feel she had the social ability to take the huge step of leaving him, especially given that they had a child very early in the marriage. He uses his superior economic position to ruin Mr Wyvern, who, it is implied, died of the heartbreak. And he uses the master-servant relationship to deliberately injure Jeremy, while the other servants feel powerless to stop him.

*Around this point, “if their parents were affluent and careful, even [British] women who married could have property settled on them in advance which their husbands could not subsequently touch.” Colley, Linda: Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, p. 239 (1992). The text of JS&MN refers to “the terms of the marriage settlement,” under which it was eventually concluded that “a large part of Mrs Strange’s fortune must [after her death] be put aside for her son for him to inherit at his majority.”

We also have an interesting comparison to Lascelles in Jeremy, the new servant, who “had a temper to rival Mr Strange’s own,” and “was sometimes sarcastic, often rude, and… had a very high opinion of his own abilities and a correspondingly low one of other people’s,” but also “possessed a great deal of good sense and was as energetic in defending others from real injury as he was in revenging imaginary insults to himself.” (I don’t remember what happens to Jeremy in the book; I look forward to finding out.)

And we have our first on-screen appearance of Jonathan Strange, which has an interesting resonance with Lady Pole’s in that at first, Jeremy can’t perceive him (“Entering cautiously he found the room apparently unoccupied”). Also, when Jeremy does see him, it’s in a mirror; mirrors become magically important later, as I recall, and here one gives Jeremy the literal different perspective he needed to see something that was there all along.

 

Chapter 15: “How is Lady Pole?”
January 1808

What Happens

Lady Pole “was a great deal more than well. Next to her ladyship every other person in the world looked pale, tired, half-dead.” Her cleverness and outspoken views win her the admiration of Society and of Sir Walter. Her first dinner-party is a success from Society’s point of view.

From Stephen Black’s point of view, it was unacceptable. Stephen was Sir Walter’s only servant before his marriage and “his duties and responsibilities extended far beyond the range of any ordinary butler,” despite being his being black. He chides three footmen for errors afterward, and is exasperated and baffled when they blame their errors on seeing and hearing things no-one else did: the gentleman with thistle-down hair standing behind Lady Pole; incredibly sad pipe and fiddle music; and a knocking at the window from a wood that had grown up around the house.

Commentary

Despite the suggestion post-resurrection, I don’t think Mr Norrell can have restored Lady Pole to more than the amount of life she had before, because she had double the life, she wouldn’t be so drained later by spending half her time in the gentleman with the thistle-down hair’s realm. So despite the remarkableness of it, I think is what her state ought to be when she’s not burdened by illness. I hope this bodes well for her life post-canon—likewise Sir Walter’s admiration for her: “He privately confided to Lady Winsell, his particular friend, that her ladyship was exactly the wife to suit him.” (Though, I can never be sure when historical idiom is involved just how much is being concealed: does “particular friend” mean “mistress” here? That doesn’t necessarily undercut his sincerity, I’m just curious.)

(I particularly love that Lady Pole tells Mr Norrell at the dinner party that they should find another practicing magician partly for his sake: “And we shall all hope that they soon succeed, because I think you must feel a little lonely.”)

As for Stephen, I obtained a massive history book to give me context on his life, Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (the 2010 trade paperback), which I have entirely failed to carve out enough time to read properly. But here is some super-quick context gleaned from a hasty page-through; more, I hope to come. Freyer states that “in practical terms the institution of slavery, in Britain itself, largely withered away between the 1740s and the 1790s.… as a result of the slaves’ own resistance” (p. 203). But the slave trade itself was not abolished until 1807 (note that we are in January 1808 at this point in JS&MN). More, slavery continued in the British colonies in the West Indies until 1833, and the sugar plantations there were hugely important to the British economy (pp. 14-18). Freyer has an entire chapter tracing “The rise of English racism,” but it appears that at this historical point, the prevailing theory was what he calls “pseudo-scientific racism,” based on the idea that Europeans were the furthest evolved from animals and thus superior to other, more bestial, races (pp. 165-170).

Here, note that the servants can’t conceive of Stephen as an ordinary, highly-competent man solely because he is black. Instead, they embrace the rumor that he was secretly an African prince, apparently playing butler… for the fun of it? “For it was hardly likely that such independent, proud-spirited Englishmen and women would have submitted to the authority of a black man, had they not instinctively felt that respect and reverence which a commoner feels for a king!” (Emphasis in original.)

More on this as we learn about Stephen’s life and I do my homework properly.

 

Chapter 16: Lost-hope
January 1808

What Happens

About two weeks later, Stephen discovers a bell ringing for a new room in the house: Lost-hope. There he finds the gentleman with the thistle-down hair getting ready for a ball. Stephen shaves him and helps him with his clothes and hair. The gentleman is much impressed with Stephen’s skill and abruptly decides, based on Stephen’s appearance, that Stephen is not a servant. When Stephen denies it, the gentleman declares he will look into the mystery, but meanwhile invites Stephen to a ball. There, everyone is dressed very finely, indeed extraordinarily so; but the room is dimly lit and there is only the sad music the servants heard before. Stephen dances with some of the women and observes the gentleman (who is very pleased by Stephen’s presence) dancing all night with Lady Pole.

Commentary

I love the way this slides between our world and Faerie, how Stephen finds a door he’s never seen before and from there things seem to him briefly unusual but then perfectly normal, such as already being at the ball without moving from the room. (Am I the only one who reads fairy tales to kids and tells them, “If you find a stairway and a door you’ve never seen before in your house, don’t be like this character but come find us right away!”?) And the descriptions of the women’s attire at the ball are deliciously creepy: “he danced with a young woman who had no hair, but who wore a wig of shining beetles that swarmed and seethed upon her head.”

Speaking of creepy, in the gentleman’s room Stephen notices “a queer carved chair that appeared to be made of bones. Stephen did not quite believe that they were human bones, although they did look remarkably like it.” I’m guessing that this isn’t necessarily a Use of Weapons reference, that the idea of a chair of bones was first in some fairy tale or another, even though my Google-fu is inadequate at present to turn anything up.

The gentleman can’t see past the surface in a different way from the servants: “What is beauty for, I should like to know, if not to stand as a visible sign of one’s superiority to everyone else?” Of course cultural standards of beauty and the idea that appearance is linked to virtue also have extremely close ties to racism when employed by humans, but I think that racism is one fault that is not attributable to the gentleman, at least at this point.

Also, admire this use of unconventional punctuation in the gentleman’s dialogue:

“These guests of mine on whose account you are so scrupulous, they are all my vassals and subjects. There is not one of them who would dare to criticize me or any one I chose to call my friend. And if they did, why! we could always kill them!”

Why! so you could indeed. Lovely combination of humor (from the incongruity) and terror.

Miscellany

Favorite quote not already mentioned

Gentlemen are often invited to stay in other people’s houses. Rooms hardly ever are.

More consequences of the gentleman’s having been invited by Mr Norrell next week, when we wrap up Volume I. 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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