Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: Part 4

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 17 through 22, in which we conclude Volume I by finally properly meeting the other title character.

Chapter 17: The unaccountable appearance of twenty-five guineas
January 1808

What Happens

Mrs Brandy, who inherited the best grocer’s in Town from her miser husband, is distressed when her staff find twenty-five guineas (worth almost £1,800 today) in the cash-box. The coins give off an uncanny light, though no-one notices. Mrs Brandy sends for Stephen Black, who she is in love with and who does much business with the shop on behalf of Sir Walter, but though he gives them sound advice, he is exhausted and distant—as is, he reports, Lady Pole.

He leaves the shop and collides with a stout gentleman who sees Stephen’s black face and “immediately conclud[ed] that he was about to be robbed or knocked down.” But the other man apparently turns into an oak tree before he can strike Stephen or call the constables, and Stephen finds that the neighborhood has transformed into the woods around Lost-hope.

Commentary

Here we have an excursion into a different social class than we have seen before, as represented by an independent working woman, even. I’m probably the only person to read the narrator’s description of Mrs Brandy (“though I say it must have been a strange sort of man that did not love to look at her, for she was everything that was delightful and amiable, all soft brown curls, light blue eyes and a sweet expression” (emphasis in original)) and think that the narrator also finds Mrs Brandy attractive to look at, but bisexual characters are rare enough that I have to take what scraps I can find to form my head-canons.

Mrs Brandy is a bit fluttery in this chapter, but we do not see her under good circumstances, and she has maintained “[t]he best grocer’s in Town” on her own. And the narrator makes a point of saying that her actions toward Stephen Black are quite logical:

The gentlemen among my readers will smile to themselves and say that women never did understand business, but the ladies may agree with me that Mrs Brandy understood her business very well, for the chief business of Mrs Brandy’s life was to make Stephen Black as much in love with her as she was with him.

She has good, and notably non-prejudiced, taste. Though interracial marriage was not illegal in Britain at this time, the (alas) still-common racist ideas underlying such bans, that black men were sexually dangerous and that white woman who had children by black men were contributing to the pollution of the race, had been well present for some time. And we see another still-relevant manifestation of racism when Stephen bumps into the stout gentleman, who immediately prepares to commit violence against Stephen on the automatic presumption that Stephen is dangerous: “It was the moment that Stephen had dreaded all his life.”

It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that the light from the coins shows people according to the gentleman with the thistle-down hair’s opinions. I was misled at first by the light appearing to crown Stephen with a diadem, which will happen, and couldn’t figure out why Mrs Brandy and the shop workers were given “qualities quite foreign to their characters.” And I can’t resist quoting the changes to the shop’s merchandise:

Upon other evenings the gilt lettering upon the drawers proclaimed the contents to be such things as: Mace (Blades), Mustard (Unhusked), Nutmegs, Ground Fennel, Bay Leaves, Pepper of Jamaica, Essence of Ginger, Caraway, Peppercorns and Vinegar and all the other stock of a fashionable and prosperous grocery business. But now the words appeared to read: Mercy (Deserved), Mercy (Undeserved), Nightmares, Good Fortune, Bad Fortune, Persecution by Families, Ingratitude of Children, Confusion, Perspicacity and Veracity. It was as well that none of them noticed this odd change. Mrs Brandy would have been most distressed by it had she known. She would not have had the least notion what to charge for these new commodities.

Finally, I have been neglecting descriptions of Lost-hope. Here are the relevant bits from the past two chapters, so we may judge the TV adaptation as we like: it is “an immense stone house with a thousand windows,” none of which have glass. The stone is plain grey, and inside is “very worn and uneven in places.” Stephen thinks of it as “Gothic” though “it had none of the usual Gothic embellishments.” The house is surrounded by a high wall and “a wide and dreary courtyard where skulls, broken bones, and rusting weapons were scattered about, as if they had lain there for centuries.” The house’s “only entrance was a mean little door [that] Stephen had to bend low to pass through.”

 

Chapter 18: Sir Walter consults gentlemen in several professions
February 1808

What Happens

Lady Pole “was in excellent health two days ago and now she is cold, pale, listless and unhappy.” The servants can only tell him that the house is haunted. Sir Walter calls a physician, who thinks she’s sulking because she did not get her way in some minor marital dispute. He calls Mr Norrell, who refuses to see Lady Pole, calling it “a spiritual ailment” that magic cannot help with. Lady Pole does not improve: “she sat, hour after hour, wrapped in her shawl, neither moving nor speaking, and bad dreams and shadows gathered about her.”

Of course Mr Norrell lied, because he recognized the servants’ description of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair; he immediately summons the gentleman when he returns home. Mr Norrell is furious, not over Lady Pole’s condition, but the prospect that he might lose his influence with Sir Walter; the gentleman is displeased to be accused of cheating on their bargain and to have Mr Norrell refuse his aid once again.

Commentary

The physician is such a perfect distillation of so many sexist attitudes that I loathe (Men Are from Mars; marriage as struggle of wills; women are infantile) that I shall not spend another moment on him.

I am not sure that the gentleman with the thistle-down hair isn’t cheating, after all. He already has half Lady Pole’s life by her presence at night, but is taking even more during the days by rendering her so miserable—I speak from considerable experience with sleep deprivation when I say that a single night without sleep should not result in her condition, especially given the absolutely enormous quantities of energy she had previously.

We have more instances of things seen or unseen depending on circumstances: one of the servants sees the gentleman, and Sir Walter has not; and when Sir Walter returns home (through “the eeriest part of a winter day” when “[t]wilight was turning all the buildings and people to blurred, black nothingnesses”) and looks into the drawing-room where Lady Pole had been that morning, “At first it did not seem as though any body could be there.… And then he saw her.”

This chapter is Mr Norrell’s lowest point to date, I’d say, as he lies to Sir Walter’s face and then (as I noted in the jump quote) “scornfully” declares that he does not care about Lady Pole: “What is the fate of one young woman compared to the success of English magic?”

Finally, there is a discussion about the heretical belief that someone cured by magic is no longer subject to religion, which I note for reference and also because it refers to a twelfth-century King of Southern England, Stephen, who I presume is Stephen of Blois, someone I know through the White Ship and the Brother Cadfael novels. It’s true that a division of England for centuries should have resulted in much more historical divergence than we have in this book, but I regard that as the price of admission. I know it bothers other people more, which is perfectly reasonable.

 

Chapter 19: The Peep-O’Day-Boys
February 1808

What Happens

Stephen Black also suffers from the same affliction as Lady Pole, though he must continue his duties. At the “Peep-O’Day-Boys, a club for the grander sort of male servants in London’s grand houses,” he encounters the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, who claims responsibility for the twenty-five guineas (“when you and she marry, the money will be yours.”) and tells Stephen that he has “conceived a plan to make you the king of some fairy kingdom!”

Commentary

Weirdly, the Peep o’ Day Boys were “an agrarian Protestant association in 18th century Ireland” who were blamed for violent persecutions of Catholics in 1795-96. I am surprised that servants adopted this name for a club: yes, England was extremely Protestant at this time and felt hemmed in and threatened by Catholics, and yet it seems… undignified.

Stephen feels “like a person sleepwalking,” and “nothing amused him; nothing satisfied him. All was shadows, emptiness, echoes and dust.” This echoes some descriptions I have read of clinical depression, but I don’t think it’s meant as an exact parallel, which is probably for the best given how problematic such parallels can be.

The gentleman’s side of his conversation with Stephen is notable because it introduces his plan to make Stephen king of a fairy kingdom, which will of course come true but not in the way that the gentleman intends. This book is full of characters planting the seeds of their own destruction, it seems to me; it’s very moral, for lack of a better word, in that regard.

I do love the gentleman’s discussion of London. Probably he’s exaggerating when he says that when he was last there, “There were houses ornamented with stone dragons, griffins and lions, symbolizing the wisdom, courage and ferocity of the occupants, while in the gardens of those same houses might be found flesh-and-blood dragons, griffins and lions, locked in strong cages”—but this is an alternate history with magic, and I like the uncertainty and the image both. (He’s correct that Carlton House will be demolished within twenty years, though his claim that “London itself will endure, oh!, scarcely another two thousand years” cannot yet be evaluated.)

Finally, we get the first hint at Stephen being a nameless slave, when the gentleman’s mention of chains causes him to flash back to the slave ship, though he does not realize it is a memory.

 

Chapter 20: The unlikely milliner
February 1808

What Happens

Mr Norrell makes a self-aggrandizing comment that is seized upon by various members of Government as a reason to start a school for magicians. He manages to duck that and “was able to turn his attention to a far more agreeable project: that of destroying the magicians already in existence.” The Government foists him off onto the City of London, which obligingly kicks out all the magicians within its boundaries, except Vinculus, who refuses to go.

Mr Norrell gives Childermass three spells and sends him to make Vinculus leave. Childermass initially poses as a milliner, but when Vinculus accuses him of fraud, Childermass admits his purpose and tells Vinculus he prefers to use his own methods. They adjourn to an ale-house; Vinculus pockets the papers on which the spells are written.

Commentary

The Government stuff at the start of this chapter made me laugh, both trying to get Mr Norrell to start a school and trying to duck his plan to have the Government regulate magic. Based on my experience of organizations, especially government organizations in a system with overlapping jurisdictions, it just rang really true.

There are two points of note about Childermass and Vinculus in this chapter. First, going back to the seeds of one’s own destruction / the Raven King meddling: if Mr Norrell hadn’t instructed Childermass to drive Vinculus away, Vinculus wouldn’t have known what Jonathan Strange looked like and wouldn’t have been able to sell him the spells, two chapters from now.

Second, I was quite surprised that Mr Norrell sent Childermass with spells and that the reveal that Childermass could definitely do magic was so casual! That Mr Norrell trusted Childermass with spells, and trusted him at all knowing that he could do magic, is remarkable.

 

Chapter 21: The cards of Marseilles
February 1808

What Happens

Vinculus tells Childermass that the prophecy of the Raven King is written in a book, but Mr Norrell will never see it, much less own it. Childermass tells Vinculus his fortune through Tarot cards: Vinculus has a message to deliver to the Knight of Wands, a finely-dressed man carrying a thick branch, and “may expect a meeting leading to an ordeal of some sort, perhaps even death”; but he “will achieve [his] purpose.” Vinculus deals a spread for Childermass but cannot interpret it. However, when he lays out cards for Mr Norrell, they are all the Emperor and they all look like the Raven King:

By the fifth the number and name of the card had disappeared, but the picture remained the same: a young, dark-haired king at whose feet strutted a great, black bird. Childermass turned over each and every card. He even examined the remainder of the pack, but in his anxiety to see he fumbled and the cards somehow fell everywhere.Black Kings crowded about Childermass, spinning in the cold, grey air. Upon each card was the same figure with the same pale, unforgiving gaze.

“There!” said Vinculus softly. “That is what you may tell the magician of Hanover-square! That is his past and his present and his future!”

Mr Norrell is furious to hear this. Childermass searches for the book but finds only five wives of Vinculus’s; his cards suggest to him that the book is hidden and in an unknown language.

Commentary

The nine cards that Vinculus deals Childermass are:

  1. XVIII La Lune [The Moon]
  2. XVI La Maison Dieu [The House of God, or The Tower] reversed
  3. The Nine of Swords
  4. Valet de Baton [The Page of Wands]
  5. The Ten of Batons reversed
  6. II La Papesse [The High Priestess]
  7. X La Rove de Fortvne [The Wheel of Fortune]
  8. The Two of Coins
  9. The King of Cups

My knowledge of Tarot consists solely of vague memories of Tim Powers’ Last Call, so I turned to Google, which found this blog post by Sam Kelly:

First is the Moon (doubt, deception, romanticism) and then the House of God reversed, which may mean that everything’s going dramatically pear-shaped but he’s going to come out of it well himself. A problem, the Nine of Swords (between life and death, dreams & reality), and its solution, the Page of Wands (drive; walking through fire), are next; the Ten of Wands, reversed, shows he’s bearing up under a massive load, and the High Priestess shows that the load is text & mystery. (It also represents the querent, interestingly enough—in this case, Vinculus.) The Wheel of Fortune, the Two of Coins, and the King of Cups show a sudden change, a devious approach to life, and a powerful water-associated man.

It’s mildly annoying that we can’t determine this from the text—all the other cards are explained by the chapter—but it’s also vague enough that it’s probably not really much of a clue.

We have more hints that the book of the prophecy is written on Vinculus: Childermass drew these cards on scraps of papers, and Vinculus’ Page of Cups has writing that shows through from the back: “even his face and hands bore parts of letters. Vinculus laughed when he saw it as though he recognized it.” (Though the image for the Page of Cups is non-standard, the Knight of Wands really does carry a thick branch in this deck.)

The bit where Childermass discovers Vinculus’ five wives is funny, of course, but I note that he told the fifth the truth (“though he appeared to the world to be a servant of the great Mr Norrell of Hanover-square, he was in secret a magician himself”) and she’s the one who, “much to everyone’s surprize, fell in love with him.” (Vinculus tells Childermass that “all magicians lie,” which (a) sets up an “all Cretans” problem and (b) makes me wonder why he says that, since magic itself doesn’t seem intrinsically corrupting or deceitful—or maybe the gentleman has also tainted it, like saidin, as well as limiting access to it? I will have to look for that.)

Finally, the story about the history of the ale-house where they meet, where one criminal sets thirty men “to tear the slates off the roof and unpick the very bricks of walls until he could reach inside and pluck out the thief,” is epicly awesome.

 

Chapter 22: The Knight of Wands
February 1808

What Happens

Jonathan Strange is amiable but without any particular aim or drive in life. He wants to marry Arabella Woodhope, who he regards as something between an inspiration and a conscience. When his father dies, he decides to propose (“She would never be more full of anxious tenderness than she was at this moment and he would never be richer.”).

On the way to the friends’ house where Miss Woodhope is visiting, he finds a crowd of villagers surrounding a sleeping man carrying weapons. He initially rides past, but imagines the conversation he would have with Miss Woodhope afterward and turns back, taking a branch to use as a club. The villagers tell him that the sleeping man is a magician who they want to drive out of town or send to the workhouse. The man, who is Vinculus, awakes and tells Mr Strange that he “is destined to be a great magician” and that he had been shown a picture of him ten days ago. Mr Strange tells him he does not know any magic. Vinculus sells him the spells he took from Childermass, and they both depart without further incident.

When Mr Strange arrives at Miss Woodhope’s friends’ house, he tells her that he is going to study magic because he thinks it will make her want to marry him. He then successfully performs one of the spells, “to Discover what My Enemy is doing Presently”: it shows him Mr Norrell. The chapter ends with his reaction:

Strange began to laugh. “Well, Henry, you can cease frowning at me. If I am a magician, I am a very indifferent one. Other adepts summon up fairy-spirits and long-dead kings. I appear to have conjured the spirit of a banker.”

Commentary

This chapter sets up Jonathan Strange in opposition to his father and to Mr Norrell—both of whom are loathsome at this point—but makes a point of conveying that he’s not a hero. Sure, he “was a very different sort of person from his father,” and Mr Norrell is his enemy; but “though he had no striking vices, his virtues were perhaps almost as hard to define.” He has a sense of humor, but he doesn’t seem to have much of an intrinsic conscience and he takes up magic on a whim to impress a girl—prompted by the Raven King, ultimately, but still a whim. I don’t remember finding this disconcerting at the time, but it wouldn’t surprise me if other people did.

Miss Woodhope teeters, in Jonathan Strange’s thoughts, between the “angel in the house” (bad) and the person who makes you want to be your best (good). The narrator makes a point of saying both that his perception of her is warped (“Strange’s musings concerning Miss Woodhope had produced a most inexact portrait of her”) and that he has good reason to love her:

She had a lively disposition, a quick mind and a fondness for the comical. She was always very ready to smile and, since a smile is the most becoming ornament that any lady can wear, she had been known upon occasion to outshine women who were acknowledged beauties in three counties.

The encounter with Vinculus is funny, but I don’t have anything particular to say about it that I haven’t already. I also don’t have anything to say about Henry Woodhope, other than that we’ll get back to him in The Ladies of Grace Adieu.

Miscellany

Reference notes about the characters

  • Jonathan Strange is 28. He is “rather tall,” and though “[s]ome people thought him handsome, this was not by any means the universal opinion. His face had two faults: a long nose and an ironic expression.” His hair also has “a reddish tinge.”
  • Mr Norrell is “perhaps fifty.”

Favorite quote not already mentioned

Mrs Redmond, Miss Woodhope’s “kindly, placid,” undistinguished friend, asks:

“Did your father leave many bequests, Mr Strange?”

“No, madam. None. He hated everybody.”

“Ah! That is fortunate, is it not?”

And that wraps up Volume I! We have a topic, the restoration of English magic; a problem, the gentleman with the thistle-down hair having enspelled Lady Pole and Stephen Black; a prophecy, and both players in it; and a statement that those two people are enemies: but we end on a deliberately deflating note, Strange laughing at having conjured a banker. Next week, we’ll start Volume II (chapters 23 to 26) and see how long it takes for the tone to shift. 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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