Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: Part 5

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 the start of Volume II, chapters 23 through 26, in which we are reunited with old friends and our title characters become student and teacher.

Chapter 23: The Shadow House
July 1809

What Happens

Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus visit the Shadow House, former home of Gregory Absalom and Maria Absalom, which is “known as one of the most magical places in England.” In the gardens, Mr Segundus feels that magic is about to take place, sits down, and dreams of a ruined room with a woman in a old-fashioned dress and a man in modern dress. Mr Honeyfoot wakes him; they explore the interior of the house and find the man from his dream, Jonathan Strange, who is upset that Mr Segundus intruded on his summoning of Maria Absalom.

They quickly become friendly, however, and discuss magic. Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus are very impressed with how much Mr Strange has accomplished, especially in the absence of any books of magic. Mr Honeyfoot takes it into his head that Mr Strange should go to Mr Norrell and ask to be taught; Mr Segundus is under the impression that Mr Strange had already decided to do so, though Mr Segundus has qualms about the idea.

Commentary

The start of Volume II revisits the start of Volume I: Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus on a mild quest, finding unexpected magic. The narrator says, “How pleasant to meet old friends!” and I have to agree with her. (This chapter also revisits the question of who is allowed to do magic and how they learn it, but that’s best discussed in a few chapters.)

The descriptions of the Shadow House are wonderful: I’m particularly taken by the wrought-iron gates, which are now so rusted that it is “as if a million dried and powdered roses had been compacted and formed into the dreamlike semblance of a gate.” (I’ll put reference quotes in the miscellany so we can find them easily if the TV show creates this location.) And the idea that “all ruined buildings belong to the Raven King” is lovely and a little eerie, as explained in a footnote quoting Jonathan Strange’s later writing on the subject:

“All of Man’s works, all his cities, all his empires, all his monuments will one day crumble to dust. Even the houses of my own dear readers must—though it be for just one day, one hour—be ruined and become houses where the stones are mortared with moonlight, windowed with starlight and furnished with the dusty wind. It is said that in that day, in that hour, our houses become the possessions of the Raven King. Though we bewail the end of English magic and say it is long gone from us and inquire of each other how it was possible that we came to lose something so precious, let us not forget that it also waits for us at England’s end and one day we will no more be able to escape the Raven King than, in this present Age, we can bring him back.” The History and Practice of English Magic by Jonathan Strange, pub. John Murray, London, 1816.

I don’t quite know how the Shadow House was magical to start with, since Gregory Absalom was not much of a magician; my guess is that he built it, knowingly or otherwise, in imitation of a building in Faerie or elsewhere, and the similarity caused magic to bleed through.

Jonathan Strange’s summoning spell: he spent three weeks preparing it, recognizing the flaws of the existing spell and fixing them, but downplays the difficulty and his own creativity. Mr Segundus has a telling description of the effect of the magic on him: “Ever since I entered this garden I have felt as if it were full of invisible doors and I have gone through them one after the other, until I fell asleep and dreamt the dream where I saw this gentleman.” Magic is one of the layers of the world, and Mr Segundus demonstrated his sensitivity to magic by perceiving it through those “invisible doors” (though he will not be able to do magic until Strange returns it to England).

Finally, Henry Woodhope is there. “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” takes place sometime after this (Mr Strange has published by then), but he’s such a lump that I doubt even those events would cause him to take the interest in magic that he is lacking here.

Miscellany

Visual reference notes

  • The Shadow House’s grounds: “Beyond the gate were a thousand pale pink roses and high, nodding cliffs of sunlit elm and ash and chestnut and the blue, blue sky.” The garden contains “vivid pink foxgloves,” “a carving of a fox which carried a baby in its mouth,” and a brook. The House itself has “four tall gables and a multitude of high grey chimneys and stone-latticed windows,” but “was built as much of elder-trees and dog roses” as more traditional building materials. The Great Hall is filled and roofed with trees; upon either side of its doorway is a stone image of the Raven King.
  • Mr Segundus is, according to Mr Strange, “A small man with hair and eyes so dark as to be almost Italian—though the hair has grey in it. But the expression so quiet and timid as to be English without a doubt!”

Historical reference notes

  • The Raven King’s Kingdom of Northern England was “Cumberland, Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire and part of Nottinghamshire.” Another of his kingdoms was in Faerie; the third “was commonly supposed to be a country on the far side of Hell, sometimes called ‘the Bitter Lands’. The King’s enemies said that he leased it from Lucifer.”
  • “The Raven King was not the first British magician. There had been others before him—notably the seventh-century half-man, half-demon, Merlin—but at the time the Raven King came into England there were none.… Early magicians in mediaeval England learnt their art at the court of the Raven King and these magicians trained others.” The narrator notes that Thomas Godbless (1105?-82) may have been a self-created magician.

Favorite quote not already mentioned

“the second shall long to behold me”:

As they left the Shadow House Strange paused by the Raven King doorway and asked if either Mr Segundus or Mr Honeyfoot had visited the King’s ancient capital of Newcastle in the north. Neither had. “This door is a copy of one you will find upon every corner there,” said Strange. “The first in this fashion were made when the King was still in England. In that city it seems that everywhere you turn the King steps out of some dark, dusty archway and comes towards you.” Strange smiled wryly. “But his face is always half hidden and he will never speak to you.”

 

Chapter 24: Another magician
September 1809

What Happens

Mr Drawlight and Mr Lascelles inform Mr Norrell of Jonathan Strange’s arrival in London and reputation as a magician. Mr Norrell is initially afraid, but concludes that Mr Strange is a fashionable, shallow man and agrees to meet with him. They do not get on well: among other things, Norrell urges Strange to read but is struck silent when Strange points out that there are no books of magic to be read; and when Strange asks about Lord Portishead’s omission of the Raven King from his various essays, Norrell explains that his ambition is “to make that man as completely forgotten as he deserves.” Mrs Strange (who came to the meeting) causes them to leave shortly after.

Over the next few days the two constantly talk of each other to their companions. Mr Norrell eventually decides to offer Mr Strange a book (“on the subjects of diligent research and the perils of committing oneself to paper too soon”). He invites Strange over, and Strange, at Mr Drawlight’s prompting and Mr Norrell’s request, does a piece of impromptu magic, swapping the book for its reflection in a mirror. Mr Norrell is delighted and shortly thereafter offers to take Mr Strange as a pupil; Mr Strange accepts.

Commentary

I cross-stitch as a hobby. I chat about it occasionally online, and my family makes appreciative noises when I show them my work. But at this year’s WorldCon, there was a stitching meetup and I was lucky enough to sit near three or four other cross-stitchers. We admired each other’s projects, compared techniques, showed each pictures on our phones when terms didn’t cross language barriers, shared hard-won tips and encouraged each other—and I came away just glowing with happiness. I had no idea how hungry I was to talk about this minor hobby face-to-face with other people who shared it.

Now take that, and multiply it by never knowing a single other person who does the same thing that you spend your entire life doing.

In other words: when Lady Pole and Mrs Strange say that Mr Norrell must be very lonely, they are absolutely correct, and thus despite Mr Norrell’s concerted efforts to destroy other magicians, it is not surprising that when he comes face-to-face with another practicing magician, he is unable to resist the urge to talk about magic with him.

(This does raise the question of Childermass, however. Mr Norrell sent him to drive off Vinculus with spells that had not yet been cast, which necessarily implied to me that Mr Norrell expected Childermass to cast the spells, that is, do magic. My only theory is that Mr Norrell’s class prejudices prevented him from recognizing what was right in front of him.)

This also introduces us to the intense push-pull fascination the two of them have with each other. It is so intense that much of it—deliberately or not, subversively or not—echoes the tropes of a romantic/sexual relationship. Arabella tells Jonathan that Mr Norrell “did not so much as look at any other person the whole time we were there. It was as if he would eat you up with his eyes.” And the bits where the book cuts back and forth between them talking about each other to their friends, in the lead-up to their second meeting, could fit neatly into a romantic comedy. The blog Storming the Ivory Tower has a good summary of this dynamic in the book overall, which concludes:

The whole narrative, from the god damn title on down, is built around these two men and their contentious orbit around one another. One is a lifelong bachelor who seems to have very little interest in, or use for, women; the other a young gentleman who finds himself continually drawn to and repulsed by his mentor.

Let me be precise here, so as to head off some of the ways these discussions often derail. I am not talking about authorial intent. Nor am I arguing that either character has romantic and/or sexual feelings toward the other. I don’t object to slash in general (she says, understatedly) or to this interpretation in particular (fandom has created enormous followings for pairing on much less evidence than present in just this chapter); I just don’t read these characters that way myself. But it’s critical that we recognize how tightly the two of them are connected—literally, by the end of the book. And I think it’s worth noting the book’s use of descriptions and situations that evoke a romantic/sexual relationship to show the development of their own relationship. As to what that means, well, I go back and forth between thinking that it shows the sad lack of recognized narratives for intense platonic relationships, and thinking that it’s a delicious subversion of the primacy of romantic/sexual relationships in current pop culture; so I’d like to hear all your thoughts on it.

To pull back to the confines of this chapter: Strange must recognize Mr Norrell from the spell he did at the end of Volume I to show him his enemy, and also knows Mr Norrell’s propensities both in book-buying and in trying to drive people out of cities with unpleasant spells, because he says at the first meeting that Mr Norrell “was the cause of my becoming a magician. One might say in fact that Mr Norrell made me a magician”—that is, he must have realized that Mr Norrell created the spells he bought from Vinculus. Not to belabor the point, but he accepts Mr Norrell as his teacher despite all that.

As far as magic, we see in this chapter that Strange can do magic by intuition: “I have only the haziest notion of what I did.… one has a sensation like music playing at the back of one’s head—one simply knows what the next note will be.” It’s not all off-the-cuff improvisation, he did spend three weeks preparing to summon Maria Absalom—but these chapters strongly suggest that this ability is something Mr Norrell lacks. In comments to a post two weeks ago, JoeNotCharles asked the excellent question, “how in the world is Norrell of all people a magician?” Here’s what I said in response after doing some hasty flipping-ahead to refresh my memory:

The gentleman with the thistle-down hair disrupted or usurped the Raven King’s traditional alliances of the Sky, the Earth, the Rivers, and the Hills; when Strange returns magic to England, the gentleman howls that “Soon (the allies) will attend to English magicians, rather than to me!” (chapter 59).

Vinculus tells Childermass in chapter 67 that Strange & Norrell are a spell that the Raven King was doing to restore magic to England.

So I think that Norrell can do practical magic because the Raven King gave him as much ability as he could given the gentleman’s interference.

Now, there is a mechanical aspect to magic, or a knowledge aspect. Before Strange restores magic, some spells are not possible; when magic starts flooding back Norrell attempts a spell that had stopped working and now does. But he learned how to do it from his research. Post-return of magic, one doesn’t need books—the Sky and Stones etc. will tell one—but it did help Norrell and perhaps gave the Raven King a way in—or perhaps merely his strong ambition, as manifested by his research, did that.

At any rate: it’s the Raven King.

Further down, Mary Beth suggests that the Raven King needed Mr Norrell’s “dry, bookish, mechanical type of magic” to get around the gentleman’s interference and jump-start the return of magic to England, which is a very interesting theory that I find attractive because it gives a reason for the vast difference in their methods and approaches—and also possibly for the Raven King’s refusal to show himself to Mr Norrell when Mr Norrell was younger, to turn him that type of magic (or maybe it was just that Strange wasn’t old enough yet. Or both.).

This has been a very big-picture chapter and big-picture discussion of it; let’s end with something small that made me laugh, the book that Mr Norrell decides to give Mr Strange:

“This book,” Mr Norrell looked at it in an anxious sort of way, “has many faults—I fear it has a great many. Mr Strange will learn no actual magic from it. But it has a great deal to say on the subjects of diligent research and the perils of committing oneself to paper too soon—lessons which I hope Mr Strange may take to heart.”

Later, in a footnote, we are told that it is a biography of Horace Tott, who

spent an uneventful life in Cheshire always intending to write a large book on English magic, but never quite beginning. And so he died at seventy-four, still imagining he might begin next week, or perhaps the week after that.

That is a marvel of comic understatement, that is.

 

Chapter 25: The education of a magician
September-December 1809

What Happens

Mr Norrell draws up an extensive plan for Mr Strange’s education and manages to overcome his reluctance to lend him books to read, though he deliberately withholds certain areas of information from Mr Strange and is frozen with fright when Strange catches him at it. Otherwise Mr Norrell is delighted by Mr Strange’s quickness and the insights he brings to magic; Mr Strange is less enthused but still willing. The Government is also delighted at Mr Strange’s fresh ideas, including sending bad dreams to Alexander, the Emperor of Russia.

A footnote recounts the story of the Master of Nottingham’s daughter, who drops her father’s magic ring one day. Margaret Ford, a malicious woman, finds the ring and uses it to tyrannize the neighborhood. The Master’s daughter goes on a quest to retrieve the ring, entering service with Margaret Ford and eventually tricking her into lifting the anti-theft spells on the ring through her adoration of a baby she has stolen from its family. However:

There is another version of this story which contains no magic ring, no eternally-burning wood, no phoenix—no miracles at all, in fact. According to this version Margaret Ford and the Master of Nottingham’s daughter (whose name was Donata Torel) were not enemies at all, but the leaders of a fellowship of female magicians that flourished in Nottinghamshire in the twelfth century. Hugh Torel, the Master of Nottingham, opposed the fellowship and took great pains to destroy it (though his own daughter was a member). He very nearly succeeded, until the women left their homes and fathers and husbands and went to live in the woods under the protection of Thomas Godbless, a much greater magician than Hugh Torel. This less colourful version of the story has never been as popular as the other but it is this version which Jonathan Strange said was the true one and which he included in The History and Practice of English Magic.

Commentary

This chapter does a great job of making Mr Norrell’s neuroses and deceptions both funny and pitiable, which I slightly resent because he’s a jerk, a few chapters ago he consigned Lady Pole to misery without a qualm and he made the entire Yorkshire Society miserable, I don’t want to feel sympathy for him.

It also tells us something more about the nature of magic and about the Raven King. I think Mr Norrell is probably right when he says that the Raven King exaggerated the need for fairy servants to bind two of his kingdoms together (on the grounds that the Raven King “as great a king as he was a magician”), because when magic returns, as I noted above, it comes from the natural elements of England itself.

The anecdote about Strange sending bad dreams to Alexander tells us that Russia has “sorcerers,” making this a sighting of non-English magic. Alas, I haven’t been able to determine if Mrs Janet Archibaldovna Barsukova, the “brave and ingenious Scottish lady who was the wife of Alexander’s valet,” was a historical figure.

Finally, the story of the Master of Nottingham’s daughter may be my favorite footnote so far. The first version has all these elements that are so neatly presented in traditional fairy-tale tropes and language—the daughter who doesn’t get a name; the jealous overbearing wife, whose theft of magic emasculates the Master, whose true role is as a mother but whose maternal instincts make her weak and lead to her defeat—that their sexism may not register until the whole contrivance is punctured, boom, by the bit I quoted.

 

Chapter 26: Orb, crown and sceptre
September 1809

Stephen Black and Lady Pole continue to be summoned every night to Last-hope, to dance or take part in dreary celebrations of the gentleman’s victories over his enemies. “Poor Stephen was assailed by miracles” meant to show the gentleman’s affection, and “was sick of the sight of gold and silver.” He attempts to tell people of his and Lady Pole’s plight, but is magically unable to.

One night, on his way back from a visit to Mrs Brandy, he meets a negro beggar named Johnson and, through the gentleman’s miracles, is given a crown, sceptre, and orb. When he returns to Sir Walter’s house, he finds himself in a room he has never seen before: the gentleman has brought him to Jonathan Strange’s half-unpacked study, where the gentleman is casting aspersions on Strange’s talents (though Strange can perceive him, dimly). Stephen manages to coax the gentleman away before he does Mr Strange any physical harm.

Commentary

This is the first confirmation that the gentleman is magically silencing Stephen, and presumably Lady Pole as well, and not just relying on their debilitated states to keep them quiet. I’m guessing that the things he says are from the gentleman’s knowledge, as they include magic, and thus are suspect—though the “odd defence of Judas Iscariot[,] in which he declared that in all Iscariot’s last actions he was following the instructions of two men called John Copperhead and John Brassfoot whom Iscariot had believed to be angels,” is something I’d like to know more about. (The miracles that assail Stephen are wonderfully inventive but I don’t have anything else to say about them.)

Two things about the beggar Stephen meets. First, he was a historical figure, despite the fantastic air of the description in the novel:

As Stephen walked up St James’s-street, he saw a strange sight—a black ship sailing towards him through the grey rainy air above the heads of the crowd. It was a frigate, some two feet high, with dirty, ragged sails and peeling paint. It rose and fell, mimicking the motion of ships at sea. Stephen shivered a little to see it. A beggar emerged from the crowd, a negro with skin as dark and shining as Stephen’s own. Fastened to his hat was this ship. As he walked he ducked and raised his head so that his ship could sail. As he went he performed his curious bobbing and swaying movements very slowly and carefully for fear of upsetting his enormous hat. The effect was of a man dancing amazingly slowly. The beggar’s name was Johnson. He was a poor, crippled sailor who had been denied a pension. Having no other means of relief, he had taken to singing and begging to make a livelihood, in which he had been most successful and he was known throughout the Town for the curious hat he wore.

Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain mentions him and states “[t]here were a good many beggars among London’s black population in the early nineteenth century”: “The survival against heavy odds of those who turned professional earned them both the grudging respect of the better-off… and the ungrudging tribute of London’s down and outs” for being “fighters who consciously adopted the role of victim and knew how to make it pay” (pp. 230-232, 2010 paperback). Developing skills and success as a beggar would certainly be more active a role than literally being put on exhibit as a freak, which happened to at least two black people around this time in London (pp. 228-230).

Second, Stephen refuses contact with Johnson: “He always took great care not to speak to, or in any way acknowledge, negroes of low station. He feared that if he were seen speaking to such people it might be supposed that he had some connexion with them.” Here I need to tread carefully, because this is a complicated and delicate area that I am speaking about from an outsider’s perspective; doubly so because, despite my attempts at research, my instincts remain American. I think I can say that this made me sad for two reasons that are the opposite sides of the same coin: Stephen’s not wrong to view associating with beggars as a danger to his position, but he still has to deny himself the company of other black people (if he knows any negroes of non-low station, we haven’t heard about it so far). It also reminded me, in what I admit may be a leap, of what in the U.S. is known as “respectability politics,” the idea that if only black people would be respectable (as judged by white people, of course), they would be successful or at least safe—which (a) is demonstrably untrue and (b) neatly displaces responsibility away from white supremacy. (See, for instance, this New Republic article and this Ta-Nehisi Coates post and the links therein.)

Going back to the novel overall, this chapter was important less for the objects of the title, it seems to me, than as a reminder that Stephen and Lady Pole remain enchanted, and to show that the gentleman is aware of Jonathan Strange now too. It’s also important to show that Stephen is resisting, that he makes four efforts to tell people about his enchantment despite the magical depression that blankets him, and that he successfully protects Jonathan Strange by drawing the gentleman away from him.

And on that positive note, small though it may be at this point for Stephen, we will stop for the week. Next week, chapters 27 through 30. 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. And cross-stitching a modified version of this bookmark.

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