Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: Part 6

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 27 through 30, in which Arabella meets Lady Pole and Jonathan learns to make magic truly useful to those on the front lines.

Chapter 27: The magician’s wife
December 1809–January 1810

What Happens

Jonathan and Arabella Strange are very popular in London. One day, Arabella asks Jonathan to run a couple of errands and then meet her; when he does not, she finds him talking with Sir Walter about a Naval problem. They all go to Sir Walter’s house to further discuss the problem, and there, Jonathan and Arabella meet Stephen Black, who Jonathan briefly perceives as a king.

Arabella meets Lady Pole, who tells her that Mr Norrell left her to a horrible fate. She has Arabella promise to tell Jonathan what she said, but (like Stephen) she is magically prevented from explaining further. Sir Walter hears Lady Pole’s “outlandish speeches” and takes her away to rest. Arabella hears the bell of Lost-hope and, as she tells Sir Walter, “had a sort of foolish idea that there was a sort of mirror before me with all sorts of strange landscapes in it and I thought I was falling into it.” Sir Walter has her promise not to repeat what Lady Pole said, and it is not until later that she realizes that she has given contradictory promises. “After much deliberation she decided that a promise to a person in their senses ought to be more binding than a promise to someone out of their senses,” and therefore she keeps silent.

Commentary

The opening of this chapter is somewhat uncomfortable for me, because it’s evoking such a specific, miserable stereotype of marriage: husband not listening at the breakfast table to wife asking him to do household chores; husband failing to do chores wife asks; wife putting aside her (perfectly reasonable) requests in the face of husband’s business “like a sweet, compliant woman and good wife” (actual quote from the narrator; any hint of dryness is attributable to her and not Arabella). I am quite sure that the author is doing this on purpose, for multiple reasons: to remind us that there were very specific and restrictive gender roles for people of this time and class, so they can be pushed against later; to establish Jonathan’s inattention in advance of Arabella being stolen by the gentleman; and to establish that Arabella is a fairly conventional and happy person, in contrast to Lady Pole. (The conversation between Sir Walter and Jonathan, in which Jonathan keeps refusing Sir Walter’s offers of hospitality on her behalf, drove me up a wall—she can answer for herself—but she found it amusing.) The whole thing still made me itch to read about.

Turning to Lady Pole: Jonathan doesn’t meet her, presumably for the plot reason that he’d notice the enchantment and not dismiss it as “absurd,” as he does upon seeing Stephen’s future kingship. I note that Arabella, like the household servants, is affected by the atmosphere of magic surrounding Lady Pole:

It was as if something in one of the paintings had moved, or someone had passed behind one of the mirrors, and the conviction came over her once again that this room was no room at all, that the walls had no real solidity but instead the room were only a sort of crossroads where strange winds blew upon Lady Pole from faraway places.

It appears that Sir Walter is not affected, and my guess is that upper-class non-magician men generally would not be, that it’s no coincidence that it’s servants and women who we see affected.

Lady Pole seems to have a bit more energy than Stephen, which is probably attributable both to her innate constitution and the fact that she doesn’t have to work. She also reserves her anger for Mr Norrell, not Sir Walter, whose distress at hearing her tell “odd tales” causes her to react with “sadness,” “pity,” and “a little amusement… as if she were saying to herself, ‘Look at us! What a sad pair we make!’”

Anyone able to identify the large, symbolic painting Arabella looks at prior to seeing the Venice paintings?

It was a landscape comprising woods and a ruined castle perched on top of a cliff. The trees were dark and the ruins and cliff were touched with gold by the light of a setting sun; the sky by contrast was full of light and glowed with pearly colour. A large portion of the foreground was occupied by a silvery pool in which a young woman appeared to be drowning; a second figure bent over her—whether man, woman, satyr or faun, it was impossible to determine and, though Arabella studied their postures carefully, she could not decide whether it was the intention of the second figure to save the young woman or murder her.

Finally, a bit about magic: Jonathan is perfectly willing to conjure visions for people, but doesn’t bother to use a basin:

He preferred instead to wait until the servants had cleared the dishes off the table and removed the cloth, then he would tip a glass of water or wine over the table and conjure visions into the pool. Fortunately his hosts were generally so delighted with the magic that they hardly ever complained of their stained, spoilt tables and carpets.

But he gets his just desserts for being inconsiderate, as related in a footnote quoting his letter to John Segundus:

“My only complaint is that people always end by asking me to shew them their relations.… The Fulchers were well-bred enough to seem interested in what I was doing, but at the end of the evening they asked me if I might be able to shew them their aunt who lives in Carlisle. For the next half an hour Arabella and I were obliged to converse with each other while the family stared, enraptured, at the spectacle of an old lady seated by the fire, in a white cap, knitting.”

 

Chapter 28: The Duke of Roxburghe’s library
November 1810–January 1811

What Happens

“At the end of 1810 the Government’s situation was about as bad as it could possibly be,” and therefore Norrell & Strange are much in demand. They are invited to Portsmouth for the honor of reviewing the Channel Fleet, and there Strange uses magic to rescue a ship that has run aground—though he has to be prevented from carrying out his first two ideas, which would have drowned all aboard, and even his successful attempt causes great inconvenience.

The Ministers are impressed, however, and decide that they should send Strange to help Lord Wellington in Portugal. Mr Norrell initially opposes this plan because of his heavy reliance on Mr Strange, but Drawlight and Lascelles point out that if Strange is out of the country when the deceased Duke of Roxburghe’s immense library is auctioned, he will be unable to bid on any books of magic.

A footnote tells the story of the eventual auction: “Such was the general respect for Mr Norrell that not a single gentleman in the room bid against him [for the seven books of magic in the collection]. But a lady bid against him for every book.” Arabella Strange spent weeks trying to borrow enough money to win some of the books for Jonathan, to no avail.

Sir Walter Scott, the author, was present and he described the end of the auction. “Such was Mrs Strange’s disappointment at losing The Life of Ralph Stokesey that she sat in tears. At that moment Mr Norrell walked by with the book in his hand. Not a word, not a glance did this man have for his pupil’s wife. I do not know when I last saw behaviour so little to my liking.…”

Mr Norrell also, of course, does not tell anyone about the content of the books, which now that he is in the public eye causes negative comment.

Commentary

And now I’m back to hating Mr Norrell! Poor Arabella, all that initiative and loving hard work squashed flat. (I reserve a small amount of hatred for institutional sexism, which means Arabella has to go around borrowing from other people instead of just accessing Jonathan’s fortune.)

Also: not that anyone who’s reading along with these posts is likely to disagree with me, but the footnotes really are an integral part of the book.

The story about the Duke of Roxburghe pining away for the Queen’s sister is historical, though Clarke very slightly simplifies the facts: the succession to the Dukedom becomes contested after the death of the next (fourth) Duke, but that was only a year later—that is, close enough for everyone except me, who initially just looked at dates and found the fourth Duke (who did marry, albeit at age 61) and got puzzled about whether the story was historical. Well, I figured it out eventually.

This episode also reminds us about (1) Drawlight and Lascelles and their methods; and (2) the extremely tight relationship between our title characters:

In the past year Mr Norrell had grown to rely a great deal upon his pupil. He consulted Strange upon all those matters which in bygone days had been referred to Drawlight and Lascelles. Mr Norrell talked of nothing but Mr Strange when Strange was away, and talked to no one but Strange when Strange was present. His feelings of attachment seemed all the stronger for being entirely new; he had never felt truly comfortable in any one’s society before.

As I said last time: fandom-eating pairings have been created on far less evidence.

Two bits of note on the magical side of things. First, there’s Mr Norrell’s passing mention of how he became interested in magic: “as a boy of twelve I opened a book from my uncle’s library and found inside a single page torn from a much older volume. The instant I read it, the conviction took hold of me that I must be a magician!” That’s… quite a coincidence, there (she says, looking pointedly in the direction of the Raven King). For what it’s worth, in chapter 30, it’s noted that Hurtfew Abbey, which Norrell inherited from his uncle, was “a house built of stones quarried upon the King’s instruction… upon land which the King had once owned and knew well.”

Second, there are the books in the auction, two of which caught my eye. The Parliament of Women is “an allegorical sixteenth-century description of the wisdom and magic that belongs particularly to women.” I am generally dubious about magic that is intrinsically different for different genders, as opposed to magic that takes different forms because its practitioners have different life experiences; but we’ll have to wait for The Ladies of Grace Adieu to talk about this properly.

Then there’s The History of Seven:

a very muddled work, partly in English, partly in Latin and partly in an unknown fairy language. Its age could not be guessed at, the author could not be identified and the purpose of the said author in writing the book was entirely obscure. It appeared to be, upon the whole, the history of a city in Faerie, called “Seven”, but the information was presented in a very confusing style and the author would frequently break off from his narrative to accuse some unspecified person of having injured him in some mysterious way. These parts of the text more resembled an indignant letter than anything else.

Am I reaching to suspect the gentleman with the thistle-down hair?

On the not-actually-magical side of things, the anecdote about Napoleon and the fake magic wardrobe is great:

After the three questions had been answered, Buonaparte regarded the wardrobe silently for some moments, and then he strode over and pulled open the doors. Inside he found a goose (to make the noises) and some saltpetre (to produce the silver stars) and a dwarf (to ignite the saltpetre and prod the goose). No one knew for certain what had happened to Witloof [the fake magician] and the dwarf, but the Emperor had eaten the goose for dinner the following day.

Finally, the episode in Portsmouth is of a piece with the Portugal bits of the next chapter, so I’ll discuss it there.

 

Chapter 29: At the house of José Estoril
January–March 1811

What Happens

Mr Strange maneuvers Mr Norrell into letting him take forty books to Portugal, to Mr Norrell’s immense distress. When Strange arrives in Lisbon, he discovers that his services are not wanted: Lord Wellington regards him as a nuisance whose visions caused the Ministers to interfere with his campaign.

Strange sends Lord Wellington suggestions for magic every day, all of which are rejected as unhelpful. Then he meets the Chaplain to the Headquarters, who advises him to leave Lisbon and go live with the enlisted men and officers. Strange takes his advice and strikes up acquaintances, which eventually allows him to offer something genuinely useful to Wellington: better roads and bridges to replace those destroyed by the French. These roads are not only useful to the British but, because they disappear an hour after use, discourage the French from using actual roads, lest they too “disappear in an hour or two taking everyone upon it to Hell—or possibly England.”

Commentary

I remember wondering if the Portugal sections were a bit out-of-place or too much like filler, when thinking about this book in retrospect. But now I see the point of these two chapters, at least: they’re forcing Strange to see magic in the context of people’s actual lives, up close and personal, and to confront his false assumption that he can use magic to fix things without understanding the underlying problems. And though he has to be told how, he does manage it: he gets to know people, he makes correct assessments of people’s temperaments, he asks the right question and draws the right conclusion. (He forgets to tell Wellington’s staff where they can find him when he drops his bomb about being able to make roads, so he still has room for improvement, but that’s a minor detail.)

I have to say, though, despite the personal growth shown by the Portugal section of this chapter, I’m almost more impressed by his successful wrangling of forty books out of Mr Norrell at the opening of the chapter. Also strongly wishing I could magically (heh) bestow all the tech that goes into ebooks on the characters (yes, even Mr Norrell, who “went to the library to look at the forty books and hold them and treasure them while he could”). But then, if access to magical books weren’t so easily restricted, the plot would be much different. (I’ll leave the modern day AU to someone else. Though the book bits in the next chapter wouldn’t actually have to change much, oddly.)

 

Chapter 30: The book of Robert Findhelm
January–February 1812

What Happens

Childermass spends three weeks in Yorkshire making inquiries about Vinculus. He discovers that Vinculus’ father, Clegg, worked for a farmer named Robert Findhelm, whose family was the keeper of a book written by the Raven King, possibly in a writing of his own invention called the King’s Letters. Findhelm gave the book to Clegg to deliver to another man, but Clegg ate it as part of a drinking contest. Clegg fled to London and, four years later, fathered Vinculus. About twenty or thirty years before this part of the story, Clegg was hanged for book-murder, to Vinculus’ satisfaction.

The gentleman with the thistle-down hair tells Stephen Black that Stephen is destined to rule “a kingdom where you have already been! A kingdom with which you are already closely connected.” The gentleman has concluded this kingdom is England, which is why he has not taken Stephen to Lost-hope permanently. Stephen objects that this is not possible: “Slaves do not become kings, sir.” He explains that his mother was a slave when he was born, and therefore so was he: she was being brought to England from Sir Walter’s grandfather’s plantations in Jamaica and died giving birth to him on the voyage. This sets the gentleman onto a quest for the name Stephen’s mother gave him.

Commentary

Obviously the two halves of this chapter are connected by the book of the title: first its fate, then one of the subjects of the prophecy it contained. I still found it a little disorienting to switch between them like this (which was probably exacerbated by this being the last of this week’s chapters, which themselves cover a fairly wide range of subjects). Also, did anyone guess on the first read that it was a clue, having Stephen reveal in this chapter that he was born a slave and does not know his birth name? If so, give yourself a pat on the back, because I for one am impressed with your attention to detail.

Last week we talked about Childermass and whether Mr Norrell regarded him as a magician; commenter Speckle turned up some useful quotes on that topic while I was editing this post. This chapter continues to emphasize Childermass’s independence and importance to Mr Norrell, who “had once publicly reprimanded the Duke of Devonshire for speaking at the same time as Childermass.”

I can’t come up with any significance to Findhelm directing the King’s book to be delivered to the village of Bretton specifically, which does appear to be as Childermass described it: “Three houses and an inn high on a bleak hill.” But I do see the Raven King being behind Findhelm letting the book out of his possession at all, considering how much pride he took in being its guardian. All these small little subtle things that are the building-blocks of the Raven King’s spell… normally I am not a fan of this kind of decades-long very subtle manipulation actually working, because I believe in free will, but so far it’s not bothering me here because the influence is not trumpeted, you have to infer it.

As I mentioned above, we find out here that Stephen was a nameless slave, because he was born to a slave who died shortly after his birth and before they reached England.

“But I am not a slave now. No one who stands on British soil can be a slave. The air of England is the air of liberty. It is a great boast of Englishmen that this is so.” And yet, he thought, they own slaves in other countries. Out loud he said, “From the moment that Sir William’s valet carried me as a tiny infant from the ship I was free.”

In chapter 19, Stephen seemed to remember the ship: “Suddenly in his fancy he saw a dark place—a terrible place—a place full of horror—a hot, rank, closed-in place. There were shadows in the darkness and the slither and clank of heavy iron chains.” Since we now know he was only an infant at the time, I think we have to chalk this up to subconscious backfilling, putting together what he knows about his mother’s death with his adult knowledge about treatment of slaves. (We get a tiny hint at the overall lack of concern for slaves as people when Stephen says that “Once when I was a boy I asked Sir William,” Sir Walter’s grandfather, for his mother’s name, “but he could not remember it.”) Honestly, my dread of eventually hearing the brutality of Stephen’s mother’s death is currently eclipsing my satisfaction at the gentleman’s complete failure to recognize that there’s another kingdom that Stephen could be king of… (Again: did anyone spot that here? It seems really obvious at this point to me, but I suppose on a first read the reliability of the gentleman’s foresight was still unknown.)

Finally, the gentleman claims that fairies aided various humans “to allow them to achieve great and noble destinies—Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, William Shakespeare, John Wesley and so forth.” Caesar was mentioned in one of Stephen’s magically-induced stories in chapter 26 (fairies promised him that he would rule the world), and I recognized the rest of the first four names on the list, of course. As for John Wesley, I’m going to assume he is the Methodist theologian; from a non-English, non-religious perspective, he doesn’t seem quite on the same level as the rest of the list. He was relatively recent, however, which may be enough to account for it; other context or suggestions gratefully welcomed.

Next week, chapters 31 through 34. 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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