Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: Part 7

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 31 to 34, in which there are seventeen dead Neapolitans and one ill King. But before we get started, check out the first promotional photo from the upcoming BBC miniseries—and compare it to these illustrations. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited.

Chapter 31: Seventeen dead Neapolitans
April 1812–June 1814

What Happens

Jonathan Strange spends over two years with Wellington. He rescues Major Colquhoun Grant from captivity by substituting him for a pottery person; revives seventeen dead Neapolitans to be interrogated (but is unable to end their magical lives, and they eventually have to be burnt); and moves a great many things for the convenience of the British Army, or, in at least one case, for no reason at all (and never puts any of them back).

When Napoleon abdicates, Jonathan returns home (but is not ennobled because Mr Norrell would also have to be, a prospect that was “somehow rather depressing”).  Jonathan is happily reunited with Arabella, who in his absence has become great friends with the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. He also visits Mr Norrell, who is delighted to see him and to hear the details of the magic he performed in Spain, and who induces him to return to being his pupil with books.

Commentary

This is a really great set of chapters—not that last week’s weren’t good as chapters, but as an arbitrary set, I found them a little rough going because they were not particularly cohesive (again: arbitrary set, not the book’s fault). But there’s a lot of magic and plot in these, with a distinct ramping-up of stakes in the mini-arc of the last three. These are also chapters that do very poorly in summary, so if you aren’t reading along generally (completely understandable!), now might be a good time to make an exception.

Obviously, I’d forgotten that Strange’s time in Spain takes up relatively few pages, especially for such a long span of time. And, like the prior chapters about Strange’s military service, this does tie into the rest of the book. This time it’s through the nature of magic itself, as shown through the three main episodes: Major Grant’s rescue, which is funny but foreshadows more sinister things; the dark tale that gives this chapter its title, showing the unpredictable, uncontrollable side of magic, especially when done on limited information; and the moving of various landscapes, which is funny but which shows the limitations of Strange’s perspective and consideration for others. Taking these in order:

Major Grant’s April 1812 capture is historical, though obviously his rescue is not. I liked that the rescue is prefaced by this comment from Wellington:

“You will find that Saornil [a guerrilla chieftain] is rather a formidable person,” Lord Wellington informed Strange before he set off, “but I have no fears upon that account, because frankly, Mr Strange, so are you.”

Despite everything, I still find it easy to think of Strange as, well, a gentleman, and thus by his own definition, someone who would not stoop to killing by magic. But magic is dangerous and so is he, making this is a useful reminder. And the description of the fake Major cracking to pieces in front of the French Head of Secret Police is wonderful—though the substitution is sinister in retrospect, because a more organic version will be used by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair when he steals Arabella.

The sinister potential of magic is more clearly set out with the seventeen dead Neapolitans. Someone with an actual background in fine art should write an essay or a paper or something about this novel’s use of paintings, because I keep noticing it, but I’m sure I’m missing things about the execution. The seventeen dead Neapolitans episode involves two paintings, one metaphorical (as Strange goes to join Wellington, he follows a “trail of discarded baggage, broken carts, corpses and feasting black birds” that “resembled nothing so much as images from a mediaeval painting of Hell”) and one actual, a sketch by Goya of Strange surrounded by the Neapolitans.

We also get a hint that magic has advanced since the events of this book: The narrator knows how to end the spell and mentions it quite matter-of-factly and without citation in a footnote, which reads in full, “To end the ‘lives’ of the corpses you cut out their eyes, tongues and hearts.” And even in grim episodes like reviving dead who speak “one of the dialects of Hell,” which is “a guttural language which contained a much higher proportion of screams than any language known to the onlookers,” Clarke can successfully inject humor:

“They have learnt [the dialect] very quickly,” said Lord Wellington. “They have only been dead three days.” He approved of people doing things promptly and in a businesslike fashion.

Finally, the moving of things. This starts as militarily useful but rapidly degenerates: The city of Pamplona is moved solely because the British were disappointed at not reaching it when they had expected to, and the churches in St Jean de Luz were moved because Strange was drunk and trying to explain magic: “Shortly afterwards he was called away to a game of billiards and never thought of it again.” This despite, of course, his promising to replace everything he moved (and actually replacing nothing).

Yes, he’s there doing good things overall, but this shows that despite his personal growth, he’s careless with other people’s things, unnecessarily so—it certainly doesn’t seem to be very hard to move things around if he can do it while drunk. I don’t remember now if these limits on his perspective explicitly and directly leads to bad things in the rest of the book, or if they just suggest why it’s good that he’ll be absent for the full revival of English magic, so I guess we’ll see.

What we’re shown of his reunion with Arabella is extremely discreet (the scene cuts away, to the next morning, before they even touch) but quite sweet all the same. And Clarke is to be commended for resisting the temptation to have him say, “Well, I’m back,” which I’m not sure I could have done in her place (he says “I’m home”). I also find rather hilarious Mr Norrell’s—successful!—temptation of Jonathan Strange: “‘Besides, there are other books, you know, which I wish you to read.’ He blinked his little blue eyes nervously at Strange.” Probably it’s just my low mind, but I couldn’t help imagining him offering up Playboy magazines (or whatever the UK equivalent is) with those blinking eyes and that nervous emphasis.

Finally, two magical history notes. First, our narrator is writing sometime after John Segundus died, alas (she cites his “surviving papers” in talking about his attempts to conjure more reliable visions). Second, both “Zadkiel who governs mercy and Alrinach who governs shipwreck” are existing angels and demons (respectively), who the Raven King was said to have quarreled with at one time. I don’t remember if we’ve seen mythological figures from religions referenced before alongside magical creatures previously in the book, and I’m not sure what to make of it except another way in which the closeness of the alternate history is maintained (a bit more on that below).

 

Chapter 32: The King
November 1814

What Happens

The King’s sons, except the Prince Regent, ask Strange to visit their father and see if magic can help his mental illness. Strange agrees and uses magic to avoid the Willis doctors, who control access to the King. The King does not want to see Strange, but welcomes his companion: the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, who the King can see despite his blindness and who Strange cannot see. Strange casts a variety of spells, which do nothing, and then offers to take the King outside when the King remarks to the gentleman that he is never allowed out of his rooms. Outside, the Willises eventually find Strange and the King and are about to wrestle the King into a straitjacket when the gentleman uses magic to bring garden statues to life and frighten the Willises away.

Commentary

This is a great chapter, but unfortunately of the type of greatness that is hard for me to write about rather than just gesture in its direction: “See? Great! Go read it!” So let me just touch on a few details.

I wasn’t able to determine how historical the Willises’ callous treatment was. Their father was the King’s initial physician and historically used some of their same methods (“coercion, restraint in a strait jacket and blistering of the skin,” per that Wikipedia link), but also did require fresh air and physical labor; my Google-fu isn’t good enough to find anything about the sons’ methods.

Another painting, this time of Edward III of Southern England and John Uskglass, which, as Strange says, “put[s] him in Roman dress and make[s] him hold hands with an actress.” Looking up Edward III makes me wonder whether England and Scotland still fought a war during that time period, and if so, what part(s) of England were involved. And then I have to stop and remember that the alt-history premise of this book, that everything is the same in 1806 except that there was once magic and a separate kingdom of Northern England, is the price of admission and doesn’t actually bear close examination.

The King tells the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, “I have never heard of any of your kingdoms. Where is Lost-hope? Where are the Blue Castles? Where is the City of Iron Angels?” The gentleman previously mentioned “many kingdoms” in chapter 30, which I overlooked at the time. Here’s a good place to mention Sylvia Townsend Warner’s collection Kingdoms of Elfin, which was recommended to me when I was preparing for this project as possibly influential on JS&MN’s depiction of elves. I, uh, haven’t finished it yet, but from the first two-thirds or so, it strikes me as an interesting comparison in two ways.

First, the elves’ behavior there has something of the same juxtaposition of sometimes acting similarly to humans but thinking in completely alien ways. Second, Kingdoms of Elfin also imagines Elfland as being made up of multiple kingdoms that overlay, or coexist with, Europe—as opposed to, for instance, Elfland being a single kingdom with a physical border between it and our world (Lud-in-the-Mist) or a single kingdom in an entirely separate dimension (Discworld). Kingdoms of Elfin is very out-of-print, but it’s worth checking your library, because it’s quite interesting (though much chillier than JS&MN).

 

Chapter 33: Place the moon at my eyes
November 1814

What Happens

The gentleman attempts to entice the King and Mr Strange away to Lost-hope through music and visions, but Strange remembers an obscure spell for dispelling illusions, which he had not previously understood, and manages to break them free. When he returns to London, he does not tell Mr Norrell about the unknown-to-him magician, but asks him about fairies’ interest in madmen and learns that madmen can often see fairies when others cannot.

Commentary

The enchantment and breaking of the enchantment is also really well done. I note that the gentleman’s attempt to capture Strange shows the gentleman’s worldview quite clearly: “He knew now that every angry thought he had ever had was justified and that every generous thought was misplaced.” Under the influence, Strange temporarily believes that “even Arabella was weak and unworthy of his love”; but when he needs to hide his heart, he gives it to Arabella, who quietly and successfully keeps it.

I also note that when Strange starts to break the enchantment on himself, “the wood no longer struck Strange as a welcoming place. It appeared to him now as it had at first—sinister, unknowable, unEnglish.” (Emphasis in original.) It’s both funny and significant that “unEnglish” is the ultimate warning sign in that description.

It makes sense that Strange doesn’t tell Norrell about the encounter, given Norrell’s reaction to faeries and attempts to restrict the practice of magic; but yikes, how much could have been avoided if he had. At least he learns here that “fairies do not make a strong distinction between the animate and the inanimate. They believe that stones, doors, trees, fire, clouds and so forth all have souls and desires, and are either masculine or feminine.” Presumably, this will help him restore magic later. (Allow me a sigh, however, for an entirely unnecessary gender binary.)

The conversation also introduces the idea of fairy roads. I don’t know what to make of the footnoted anecdote of the Raven King bringing people out onto the road who disappeared in the sun, however. Method of execution? (We see the gentleman out during the day in the next chapter, and while the text doesn’t explicitly say that it’s sunny, it gives that strong impression.)

 

Chapter 34: On the edge of the desert
November 1814

What Happens

The gentleman brings Stephen to an unnamed place in Africa, possibly in Northern Africa, since Stephen believes the inhabitants are Arabs. There the gentleman tells Stephen how Strange disrupted his plan to make Stephen King of England by stealing away the current King, and how “we must find some other way to crush [the magicians’] spirits so that they no longer have the will to oppose us!”

Commentary

By chance, this last chapter of the week rounds off the episode of Jonathan Strange visiting the King on an ominous note: Before now, the gentleman had viewed Mr Norrell and Mr Strange as enemies, but since almost everyone was his enemy, it did not seem particularly urgent. This is more specific and more worrisome.

The gentleman manages to independently arrive at a racist attitude through his carelessness with detail. He tells Stephen they stand on “[y]our ancestral soil,” but Stephen thinks, “My ancestors did not live here, I am sure. These people are darker than Englishmen, but they are far fairer than me. They are Arabs, I suppose.” That is, the gentleman doesn’t care enough about humans to pay attention to the fact that Africa is really fucking big—a problem that non-Africans still have today.

I doubt we have enough information to identify the town the gentleman takes them to—prove me wrong, I’d be delighted!—and I strongly suspect that the gentleman’s presence is affecting the behavior of the people there, or affecting Stephen’s perception of them. And I recognize that it’s important to the plot that Stephen be alienated from Africa just as from England. But I would still have preferred that we didn’t get a Arab town with a religion so strict that Stephen sees “men whose mouths were perpetually closed lest they spoke some forbidden word, whose eyes were perpetually averted from forbidden sights, whose hands refrained at every moment from some forbidden act.”

Finally, though this is only slightly a more cheerful note, does anyone know of any folk tales in which people are magically imprisoned in carpets? The combination of evil glee and sheer mundanity in the gentleman’s description of it is… kind of awesome:

That is a particularly horrible fate which I always reserve for people who have offended me deeply—as have these magicians! The endless repetition of colour and pattern—not to mention the irritation of the dust and the humiliation of stains—never fails to render the prisoner completely mad! The prisoner always emerges from the carpet determined to wreak revenge upon all the world and then the magicians and heroes of that Age must join together to kill him or, more usually, imprison him a second time for yet more thousands of years in some even more ghastly prison. And so he goes on growing in madness and evil as the millennia pass. Yes, carpets!

Next week is Thanksgiving in the U.S., so the reread will be on break. Avoid carpets, and see you on December 5 for chapters 35 to 39. 


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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