Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: Part 8

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 begins the second half of the book with chapters 35 to 39, which contain several difficult partings.

Chapter 35: The Nottinghamshire gentleman
November 1814

What Happens

A portrait of Norrell and Strange makes Strange wonder if mirrors can be used as doors; Norrell confirms that this method of travel was well-known to past magicians. Strange has occasion to use this when he is confronted with a gentleman from Nottinghamshire who claims to be a correspondence student of Strange’s—for a fee, naturally. (Arabella had previously told Strange that she had met a young woman with similar claims. Based on the Nottinghamshire gentleman’s comments, Strange suspects Drawlight.) When the Nottinghamshire gentleman refuses to believe that Strange is a magician, Sir Walter suggests that Strange walk into a mirror.

A footnote mentions Francis Pevensey, a sixteenth-century magician who was trained by Martin Pale and who became the subject of controversy in the 1750s when newly-discovered letters revealed her to be a woman and Pale’s lover.

Commentary

We are now in a section that I don’t remember well at all, and also I am just slightly under the weather in a way that makes me feel I left my brain under the couch, so this discussion may do less well than usual in terms of relating these chapters to later events.

This is a chapter that honestly could have been tailor-made to put me out of charity with Jonathan Strange. The section where Arabella tries to tell him about his purported pupil and he doesn’t listen—well, she loves him and is apparently happy in their marriage (more on that in the last chapter in this post), so good for her, because I would be throwing things after a very little bit of that. And he (and the rest of his companions) are unquestionably rude to the gentleman from Nottinghamshire—who the narrator specifically states was “perfectly polite” in manner, but whose speaking to them was offensive merely because he was “a farmer or a tradesman.” Yes, it’s all entirely understandable for a character in his circumstances, but I don’t have to like it. I note this partly because it dovetails with the next chapters in terms of the role of magic in society, and partly because I love how complex these characters are: it’s easier for me to appreciate when, despite myself, I end up sympathizing with Norrell, but it’s just as true here, when I end up not sympathizing with Strange.

Otherwise, this chapter introduces Strange’s desire to go “[w]andering on paths that other men have not seen. Behind the sky. On the other side of the rain”; and has the great footnoted story mentioned in the summary, about Francis Pevensey—who Norrell decides is a man, because the letters don’t mention magic and therefore he ignores them; and who Strange decides is a woman because Martin Pale claimed to have been taught magic by Catherine of Winchester and thus would likely have taught magic to another woman.

Finally, here are the contracts that John Uskglass made on England’s behalf with the forests (and others):

The ivy promised to bind England’s enemies
Briars and thorns promised to whip them
The hawthorn said he would answer any question
The birch said he would make doors to other countries
The yew brought us weapons
The raven punished our enemies
The oak watched the distant hills
The rain washed away all sorrow

I do at least remember that a significant chapter toward the end is titled “The hawthorn tree.”

Chapter 36: All the mirrors of the world
November 1814

What Happens

Strange exits the mirror in the village of Hampstead, where a woman named Mrs Bullworth is asking Drawlight why Strange and Norrell have not taken any action on her behalf yet. Strange asks her to explain her situation; she tells him that she left her husband, intending to obtain a divorce to be with another man, but that her lover deserted her and she was forced to live on her father’s charity in complete isolation. She sought magical revenge on a long list of people, including her lover, Henry Lascelles. Strange tells her that Drawlight has defrauded her and that, while he finds her situation unfair, he does not undertake private commissions and “will not hurt innocent people.”

Strange walks the five miles back to his home and is perturbed to find everyone upset and wanting to talk about how they were worried, instead of congratulating him on rediscovering the King’s Roads. He is awed by the grandeur and complexity of the bridges and halls that he passed through, and by the Raven King’s achievement in creating them. After a lengthy argument, he and Arabella come to a sensible compromise: “He promised her not to go upon the King’s Roads again until she said that he might. In return she promised him to grant him that permission just as soon as he convinced her that it was safe to do so.”

Commentary

Mrs Bullworth is dangerous and wrong. She is also magnificently compelling and I love her. Her litany of proposed magical punishments itself justifies her existence. (Three deaths for her mother-in-law!)

This exchange between her and Strange is also worth noting:

She stared at him, and then said in a wondering tone, “Can it be that you are entirely unmoved by the misery of my situation?”

“Upon the contrary, Mrs Bullworth, a system of morality which punishes the woman and leaves no share of blame to the man seems to me quite detestable. But beyond that I will not go. I will not hurt innocent people.”

“Innocent!” she cried. “Innocent! Who is innocent? No one!”

Certainly murder is a disproportionate response to Lascelles’ actions (and while I know he comes to a bad end, I don’t remember exactly how he gets there, so I’m not sure how much poetic justice is involved). But Strange’s choice of “innocent” is rightly questioned by Mrs Bullworth, because Lascelles was, at the least, knowingly reckless.

Here is how Strange describes the King’s Roads: there are “the great stone halls that lead off in every direction” and seem unending; “canals of still water in stone embankments”; “staircases that rose up so high I could not see the top of them, and others that descended into utter blackness”; and a stone bridge “so vast that I could not see the end of it,” and that appears to be at least “several thousand feet” high. There are statutes or carvings everywhere of the Raven King, and, peculiarly, ancient discarded shoes. Some of the stonework is in disrepair; some halls are blocked or flooded, and “[s]hafts of light break in from God-knows-where.” Strange also saw what he thought was a person moving below him while he was on the bridge. (I have no idea why people should leave their shoes behind. Strange didn’t. Anyone have any ideas?)

Finally, there are times when I wish my brain wouldn’t randomly associate bits of pop culture quite so much. I don’t mind thinking of the King’s Roads as essentially Moria in the Lord of the Rings movies (I do not expect the BBC to have the budget to do them properly, so Moria will do fine as a mental reference); but getting Mrs Bullworth and Mrs Butterworth mixed up is really unfortunate on a couple of different levels.

Chapter 37: The Cinque Dragownes
November 1814

What Happens

Drawlight comes to Lascelles and confesses that he has been turned away from everywhere else in London. Lascelles (who has, shockingly, taken to working in his association with Norrell) sympathizes and then instructs his servants to deny him further admission. Shortly afterwards, Drawlight is incarcerated for debt.

Mr Norrell is obsessed with the idea of punishing Drawlight for “his crimes against English magic, his crimes against me,” and proposing reviving the court system created by the Raven King to govern magic and magical crimes, the Court of Cinque Dragownes. Various practical problems are posed by this idea—including that the Court is to be composed of twelve magicians—and the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, eventually forbids it when Mr Norrell makes clear that his goal is “security… that other magicians might not arise to challenge my authority and contradict me.”

Mr Strange, meanwhile, has decided that he must review Lord Portishead’s new book and denounce it for attacking the Raven King, despite the fact that—as Arabella points out—Lord Portishead did so on Strange and Norrell’s instructions. He sends the review to The Edinburgh Review, which is delighted to accept such a revolutionary piece.

Commentary

As I said, I’m shaky on Lascelles’ role and development from now on, so I’ll just note here that he has been joint editor of The Friends of English Magic since 1810, and also wrote for other publications, advised the Government, saw Mr Norrell almost every day, and studied theoretical magic. Under other circumstances I’d be impressed, but I’m expecting that this heavy workload probably feeds into his self-importance. He certainly has not improved in his personal life, as he declines to take any responsibility for Mrs Bullworth’s situation and doesn’t have the decency to help Drawlight or reject him to his face.

This chapter, with its discussion of magical law and what’s to be done about Drawlight, is kind of the culmination of the questions the prior chapters have been raising about the role of magic in society. Who can learn it (the Nottinghamshire gentleman and the young woman Arabella met)? What purposes can it be put to (Mrs Bullworth)? What legal structure shall govern it?

I am fascinated by the statement in the footnote that “John Uskglass seems to have devoted a great deal of time and energy to the creation of a body of law to govern magic and magicians.” Naturally, as a lawyer, the few details we get are pure catnip to me: a jury system, a separate court for crimes by faeries, crimes of intent and fraud, Southern England adopting the same body of law… I would also love to know how it worked in practice, if it was really necessary to have a separate court system for magical crimes, as I can see arguments for and against that. (Also, I practice appellate law these days, so naturally I want to know about appeals. Presumably they do not go to the Raven King, as crimes against his person are one of the categories of offenses tried before the Cinque Dragownes.) Regardless, I think it speaks well of John Uskglass to see the need and to put the effort in.

It’s also fascinating to me because in Lud-in-the-Mist, which as mentioned previously seems to have been an influence on this book, law is explicitly a replacement for Faerie, another form of magic or delusion that shapes reality, just for a different purpose. Here, it seems to have been almost the opposite, another part of Uskglass’s project to integrate magic into human society—which just goes to show that law is a tool that can be used for different purposes, like any other social construct.

Chapter 38: From The Edinburgh Review
January 1815

What Happens

This chapter reproduces Strange’s unsigned review of Lord Portishead’s book, which asks why there is such “a curious uniformity of opinion” regarding English magical history and what is “respectable English magic.” The review cites Portishead’s prior book, A Child’s History of the Raven King, and asks why Portishead now claims that John Uskglass’s magic was “inherently wicked.” It argues that some of the events Portishead cites were not considered evil by contemporaries and that others cannot be properly evaluated because Uskglass’s “motives are so obscure.” The review concludes by arguing that “it is precisely because these things are only half-understood that we must study them”: English magic “is built upon foundations that JOHN USKGLASS made and we ignore those foundations at our peril.”

Commentary

One of the things this book is so good at is evoking an enormous history, and this little chapter has some wonderful gems. I still have no strong feelings about mixing Christianity with magic (this time in Strange’s claiming Joseph of Arimathea as a magician); those of you who are religious or have a better sense of the relevant history, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I mentioned previously, I think in a comment, that Merlin exists in this world and “was upon his mother’s side Welsh and upon his father’s Infernal” (all irregularities of emphasis and capitalization are in the original).

But the main thing is the paragraph in which Strange mentions the mysterious things the Raven King did:

No one knows why in 1138 he caused the moon to disappear from the sky and made it travel through all the lakes and rivers of England. We do not know why in 1202 he quarrelled with Winter and banished it from his kingdom, so that for four years Northern England enjoyed continual Summer. Nor do we know why for thirty consecutive nights in May and June of 1345 every man, woman and child in the kingdom dreamt that they had been gathered together upon a dark red plain beneath a pale golden sky to build a tall black tower. Each night they laboured, waking in the morning in their own beds completely exhausted. The dream only ceased to trouble them when, on the thirtieth night, the tower and its fortifications were completed. In all these stories — but particularly in the last — we have a sense of great events going on, but what they might be we cannot tell.…

I’m sure it’s cliché at this point to compare JS&MN’s worldbuilding to The Lord of the Rings, but really, that’s what those sentences remind me of: the kind of thing I’d find in Appendix A, some bit of history that I can’t know but that feels an integral part of the full tapestry of the book. (On the whole I prefer JS&MN’s footnotes to LotR’s appendices, however.) The incompleteness here tantalizes but is also appropriate—the Raven King should not be readily comprehensible to us, considering his history and accomplishments. I recognize that this can slide into Dumbledore refusing to give Harry information for nonsensical but plot-necessary reasons, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some people found the Raven King frustrating for similar reasons; I suspect I’ll have to wait until the end to form a full opinion of him on this read. At any rate: that right there is an amazing bit of writing.

Chapter 39: The two magicians
February 1815

What Happens

A few days after the review is published, Strange finally goes to see Norrell, who looks haggard. Norrell says that he is not angry, that he understood what Strange was trying to say and agrees: “It is John Uskglass’s magic that we do. Of course it is. What else should it be?” But he believes it is necessary for English magic to shed its dependence on Uskglass because he abandoned his kingdom, which caused magic to decline. Strange disagrees and tells Norrell that it is time for them to end their period of collaboration. Norrell nearly begs him not to do so, offering him true partnership and even access to all his books; Strange is strongly affected by this, but gently declines.

Lascelles (who had urged Norrell to blackmail Strange into retracting the review by threatening to reveal his Black Magic in Spain) points out to Norrell that Strange is now a threat: “I mean that two of any thing is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery. Two must always watch each other.” Norrell agrees to take security measures and they leave for Hurtfew.

Jonathan and Arabella Strange decide to go home to Shropshire; they say goodbye to Sir Walter and Lady Pole, respectively, and Arabella inadvertently upsets Lady Pole by wishing they might see each other at a ballroom. Arabella also says farewell to the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. Jonathan is puzzled that she still does not know his name, and attempts to ask Sir Walter about the gentleman before they leave London, but Sir Walter is at a meeting elsewhere.

Commentary

Well, that was intense.

The discussion between Strange and Norrell: I long to read it out loud, which means I both hope and fear to see it dramatized, because I have very specific ideas about how it should sound. (Also sometimes I get embarrassed on behalf of characters when things get too emotionally fraught. This is probably a combination of introversion and a New England upbringing.)

Also, unexpectedly, Norrell has a point. The Raven King did leave England, and magic did decline as a result.[*] Norrell comes to the wrong conclusion about what methods are necessary, which is unsurprising given that his character tends toward deceit and secrecy, and also that he broke his heart longing after the Raven King. But it is an unstable system, magical or otherwise, that bases too much on a single individual. And when magic does return to England, it bypasses the Raven King and the Sky, Stones, etc., speak directly to ordinary people. I’m not sure we can tell from the text whether Strange meant to do that or whether it was the Raven King fixing things, however, and will have to check when we get there.

[*] I love the footnote about the magician who was just starting to practice in 1434, when Uskglass left, and who precisely documented the spells that no longer worked after his departure in A Faire Wood Withering, which “seems an angry book until one compares it with two of Watershippe’s later books: A Defence of my Deeds Written while Wrongly Imprisoned by my Enemies in Newark Castle (1459/60) and Crimes of the False King (written 1461?, published 1697, Penzance).”

Norrell is also only partly right about himself and Strange. He tells Strange, “We are magicians. That is the beginning and end of me and the beginning and the end of you. It is all that either of us cares about.” As even the rest of this chapter shows, that is not true: Jonathan cares about Arabella (they decide jointly to go to Shropshire), though he doesn’t remember that she and Lady Pole are friends, and of course he goes to great lengths when she “dies.” (He doesn’t care enough to live with her afterward, instead of roaming the world(s) with Norrell in the Darkness discovering magical things. But he does care.)

Which brings us to Arabella. Her conversation with Lady Pole in this chapter gives us some more glimpses of their marriage. She considers her husband’s love “[o]ne of the best blessings of existence.” But she is fully aware of his character. When he doesn’t listen to her in the prior chapter, she knows it (unlike in chapter 27, when she asks him to run various errands and he isn’t listening from the start); and here, when Lady Pole asks, “Has the love of your husband ever saved you from any thing?”, she smiles and says, ““No, never. I am more in the habit of saving him!” She then explains, “Mr Strange is not the most patient of men and so I am obliged to go in and rescue him before he says something that he had much better not.” While it’s rather angel-in-the-house, and I don’t think we’ve seen that their partnership is a two-way one, I think we are supposed to accept that she is happy.

Finally, in this chapter we get a bit more information about the Raven King. Strange tells Sir Walter that he “was the favourite foster-child of King Auberon, which, among other trifles, secured him an excellent magical education and a large kingdom of his own.” And in his conversation with Norrell, Strange mentions people who saw the Raven King even after he left England. Norrell points out, again correctly, that at least two of those examples did not themselves know or claim it was Uskglass, that other people told them it was him; but I think we’re supposed to accept them as true sightings, because there is a meta principle here, that the narrator and/or author wouldn’t have put it in if it weren’t for a purpose, that is, to illuminate the Raven King’s character. My favorite is the Basque sailor who stumbles into a stone barn at night and wakes to find a pale man sitting unmoving on a throne looking at them. He stays in England, never finds the stone barn again,

And all his life whenever he went into dark places he said, “I greet thee, Lord, and bid thee welcome to my heart” — in case the pale king with the long black hair should be seated in the darkness waiting for him. Across the expanses of northern England a thousand, thousand darknesses, a thousand, thousand places for the King to be. “I greet thee, Lord, and bid thee welcome to my heart.”

It makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

And on that note, see you next week for the end of Volume II. (By the way: I may be a bit slow to respond to comments over the next few days, as I will be traveling, but I will do my best to catch up when I can.)


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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