Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: Part 9

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 40 through 44, which cover Waterloo, a significant action by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, and the end of Volume II. (Also: the BBC has released the tiniest clip from the upcoming TV adaptation, which alas still does not have a release date; so, if you’re interested, step this way to whet your appetite.)

Chapter 40: “Depend upon it; there is no such place.”
June 1815

What Happens

Napoleon returns from exile and is expected to attack Brussells, so Jonathan Strange joins Wellington there. Strange’s scrying finds the French army approaching from the south, where no-one expected them. To preserve Brussels, Strange moves it to North America for a few hours (possibly to the Black Hills).

Battle begins the next day at Quatre Bras. Strange spends several hours quietly moving roads that French reinforcements might use; though no-one realizes it, his actions kept the French General D’Erlon from bringing 20,000 men to the battlefield.

The next day, Strange hears that the armies are going to meet at a place called, improbably, Waterloo. During the subsequent battle, Strange hinders the French army’s approach with giant hands of mud and attempts to save the Château of Hougoumont from fire by making men from well-water. Once, he is confronted by a French cuirassier and instinctively uses magic to summon the man’s life-force into his hand; before he can decide whether to crush it, the cuirassier is killed by a British cavalry officer. He wanders in a daze and returns to himself when Wellington is signaling victory; he uses magic to make Wellington more visible to those around him: “‘There,’ thought Strange, ‘that is the proper use of English magic.’”

At Wellington’s Headquarters in Waterloo that night the table was laid for forty or fifty people. But when the dinner-hour came, only three men were there: the Duke, General Alava (his Spanish attaché) and Strange. Whenever the door opened the Duke turned his head to see if it was one of his friends, alive and well; but no one came.

Commentary

This chapter seems very set-apart from the rest of the book—it’s two chapters before we return to Strange’s point of view—but I think we might identify one significant way that this further military service affected Strange. (Earlier, when Drawlight’s fraud is identified, he declines to see him hanged, saying that he saw enough men die during his Peninsular service.) He uses a spell to see the outcome of the battle, which gives him a vision of thousands of men around him vanishing from sight, and regrets “meddl[ing] with magic meant for kings.”

Until this moment it had never seemed to him that his magicianship set him apart from other men. But now he had glimpsed the wrong side of something. He had the eeriest feeling — as if the world were growing older around him, and the best part of existence — laughter, love and innocence — were slipping irrevocably into the past.

I suspect this feeling of separation is part of, or will exacerbate, the tendency of magicians to withdraw from the world that commenter Null-I pointed out last week; and of course can only be heightened, afterward, by being one of the few survivors, as the last paragraph (quoted at the end of the summary) conveys.

Speaking of magic, the chapter also raises the question of whether there is any moral difference between snuffing out a life through magic or “slash[ing] the cuirassier’s head open, from his chin, upwards through his teeth.” Strange settles the question in favor of not using magic, but I think the book’s deliberate use of a graphically ugly mundane death is meant to make us think.

Some history notes: D’Erlon’s forces did indeed spend all day marching around between two battles and not arriving at either, which Wikipedia attributes to “conflicting orders.” The story about the Prussian general Blücher thinking he was pregnant with an elephant appears to be historical. And Mr Pink and the other civilian aides-de-camp are perhaps of dubious historical authenticity, but his presence so adds to the surreal nature of the day that I will gladly take him.

Can anyone identify the children’s skipping rhyme that comes out of the new song the Allied generals teach to Strange’s messenger birds? The English version is

The Duke’s magician must be kicked
From Bruxelles to Maastricht
For playing tricks on honest men
To Maastricht and back again

But apparently the rhyme comes out of the Dutch version.

Finally, this chapter mentions that “John Uskglass would sometimes make a champion for himself out of ravens—birds would flock together to become a black, bristling, shifting giant who could perform any task with ease.” Which means I now have an actual reason to share with you the photograph “feathers” by Katharina Jung, which is not explicitly JS&MN fanart but which I saw and immediately thought, “This is what the Raven King carrying someone off looks like.”

 

Chapter 41: Starecross
Late September–December 1815

What Happens

Out of financial necessity, Mr Segundus becomes a tutor in magic. The father of one of his pupils asks him to go to Starecross Hall to examine the library for possible purchase. While there, Mr Segundus finds a woman sitting at a window and sees Lady Pole (who he does not recognize) for a moment. He faints and is revived by the woman who was actually there, Mrs Lennox, and her companion. Over dinner, Mrs Lennox (a rich, decisive, charitably-inclined widow) proposes to create a school of magic run by Mr Segundus; the next few months are spent renovating Starecross Hall for the school.

Then Childermass appears and tells Mr Segundus that he must give up the school. Mrs Lennox is indignant, but Norrell puts indirect pressure on her bankers, lawyers, and other business partners. On Mr Honeyfoot’s suggestion, Mr Segundus writes to Jonathan Strange on December 20th; but he receives no reply.

Commentary

Dear Mr Segundus! There will be better reasons to rejoice at the return of magic to England, but I admit, the opportunity for you to practice magic, rather than be affected by the edges of other people’s, is one of my personal favorites.

Starecross Hall is mostly abandoned and thus, as we learned earlier, is closer to the Raven King than inhabited houses. I am guessing that this accounts for its oddities, which heighten Mr Segundus’ sensitivity to magic and temporarily unstick him in time, resulting in his vision of Lady Pole.

I also love Mrs Lennox, even though we don’t see much of her, both for herself and as part of the tour we’re getting into different roles women could play during this period.

Finally, this is minor, but I know exactly how Mr Segundus feels here:

Mr Segundus’s only regret (and it was a very slight one) was that Mr and Mrs Honeyfoot did not feel the surprize of the thing quite as he intended they should; their opinion of him was so high that they found nothing particularly remarkable in great ladies wishing to establish schools solely for his benefit.

When I got into my first-choice fancy-pants law school, I remember being curiously deflated to have most of my friends react by saying, more or less, “yeah, of course you did.” I know, I know, terrible problem to have, right?

 

Chapter 42: Strange decides to write a book
June–December 1815

What Happens

Only a small amount of the chapter is about the title, or rather about Mr Norrell and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair’s reactions to Strange’s decision (dismay and bafflement, respectively). The rest describes how the gentleman with the thistle-down hair has a plan to obtain another lady to keep always at his side, and forces Stephen Black to dig a moss-oak from a peat bog in Scotland to further this plan.

Commentary

In this chapter the gentleman is, unknowingly, teaching Stephen magic—or at least the fairy way of looking at the world. When Stephen listens to his song, he “understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands,” and dreams that various components of the world come to speak to him. That perspective will allow him to defeat the gentleman and become king in his place.

Otherwise, the only thing I have to say about this chapter is:

Dear Scotland, I once spent a charming weekend in Edinburgh, and I’m very sorry for laughing at this joke at your expense:

When he awoke it was dawn. Or something like dawn. The light was watery, dim and incomparably sad. Vast, grey, gloomy hills rose up all around them and in between the hills there was a wide expanse of black bog. Stephen had never seen a landscape so calculated to reduce the onlooker to utter despair in an instant.

“This is one of your kingdoms, I suppose, sir?” he said.

“My kingdoms?” exclaimed the gentleman in surprize. “Oh, no! This is Scotland!”

 

Chapter 43: The curious adventure of Mr Hyde
December 1815

What Happens

Mr Hyde, a gentleman farmer and neighbor of the Stranges, tells Jonathan that on a windy snowy day, he briefly saw a woman in a black gown walking on the top of the Dyke that divides Wales from England. He was certain that the woman was Arabella, even though he came to their house and saw Arabella safe within.

Jonathan tells Arabella about the visit, and she decides to visit the Hydes when her brother Henry comes to stay. Henry’s visit goes well at first (he is “quietly triumphant” at having found an heiress to marry), but it becomes clear that he and Arabella have little in common; further, he is discomfited by the magical atmosphere of the house, and expresses it through complaining to and about Jonathan.

On Christmas Arabella is ill and stays in bed. Early the next morning Jonathan half-wakes and thinks he sees Arabella dressed and sitting at the end of the bed. Later that day, Mr Hyde arrives and says that he saw Arabella again on the Welsh hills; Jonathan is distressed when his servant, Jeremy, tells him that Arabella is not in the house. Jonathan attempts to use magic to find her, but cannot make sense of the results, including a vision of “an ancient, shadowy hall” in which “a crowd of handsome men and lovely women were dancing.”

Jonathan and the rest of the neighborhood search everywhere. Another two men saw Arabella at the same time as Mr Hyde, but five miles away, though they agreed she was wearing a white dress. The unsuccessful searchers reconvene at the house, and just as people are starting to wonder whether Jonathan bears some responsibility for Arabella’s disappearance, she appears in the hall wearing a black gown.

Commentary

The Stevenson book is titled The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and this chapter title has to be a deliberate resonance—not for Mr Hyde the neighbor, but for the general theme of disassociation and doubles.

I was surprised to find that I don’t place any blame on Jonathan, here. He’s been careless and inattentive enough in the past that I was prepared to, but all of his behavior here seems understandable to me. Yes, we can say he should have investigated the spell’s vision of Lost-hope, but since they were in a rural area, it was reasonable to think that the spell had gone wrong rather than that Arabella had somehow found a dance in the middle of the day. And I wouldn’t have placed any importance on something I maybe-saw while half asleep, either, except possibly to ask whether it really happened the next time I saw the person in question.

Arabella becomes sick on Christmas Day and, I think we are supposed to infer, is taken on the 26th, when various people see her in a white dress outside. These seem as though they ought to be significant dates, but I don’t think the gentleman cares about Christianity—while a footnote says many faeries incorporated religious references in their magic, I don’t remember seeing him do so—and I’m not finding any general thematic resonances with St Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day, or anything else). Any thoughts on this?

The same footnote also mentions the tension between magicians and clergy: magicians generally don’t care about the intrinsic morality of supernatural beings (that is, “angels, demons and fairies”), just how to get them to help, while clergy care very much. The footnote also mentions a heresy created by Alexander of Whitby in the 13th century,

that the universe is like a tapestry only parts of which are visible to us at a time. After we are dead we will see the whole and then it will be clear to us how the different parts relate to each other.

I’m not clear why this is a heresy (not raised Catholic, you can tell), but I think it’s rather lovely. And also a thesis statement for the worldbuilding: the characters see only parts (and which parts differ from character to character), we see more from our external vantage point; but no-one will see the whole, at least in this life.

 

Chapter 44: Arabella
December 1815

What Happens

Arabella responds to everyone’s questions with calm indifference and statements that only make sense if you know she’s really a moss-oak. The ladies present thinks Jonathan is too harsh with her; the gentlemen get distracted trying to figure out where a pool of water in the hall came from. Eventually they all go away.

On the second day Arabella complained of a pain which went from the top of her head all down her right side to her feet (or at least that was what they supposed she meant when she said, “from my crown to the tips of my roots”). This was sufficiently alarming for Strange to send for Mr Newton, the physician at Church Stretton. Mr Newton rode over to Clun in the afternoon, but apart from the pain he could find nothing wrong and he went away cheerfully, telling Strange that he would return in a day or two. On the third day she died.

Commentary

This very short chapter exists to lead us up to the abrupt bleakness of that last sentence, which ends the chapter and the volume. It also continues the theme of Strange’s neighbors being dubious at his behavior, which is relevant later: but, really, this chapter exists for Arabella’s apparent death.

At least we know she’s not really dead, just stolen by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair? Okay, that’s not very cheerful either: but better, we know that she won’t stay that way. Next week, we’ll get started on Volume III and the path to rescuing her, with chapters 45 to 49. 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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