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 opening of Volume III with chapters 45 through 49, in which Jonathan Strange and Lady Pole react in their own ways to the end of Volume II.
Scheduling note: because of Christmas and New Year’s, the reread will return on January 9, 2015. However, I’m including in this post recommendations for some JS&MN fanworks, in case that gives you something extra to do over the break.
Chapter 45: Prologue to The History and Practice of English Magic
(This chapter has no date heading; the book is finished in early June 1816 and published shortly thereafter.)
This chapter reproduces in full the prologue to the only book Strange ever published. It describes how in 1110, the Raven King led the Fairy Host in conquering Northern England as “a just recompense for the failure of the Norman kings to avenge the murders of his family.”
At the age of fourteen he had already created the system of magic that we employ today. Or rather that we would employ if we could; most of what he knew we have forgotten. His was a perfect blending of fairy magic and human organization — their powers were wedded to his own terrifying purposefulness. There is no reason that we know of to explain why one stolen Christian child should suddenly emerge the greatest magician of any age. Other children, both before and since, have been held captive in the borderlands of Faerie, but none other ever profited from the experience in the way he did. By comparison with his achievements all our efforts seem trivial, insignificant.
It is the contention of Mr Norrell of Hanover-square that everything belonging to John Uskglass must be shaken out of modern magic, as one would shake moths and dust out of an old coat. What does he imagine he will have left? If you get rid of John Uskglass you will be left holding the empty air.
We open Volume III, which is titled “John Uskglass,” with Strange’s history of him. This serves two purposes: first, it lays out squarely and neatly all the context we’ve been building up about the Raven King (which I prefer to call him, since he used it for longer than John Uskglass (his father’s name), and it feels more fitting).
Second, it allows us to again pull back sharply from Jonathan Strange after a time of great emotion. After Waterloo, it was two chapters before we returned to his POV; here, after Arabella’s apparent death, it is three. The non-narrative nature of this chapter allows an even greater distancing. From what I recall of the Italy section, this pullback is necessary to allow the book to build to that intensity; but I can see that it might also be frustrating to people, especially on a first read.
The footnotes in this chapter are Strange’s and not our narrator’s; one of the footnotes here says “When he was a child in Faerie the Sidhe had called him a word in their own language which, we are told, meant ‘Starling,’” and in chapter 47, the narrator footnotes a name spoken by the gentleman as “Presumably the Raven King’s original Sidhe name, which Jonathan Strange thought meant ‘Starling’.”
The Raven King is “pale and handsome and solemn-faced,” with long, straight, dark hair.
It is perfectly reasonable for the Raven King to have been also called “the King in the North,” but I’m glad that only appears in this one footnote, because associating JS&MN with A Song of Ice and Fire caused such cognitive dissonance that my brain locked up for a moment.
Chapter 46: “The sky spoke to me…”
Childermass is writing letters in Hanover-square and begins to feel that magic is being done. Norrell is not in the house, so he does a spell to find its source. He sees magic outside and perceives a doubled landscape, London and Faerie, and feels that the sky is asking him a question. He nearly faints, loses the magic, and then sees a woman, who appears to have unnatural strength, attempt to shoot a returning Mr Norrell. He grabs the pistol and is wounded.
During Childermass’s recovery, Mr Norrell demands to know why Childermass was performing magic—he had forgotten that he had taught Childermass that spell himself, years ago. Childermass tells Norrell about the sky speaking to him, a view of magic that Norrell takes as a betrayal, but Childermass reassures him: “Mr Norrell, calm yourself. I have no intention of taking up any new employment. You are the last master I shall ever have.” Mr Norrell admits that the woman was Lady Pole, who blames Norrell for Arabella Strange’s death and who Sir Walter has agreed to isolate in the country. Childermass seems to suspect that Norrell was lying about something related to Lady Pole and/or Arabella’s death.
We continue at an emotional distance from the action, being in Childermass’s POV instead of Lady Pole’s. Again, in terms of the tone of the book and being at the start of a volume, not the middle or end, this makes sense to me. But it’s a little frustrating too, because I have two questions about the logistics that can’t be answered from this perspective.
First: Lady Pole’s apparent supernatural abilities.
[Childermass] saw the woman shrug herself free of Mr Marston’s grasp with what seemed like remarkable ease. She pushed him to the ground with such force that he did not get up again. She put one small, gloved hand to Davey’s chest and Davey was flung several yards backwards. Mr Norrell’s footman — the one who had opened the carriage door — tried to knock her down, but his blow had not the least effect upon her. She put her hand upon his face — it looked like the lightest touch in the world — he crumpled to the ground.
Something about Lady Pole’s state of being partly trapped in Faerie must account for this, because nothing else about her can—she’s very energetic in her unenchanted state but that doesn’t make her Jean Grey. But we’ve never had a hint of it before and the logic of it escapes me.
Second: the keys to the pistol had been in Stephen’s keeping, and Norrell says it is a mystery how she got them. We’ve had little indication that Stephen’s become careless or his work has suffered because of his magically-induced depression. Yet Stephen’s POV next chapter doesn’t feel like someone who was part of a conspiracy to commit murder. And the only other thing I can think of, that the gentleman interfered, doesn’t feel right either; for one thing, I’d expect him to complain about the plan’s failure, next time Stephen sees him. I’m inclined to go with carelessness on Stephen’s part, but it vexes me that I have to guess at it.
On another note: Childermass is apparently this close: >< to restoring English magic: “The sky spoke to him again. This time he thought it was a question. Great consequences hung upon his answer.” Again, he’s linked to Mr Segundus, this time implicitly: they both can sense magic around them and are overcome by its effects, but Childermass is a practicing magician and Mr Segundus is not, yet.
Finally: Norrell is a terrible liar. (I wonder what he thought he might have done to prevent Arabella’s death, though?)
Chapter 47: “A black lad and a blue fella — that ought to mean summat.”
Late January 1816
Stephen brings Lady Pole to Starecross, where Mr Segundus has taken up madhouse-keeping on gentle, comforting principles. Mr Segundus sees that both Stephen and Lady Pole are surrounded by magic, with red-and-white roses at their mouths; but Stephen has no reason to trust him, and much reason to distrust English magicians, and pretends not understand when Mr Segundus asks him about it.
On his way back to London, a coachman strikes at Stephen with his whip because Steven is black, which causes his horse to fall and fatally injure herself. Stephen is unable to kill her, and a passing kind-yet-condescending carrier does it for him. The carrier takes Stephen to a nearby farm to arrange for the horse’s disposition (where Stephen endures yet more racism) and then toward Doncaster. On the way, Stephen meets Vinculus, who had been asleep in the back the whole time and who tells Stephen the prophecy.
Later, Stephen tells the gentleman about the prophecy, and is “oddly disappointed” to hear that the “nameless slave” is the Raven King and not himself.
I wonder if Childermass acted on his suspicions about Mr Norrell and Lady Pole by recommending Mr Segundus’s new madhouse to Sir Walter? Yes, I know he told Mr Segundus he would help him if he chose to drop the idea of a school—and as we see in the next chapter when he gives Jonathan Strange his fees from the Treasury and Admiralty, Childermass does believe in honoring agreements. But he didn’t have to recommend him to Sir Walter, it could have been to anyone.
It’s probably stretching things too far to think that the Raven King was behind Mr Segundus’s inspiration to take up madhouse-keeping, but I did wonder, between the “figure in tattered black rags” he sees right after he leaves Mrs Lennox’s house and then his inspiration : “I had what I think I must call a vision. I saw the madman in all his ravings standing in the hall—just as I had seen him in Bath—and I realized something. I realized that this house with its silence and its seclusion might be kind to persons distressed in mind.” (Also, he’s a sweetheart. And the gentlest caretaker we’ve seen so far, which is another nice understated pushing at gender roles.)
The omniscient narrator has been fairly withdrawn lately, but there is some POV-sliding here that I found somewhat awkward, when Stephen Black and Mr Segundus are talking: it starts out in Stephen’s POV, moves during the scene to Mr Segundus, and then moves back again to Stephen. That’s a hard thing to do smoothly, especially twice within a single scene, and it didn’t quite work for me here—though it’s notable that I haven’t been having this problem generally.
And now, to talk about racism, and also rape (or rather the possibility thereof). In reverse order:
By a chain of thought too long and tangential to bother recounting, I realized that I had never before entertained the possibility that the gentleman raped or sexually assaulted Lady Pole or Arabella Strange. Which is odd, because when a guy kidnaps women because he wants to possess their beauty, that normally comes up as at least a possibility. (We know that some fairies have sex with humans, because people with fairy and human ancestry have been mentioned.) Anyway. My reading of the book is that he has not, based on the subjects that upset Lady Pole and Stephen’s reactions; and I thought I should mention both this conclusion and the thought process that led there.
As for racism, Stephen does not experience the full range of it in this chapter by any means, but it’s still quite a range of individual actions: from the coachman’s trying to whip him when he sees “nothing but a black man”; to the farmer’s “astonish[ment] to find such an otherlandish creature in his yard,” which causes him to refuse to believe Stephen is speaking English and to “gape[ ] at Stephen and [make] remarks about him to one of his men who stood equally entranced”; to the carrier’s “cheerful superiority that white generally feels for black.” There’s a bit from the carrier and Stephen’s conversation that is more subtle but just as awful:
“Eh! I have a black lad and a blue fella in my cart! I niver heard o’ anyone that did that before. Now if to see a black lad is good luck — which it must be, like cats — then to see a black lad and a blue fella together in one place ought to mean summat. But what?”
“Perhaps it does mean something,” offered Stephen, “but not for you. Perhaps it means something for him. Or me.”
“Nay, that can’t be right,” objected the carrier. “It’s me it’s happening to.”
No, jerk, it’s happening to all of you.
Chapter 48: The Engravings
Late February-March 1816
Sir Walter meets with Jonathan Strange and finds him much changed, remoter and seemingly play-acting at his usual behaviors. Sir Walter tries to discourage him from talking too much of the Raven King, citing the Government’s fear of revolution in the north.
The first issue of Strange’s new periodical, The Famulus, is published, and is very successful. Norrell is beside himself because it describes how to summon the dead for magical instruction. Lascelles tells Norrell that Strange has discovered artists to engrave his forthcoming book. Norrell sends Childermass to investigate; Strange notices Childermass using an invisibility spell and invites him to visit the engravers with him. The drawings are of the King’s Roads, which Strange willingly tells Childermass how to enter. He asks Childermass whether he will leave Norrell and come study with him. Childermass declines, but promises that if Strange or Norrell defeats the other, he will take up the opposition “and then there shall still be two magicians in England and two opinions upon magic.”
A footnote describes some of the pretenders to the Raven King’s throne, which the King of (southern) England is only the steward of, “until such time as John Uskglass chose to return.”
Someone write me the AU where Childermass has to take up Strange’s banner and confront Norrell over the future of English magic? Because that would be amazing and I’d love you forever.
This chapter and the next are quieter after the intensity of the prior two, and are mostly setup for things to come, so I only have a few scattered things to say.
The fear of revolution in the north: Sir Walter refers to the movement at the Johannites; Jonathan knows them as machine-breakers. Googling the latter turns up Luddites, who in our world did not have John Uskglass to take their name from. This also ties into the pretenders to the Raven King’s throne, which is still being held in trust for him; the mystical Summer King, who attempted to capture nothing and may have simply vanished, is a particularly tantalizing figure.
I couldn’t find out anything about the artists Strange has commissioned, M’sieur Minervois and M’sieur Forcalquier; those are both place names. As refugees, perhaps they have chosen not to go by their birth names.
Finally, because I’m terrible with timelines, I hadn’t put it together that “Catherine of Winchester died two hundred years before Martin Pale was born,” and so taught him from beyond the grave.
Chapter 49: Wildness and madness
Jonathan invites Sir Walter and Lord Portishead to dinner and questions Portishead about Norrell’s magical researches. He tells them of his plans to take students, including men who are not gentlemen, though he does not have the patience to engage chaperones so that he can teach women. He also expresses his frustration at being unable to consult books to learn new magic and at having to use other methods. Since he had promised Arabella not to travel on the King’s Roads, he is trying to summon a fairy, but has had no success. He is inspired to try and send himself mad by wandering through wild England, to the alarm of Sir Walter and Lord Portishead.
Strange crossed his arms and took another look at Soho-square and said, “Well, I shall not go today.” And then he smiled his self-mocking smile and looked almost like his old self. “I shall wait,” he said, “until it stops raining.”
Despite the last chapter ending with a footnote about summoning dead magicians to learn from them—and despite Strange’s near-success with summoning Maria Absalom, all the way back at the start of Volume II—here Strange doesn’t seem to consider that as a method of gaining magical knowledge. I speculate that it’s too soon after Arabella’s death (we have no idea if it’s possible to summon non-magicians, but either way the whole concept would be emotionally fraught at this point).
Personally I’d think he should keep the spirit of his promise not to travel on the King’s Roads, to stay off them until he could establish that it was safe, rather than to the letter, which is now impossible. But I think he’s probably at least as interested in a new, all-absorbing challenge at this point as anything else.
I had forgotten that Jonathan had been willing, in theory, to teach women—though he still could have been better, since his reason for not taking female pupils was that it was too much work. Still, I will make allowances under the circumstances. Finally, one of his new pupils, Tom Levy (the dancing-master), has also managed to practice magic: he induced growth in a wooden window frame, though he was unable to reverse it. Perhaps he has a particular affinity for trees, as Childermass apparently does for the sky?
Bonus: Fanworks Recommendations
There is not much fanfic for JS&MN out there, which is unsurprising given the time period, scope, and distinctive voice of the canon. Here is what I’ve read previously and liked (though I haven’t reread them before posting this, so the older ones may not be as canon-compatible as I remember); feel free to add your own. I’m ordering this in canon-chronological order, because why not.
- Invasion and Inscrutability by redletters. 1,426 words, rated teen and up audiences. Backstory for the Raven King and the gentleman with the thistledown hair. Playfully, deliciously creepy.
- John Childermass’s Last Employer by prodigy. 12,574 words, rated general audiences. How Childermass came to work for Norrell. (The headers describe the story as slash, but I didn’t read it that way; the author, in comments, stated that the intent was ambiguity or one-sided feelings at best.)
- The Blest Surprize by afrai (now unlocked!). 6,400 words, rated G; crossover with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books (no real spoilers for those). During her time in Lost-hope, Arabella finds herself visiting with Stephen Maturin. Gorgeous, delicate, comforting.
- The King’s Man by novembersmith. 3,231 words, rated general audiences. Post-canon story in which John Childermass discovers that the Raven King “really was damned annoying.” Because of course he would be.
- The Shadow on the King’s Roads by Quasar. 6,311 words, rated general audiences. In which the two sisters from “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” arrive in London and are chaperoned by Arabella. I like the way this brings in the women’s stories from “Grace Adieu” and the look at Arabella post-canon.
- A Necklace of Broken Promises and Regrets by Kaesa. 10,865 words, rated general audiences. Strange and Norrell encounter Lascelles in Faerie in their post-canon travels, in what feels like a very plausible extension of the book.
- Orb and Scepter by misura. 2,260 words, rated general audiences. Summary: “‘Do you know, Stephen, I have given much thought lately to whether it would be better to be a servant in Heaven than a king in Hell,’ said the gentleman.” Excellently, eerily plausible. (Also labeled slash, also a relationship portrayal that seems canon-compliant with me.)
- I’ve previously linked to Introduction to the Caribbean Books of Magic, Second Edition, by Jennifer-Oksana, which the author herself has recommended; it’s a Pirates of the Caribbean crossover, rated PG-13 by the author, about 2,000 words.
- And this is a complete AU, so it goes last: Of Five Adventures That Occurred During The Reign Of The Raven Barista. by Lanna Michaels. 1,224 words, rated general audiences. The author’s summary is entirely accurate: “Cracky coffee shop AU with magic!” It’s a lot of fun.
I don’t look at much fanart, but here are a few pieces I’ve come across that I liked:
- ‘I have been put [out] of temper today…’ by Pika-la-Cynique. Pencil sketch of the gentleman.
- A Strange Inktober by MO-ffie. Series of ink drawings of various characters.
- Jonathan Strange + Mr. Norrell by readtoher. Charming digital art portraits.
- And, just for completeness, the not-actually-fanart I linked previously: ‘feathers’ by Katharina Jung.
Happy New Year, and see you on January 9 for chapters 50 through 54.
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.