Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: Part 11

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 50 through 54 in Volume III, in which Jonathan Strange finally succeeds in summoning a fairy.

Chapter 50: The History and Practice of English Magic
April to late September 1816

What Happens

Jonathan Strange finishes the first volume of The History and Practice of English Magic and decides to go abroad. While he is on his way to Italy (and having unpleasant encounters with Lord Byron), Mr Norrell magically destroys every available copy of The History and Practice—with payment and a letter of explanation to its purchasers, though the letter does more harm than good. In response, Lord Portishead breaks off his association with Mr Norrell, and Childermass acts independently for long enough to tell Murray, Portishead, and Strange’s students that two copies remain of the book, one with Strange and one with Norrell. (Norrell also attempts to stop schools in theoretical magic and shops selling “magical” articles, to no avail.)

Strange arrives in Italy and his mood takes a turn for the dark for some weeks, until he meets the Greysteels, an English family with a young, unmarried daughter.

Commentary

Though this chapter is full of things, my mood at the end of this set of chapters was “yikes, look, endgame!”, and so I’m most interested in it as a transition between England and Venice. Thus, let’s start with England.

The Case of the Disappearing Books has a number of delightful character bits: Shackleton, “who looked exactly as you would wish a bookseller to look”; the young man whose book kept disappearing, who “was one of those people whose ideas are too lively to be confined in their brains and spill out into the world to the consternation of passers-by”; and Strange’s students. For whatever reason, this set of chapters happens to have two appearances of Jewish characters, both of which gently reference some of the prejudices faced by Jewish people at this time and also show the characters in non-stereotypical lights. The first is Tom Levy, one of Strange’s students.

As has already been noted, Hadley-Bright and Purfois were well-born English gentlemen, while Tom was an ex-dancing-master whose forefathers had all been Hebrew. Happily Hadley-Bright and Purfois took very little notice of such distinctions of rank and ancestry. Knowing Tom to be the most talented amongst them, they generally deferred to him in all matters of magical scholarship, and, apart from calling him by his given name (while he addressed them as Mr Purfois and Mr Hadley-Bright) and expecting him to pick up books they left behind them, they were very much inclined to treat him as an equal.

How generous of them (she says, drily, but much less elegantly than the narrator). The rest of the students’ interactions demonstrate that he is indeed the most sensible and knowledgeable of the lot.

As for the further consequences of Norrell’s actions, there are two that I want to mention. First, Sir Walter is again shown to be very egalitarian, when he remarks on Childermass’s behavior:

Sir Walter sighed deeply. “I cannot help thinking that in many ways this is a worse sign than all the rest. Norrell never was a good judge of men, and now the best of his friends are deserting him — Strange is gone, John Murray and now Portishead. If Childermass and Norrell quarrel there will only be Henry Lascelles left.”

The narrator has stressed how important Norrell viewed Childermass’s assistance, but that doesn’t mean a Minister would necessarily place Childermass as either a friend or a good influence.  (Also: “The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers,” check.)

(We didn’t actually see Norrell and Murray quarrel; back in chapter 12 we were told in a footnote they did in early 1815, and that is when Strange published his anonymous review attacking Lord Portishead’s book, so that must have been the topic.)

Second with regard to Norrell’s actions, I mentioned in a prior post that I wasn’t sure that there needed to be a separate court system for magical crimes, and here we have the argument against: when the Ministers ask how they can decide between the only two magicians on a magical topic, Lord Liverpool states, “We will know them as we know other men, by the fruits that they bear.” (The narrator footnotes this as a Biblical reference (St Matthew, 7:16), which I would have thought unnecessary, but does emphasize the moral judgment being passed.)

Finally about miscellaneous London-related things, 1816 was indeed the Year Without a Summer. Magic returns in early 1817, too late to prevent the failed harvests, but maybe not too late to ameliorate some of the longer-range consequences? And before Strange leaves London, he is doing work for the East India Company, including “offer[ing] advice on the best use of magic in hostile territories,” and I’m suddenly reminded that while the widespread return of magic to England seems likely to have a democratizing effect there, it’s hard for me to avoid the unhappy conclusion that it’s likely to be used, at least in the short term, to reinforce imperialism abroad.

As for Jonathan, I was glad to see him remember Arabella’s friendship with Lady Pole and ask Sir Walter to send his well-wishes to her. (He didn’t remember the friendship in chapter 39, when he and Arabella left London after he broke with Norrell.) As for his overall state of mind, I have thoughts on that, but they involve references to the last chapter in this set, so I’m leaving those until then.

 

Chapter 51: A family by the name of Greysteel
October to November 1816

What Happens

In Venice, Jonathan engages in correspondence with his friends in England and tourism with the Greysteels. Miss Flora Greysteel is upset with Jonathan because she saw him speaking with a woman at length, but the woman was a friend of Lord Byron’s (likely Claire Clairmont), not of his. Jonathan is also continuing his attempts to summon a fairy, and succeeds in summoning the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, but is unable to perceive the gentleman or to force him to show himself.

Commentary

I honestly hadn’t remembered how clear it was that Miss Greysteel is in love with Jonathan Strange, but between this section and her comments in chapter 53 about fearing to look at “someone” in case she saw him sad, lost, or indifferent to her: yup, pretty clear. I do remember that she behaves admirably and honorably with regard to Arabella despite (or perhaps because) of that; I’m not sure how I feel about this mirroring (heh) of the two of them in terms of the overall gender roles in the book, but we’ll get there.

Otherwise this chapter has a lot of tourism, and a lot of the English being tourists:

They were excessively pleased with the Campo Santa Maria Formosa. They thought the façades of the houses very magnificent — they could not praise them highly enough. But the sad decay, which buildings, bridges and church all displayed, seemed to charm them even more. They were Englishmen and, to them, the decline of other nations was the most natural thing in the world. They belonged to a race blessed with so sensitive an appreciation of its own talents (and so doubtful an opinion of any body else’s) that they would not have been at all surprized to learn that the Venetians themselves had been entirely ignorant of the merits of their own city — until Englishmen had come to tell them it was delightful.

There’s also Stephen Black being competent and thoughtful (preventing Strange from ruining a nightshirt sewn by Arabella) and the gentleman being hilariously horrible:

I do not chuse to shew myself to him and he knows no magic to counteract that. Stephen! Quick! Turn the pages of that book! There is no breeze in the room and it will perplex him beyond any thing. Ha! See how he stares! He half-suspects that we are here, but he cannot see us. Ha, ha! How angry he is becoming! Give his neck a sharp pinch! He will think it is a mosquito!

In the footnotes, we are told that “Long ago, when John Uskglass was still a captive child in Faerie, a king in Faerie foretold that if he came to adulthood, then all the old fairy kingdoms would fall.” I wonder if Stephen’s eventual ascension is partial fulfillment of this prophecy? And for what it’s worth, the book Norrell used to summon the gentleman originally is identified here as Jacques Belasis’ The Instructions.

Finally, I’m afraid I don’t give two things of whatever value you like about Lord Byron, so I don’t have anything to say about him. Based on her Wikipedia article, however, Claire Clairmont seems to have been a complex person who overall deserved better out of life in general and Lord Byron in particular than she got; and so while it’s entirely understandable that Jonathan seems to find her mildly distasteful in this set of chapters, I can’t help but feel slightly grumpy at him for it.

 

Chapter 52: The old lady of Cannaregio
End of November 1816

What Happens

The Greysteels attempt to visit an old lady, Mrs Delgado, at the request of a friend. They discover that she is living in at the top of a house in Cannaregio, the Jewish Ghetto. When they arrive, they find that she resides with fifty silent cats and is entirely non-responsive to human conversation. As they are leaving, they see a cat bring a dead bird to the windowsill and, in her first reaction since she arrived, Mrs Delgado made a joyous but non-human sound and “sprang with surprizing energy out of her chair.”

A footnote gives her history: she was a language prodigy who toured the world, but came to Venice and lost her wealth and health through gambling and other dissipations (and her husband, who died there). Her father was Jewish, and either for that reason or because “they felt for her as a suffering creature (for the Jews have endured much in Venice),” the Jews gave her shelter in the Ghetto.

There are different stories of what happened next, but what they all agree upon is that she lived among the Jews, but she was not one of them. She lived quite alone and whether the fault was hers or whether the fault was theirs I do not know. And a great deal of time went by and she did not speak to a living soul and a great wind of madness howled through her and overturned all her languages. And she forgot Italian, forgot English, forgot Latin, forgot Basque, forgot Welsh, forgot every thing in the world except Cat — and that, it is said, she spoke marvellously well.

Commentary

I love that footnote. The reference to the perhaps-mythical country of Wales (not quoted), the rhythm of it, its last line: it’s just great. And it’s, ahem, very useful to have a cautionary tale of madness and grief at this point in the story.

Otherwise the only thing I have to say here is we have the other appearance of Jewish characters in this set of chapters, the people in the Ghetto (in fact, the original ghetto). Like Tom Levy, they are shown in a positive and non-stereotypical light through their generosity to Mrs Delgado in taking her in and feeding her; and other characters are shown to be casually thoughtless toward them, here Dr Greysteel, who peers uninvited into a dining room because he “had come to Italy to see everything he could and saw no reason to make an exception of Hebrew gentlemen in their private apartments.”

By the way, can anyone identify the “doll or puppet as tall and broad as a man, with huge hands and feet, but dressed like a woman, with its head sunk upon its breast so that its face could not be seen,” that is on the wall in that private apartment? (A word of warning: don’t Google “Jewish puppet” to try to answer this question.)

 

Chapter 53: A little dead grey mouse
End of November 1816

What Happens

The Greysteels tell Jonathan about their visit to Mrs Delgado and ask him about curing madness through magic; this reminds him of his visit to the King and the fairy that the King spoke to. After days of planning, he visits Mrs Delgado and uses magic to achieve their heart’s desires: he transfers her madness into a dead mouse, which he takes, and turns her into a little grey cat.

Placing the mouse in his mouth makes him very mad indeed, and he reduces it to a tincture and experiments with the appropriate dosage. He experiences various delusions and then so much emotional detachment that he forgets his identity (though he still feels grief for Arabella). While in the latter state, he manages to summon and see the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, though he does not realize the significance of the gentleman’s presence until he bumps into a magical posy he had previously prepared.

Commentary

This chapter opens with the Greysteels “generally bestowing a cheerful Englishness on that part of the room where they sat,” which is pretty impressive considering that the roof was leaking significantly. And that’s a nice grounding way to start this chapter, which is otherwise memorable for Jonathan deliberately sending himself mad. Which he knows is unwise and does not care, as he tells Mrs Delgado:

“Oh! You question the wisdom of my proceedings? You are probably right. To wish madness upon oneself is very rash. My tutor, my wife and my friends would all be angry if they knew any thing of it.” He paused. The sardonic expression disappeared from his face and the light tone disappeared from his voice. “But I have cast off my tutor, my wife is dead and I am separated from my friends by twenty miles of chill water and the best part of a continent. For the first time since I took up this odd profession, I am not obliged to consult any one else.”

If those last two sentences do not appear verbatim in the TV show, I will be most put out. I almost made them the jump-quote for this post, except they would spoil everyone looking at the front page while this post is new.

Interestingly, when he’s in the state of madness when he talks about himself in the third person, he describes his motivations thusly:

He tells himself he is doing it to get himself a fairy-servant and further the cause of English magic. But really he is only doing it to terrify Gilbert Norrell!

I have to say that I didn’t guess that. And I’m tentatively thinking he’s right. His memories of Arabella are accurate, after all. And while he independently arrives at the idea of summoning a fairy so that the fairy can bring Arabella for a conversation, he doesn’t actually get around to asking for that in the next chapter. Instead he seeks magical knowledge, which does suggest his motivations now are less about Arabella then about Norrell. (His grief is clearly real. But it’s not a straightforward motivation for his actions.)

As for his delusions, the idea that people’s faces are thin masks with candles behind them is overall the creepiest, but the pineapples everywhere results in the singular image of his landlord with one in his mouth:

How he had managed to cram the whole thing in there, Strange could not imagine. Green, spiky leaves emerged slowly out of his mouth and then were sucked back in again as he spoke.

*shudder* So overall, I’m calling that one a draw.

 

Chapter 54: A little box, the colour of heartache
1st and 2nd December 1816

What Happens

The magical posy removes Jonathan’s madness and he is hugely uncomfortable to discover that a fairy has appeared in his room and he has no memory of it. The gentleman isn’t too happy about it either, and looks about for a magical object that is giving Jonathan the power to see him. Jonathan asks the gentleman to help him and releases him to consider the offer.

The gentleman is furious at having been seen by Strange and tells Stephen about it. Then he decides that he will grant Strange’s next request, since “English magicians are generally very stupid” and Strange will ask for something that “is sure to bring a world of trouble on his head,” which will distract Strange enough that they can go back to making Stephen the next King of England.

Jonathan is unsettled to experience a delusion as an after-effect of the madness, and then finds the gentleman has returned to make him a binding promise to bring him “any thing you desire.” Strange immediately seeks information, but the offer does not extend to that; he tries a different method by demanding “something that you gained from your last dealings with an English magician.” The gentleman tries to convince Jonathan he doesn’t want it, but is forced to deliver Lady Pole’s finger in the box of the chapter’s title later that day.

Jonathan is extremely disturbed by the finger (though he does not realize it is Lady Pole’s) and resolves to visit the fairy as a show of power, to improve the odds that the fairy will agree to answer his questions. He casts a spell to make a path between himself and the fairy, takes a single drop of the tincture of madness to allow him to see the path, and steps out into the street to follow it.

A footnote tells how Ralph Stokesey impersonated the East, West, North, and South Winds to learn more about the fairy Col Tom Blue, who had refused to serve him; but before Stokesey could force his service, Col Tom Blue changed his mind, because he heard that the Winds were asking questions about him and wanted to form an alliance as a defense.

Commentary

It was really hard to stop reading at this point! We are just about to enter the endgame and it’s so great.

Going back to the start of the chapter, I also desperately want to see dramatized the part where Strange realizes that a fairy is in his room:

Strange was conscious that his confusion shewed in his face. He remembered all the stern warnings he had read against letting members of this tricksy race suspect that they know more than oneself. So he covered up his perplexity with sarcastic looks. Then, remembering that it is generally considered even more perilous to appear superior and so make the fairy-spirit angry, he covered up his sarcasm with a smile. Finally he went back to looking puzzled.

He did not notice that the gentleman was at least as uncomfortable as himself.

I’m sure my imagination pales next to a skilled actor’s interpretation of that.

I also want to tie this chapter back into his grief for Arabella, specifically whether the specific manifestations of it are influenced by his magical ability. Basically, I feel that his ideas during his grief, his delusions under the tincture, and the way magic is experienced in this book all run on similar lines, and so I wonder if he’s predisposed to that kind of thinking because of his magic.

For instance, at the start of chapter 51, he has an overwhelming conviction that he would disappear from his gondola as though it were a conjuring-box; last chapter, there’s the people’s heads as hollow shells with candles; and this chapter, there’s Dr Greysteel as a horrible eyeless figure of evil and malevolence. All of these seem to be on a continuum of beliefs that the world we ordinarily perceive is only a layer over a more sinister reality; which is the warped version of the general depiction of magic in this book, that it makes people feel that their ordinary perceptions are inadequate but not inaccurate. (I’m not sure if the Dr Greysteel incident is a relapse into madness or a side-effect of the gentleman’s presence, but either way it fits the pattern.) It’s not that his grief couldn’t manifest this way generally, but that in light of the well-established way magic (and madness) is talked about in this book, I think there’s a connection.

The only other thing I want to specifically mention is that when Jonathan casts the spell to create a path, the text says “He muttered the words to himself, made a few gestures, and named himself and the gentleman as the two beings between whom the path should be drawn” (emphasis added). This caught my eye because we’ve talked about how the text never reveals the gentleman’s name; I see no reason to think Jonathan knows it, and guess he must have been able to be precise enough without the actual name (“the fairy who offered to bring me any thing I desired within the last 24 hours” would probably suffice).

See you next week for chapters 55 to 59, in which the endgame definitively begins.


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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