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 55 through 59 in Volume III, in which Jonathan Strange enters Faerie and is surprised at what he finds.
Chapter 55: The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand
Night of 2nd/3rd December 1816
Jonathan finds a Faerie wood overlaid upon Venice, and follows the glittering path to the house he saw at Windsor, which is really a brugh (“the interior of a barrow or hollow hill”). Inside, he finds a room full of people dancing, and is surprised to meet Stephen Black (whose name he cannot remember). Before the dance carries Stephen away, he tells Jonathan, “For God’s sake, sir, what are you doing here? Don’t you know that he hates you?” But Jonathan cannot parse the warning and ignores it as possibly an illusion.
The gentleman is anxious and frightened to see Jonathan there; he dismisses Stephen’s suggestion that Jonathan has come for Arabella, since Jonathan never mentioned her previously, and sees him as a threat. Stephen attempts to convince the gentleman to release Arabella and Lady Pole, but the gentleman entirely misinterprets him and is inspired to inflict “Darkness, misery and solitude!” on Jonathan.
Jonathan dances with a fairy woman who tells him that he is prophesied to fail and offers to talk with him when he is next at liberty, “[a] hundred years from tonight.” After the dance, Jonathan sees a woman with a missing finger, wonders if she was the owner of the finger given to him by the gentleman, and approaches her as she talks to another woman—who is Arabella.
Arabella is pleased but not overjoyed to see him; Lady Pole (who Jonathan does not know) discourages her from speaking with him, because “[n]o hope at all is better than ceaseless disappointment!” Before the conversation proceeds any further, the gentleman casts an overwhelming spell on Jonathan, filling the hall for successive instants with birds, leaves spinning in the wind, and a rain of blood, and then sends him back to Venice. Though it took all his strength, he considers Jonathan defeated. He calls Stephen brother and promises to find his name.
My summaries are getting longer and longer, but at this point there’s so much happening that I can’t get them any shorter. My apologies if it approaches tl;dr territory for anyone.
So this chapter title. First, of course, it’s very exciting: finally, he’s going to find out about Arabella! Second, it reminded me to check in on the prophecy. I quoted it in full in the post about chapter 13, but the bits directly relevant here are:
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand…
The first shall pass his life alone; he shall be his own gaoler;
The second shall tread lonely roads, the storm above his head, seeking a dark tower upon a high hillside…
(Ellipses, as before, in original.) I think “conspire at his own destruction” must be the tincture of madness. “The storm above his head” is of course what the gentleman just did. I’m not entirely sure what “seeking a dark tower” refers to, as opposed to being in one involuntarily; it may be metaphorical, or I may be failing to remember a detail of the next chapters. The bits applying to Norrell seem pretty self-evident, though Lascelles hasn’t yet reached murderer status, well, that we are aware of.
Lady Pole and Arabella. As you may recall from when Arabella first met Lady Pole, Jonathan spent that whole visit talking with Sir Walter; and since, when John Segundus first met Lady Pole he immediately knew she was under an enchantment, we inferred that he’d never met her since. That seems confirmed here, though he puts it together pretty quickly in the next chapter. Lady Pole’s bitterness seems quite understandable to me, as when she was well, she was very decisive and forthright; and it’s been over nine years, I don’t blame her for giving up on hope. Arabella’s ambivalence toward Jonathan is more unexpected; I think this must be the effect of being under the gentleman’s magic (as is also discussed regarding Stephen in the last chapter of this set), particularly the way she looked at him “as if she were looking at a picture of him, rather than the flesh-and-blood man.”
As noted in the summary, Jonathan doesn’t remember Stephen’s name, “though he had heard Sir Walter speak it a hundred times.” This ties so neatly into the “nameless slave” that I’m half inclined to think Jonathan’s forgetfulness is caused by the magical resonance there, rather than just not paying attention to a Negro servant. On reflection, I’m going to believe that it’s both.
We can also play the counterfactual/AU game here: what if Jonathan had heeded Stephen’s warning? What if he had previously asked the gentleman about Arabella, so that the gentleman had reason to believe he could satisfy Jonathan by releasing her? I think Jonathan would have still had the motivation to attempt to defeat the gentleman more broadly, but I don’t know if that would have taken the form of restoring English magic, or if he would have had the desperation-born strength (or the insights born of madness, which I must think Arabella would have strongly discouraged). This is supported by the fairy woman telling Jonathan that he is prophesied to fail so that magic can be restored.
Finally, two minor things. First, small bits of setting up the ending: on the way to Lost-hope, Jonathan is excited to be active and traveling; and the gentleman’s curse “stretched to their utmost limit” his old alliances, which probably made it easier for Jonathan to disrupt them and restore the Raven King’s. Second: who did say that “a magician needs the subtlety of a Jesuit, the daring of a soldier and the wits of a thief”? I suspect the answer is “Susanna Clarke,” but maybe it rings a bell for someone else.
Chapter 56: The Black Tower
3rd/4th December 1816
Jonathan comes to Dr Greysteel in the middle of the night to urge him to send Flora away, because someone nearby wishes to imprison her. He also realizes that Norrell “has lied to everybody” about magic. Dr Greysteel thinks that Jonathan fears that he would himself harm Flora, but decides Flora and Aunt Greysteel should leave while he and Frank (their servant) stay to help Jonathan. Flora is very reluctant, but when Aunt Greysteel insists on telling her the truth, she agrees for the peace of mind of her father and aunt, and they leave that day.
Later that day, Dr Greysteel and Frank see “a black tower of impossible vastness” in the middle of Venice, and Venetian priests and members of the Austrian government come to Dr Greysteel to beg his intercession with Jonathan, who the tower is centered on. Dr Greysteel and Frank find Jonathan doing magic and are alarmed to hear him say that Arabella is alive. He, in turn, is alarmed to hear that it almost noon and the Darkness is unnatural.
The next day everyone is gossiping about the poor, mad English magician, thanks to Lord Byron, who had visited him the prior afternoon. Dr Greysteel goes to see Lord Byron, and they have an entirely unsatisfactory conversation.
I don’t think it actually protects Miss Greysteel to send her away from Venice, but it was genuinely good of Jonathan to be concerned for her. Speaking of her, the narrator mentions “the family habit of regarding Miss Greysteel as someone of exceptional abilities and intelligence”; she hasn’t really had opportunity to show that yet, but it’s coming. Also, good for Aunt Greysteel for insisting that they tell her the truth, “something which had never occurred to Dr Greysteel and Frank.” (Here insert a mild but heartfelt eyeroll.)
I am not sure why the Darkness should suck snow into itself. But I choose to believe that the cats of Venice have flocked to the Darkness because Mrs Delgado wants Jonathan to have company, not that he probably notices.
Dr Greysteel’s conversation with Lord Byron is pretty funny—I particularly liked Dr Greysteel thinking that Byron’s expression when he attempted to attract a passing woman “suggest[ed] that he was about to expire from chronic indigestion.” It is also interesting that the narrator says Byron “had a little of the look of Christopher Drawlight—but only if Drawlight had been fearfully clever.” This association further suggests the narrator isn’t too impressed with Byron, and is another little reminder of Drawlight’s existence before his reappearance in the last chapter of this set. We had a few in the prior chapters: when Jonathan’s madness takes the form of extreme emotional distance, he thinks to himself, “I think I turned into Lascelles or Drawlight! How perfectly horrible!”; and when Jonathan is trying to understand the gentleman’s bringing him a finger, he remembers Drawlight telling him something about it.
Chapter 57: The Black Letters
Jonathan writes letters of varying coherence to Henry Woodhope, Arabella’s brother, telling him that she is not dead but stolen by a fairy and enchanted under the earth. He begs Henry to come to Venice and help, because he cannot go about the city unobserved, though he also tells Henry that he knows of no spell that can free her.
Stephen and the gentleman observe Jonathan, who is certainly mired in darkness and misery, but is not as solitary as the gentleman would like, because Lord Byron is there taking notes for his poems. Stephen manages to convince the gentleman to grant Lord Byron another five years of life instead of killing him on the spot. Stephen also realizes that Lady Pole’s finger is no longer the gentleman’s and hopes that Jonathan can do some magic to free her, but “the signs were scarcely hopeful”: he doesn’t see Jonathan so much as look at it while they are there.
One of Jonathan’s letters to Henry blames himself for neglecting Arabella and not paying attention to other people’s warnings. At the time I didn’t blame him; I’m not sure if his assessment of his own culpability can be trusted here, given his mental state, but it’s worth noting.
Stephen’s lack of hope that Jonathan will free Lady Pole is significant in two ways. First, it’s a neat bit of misdirection: it’s certainly plausible that Jonathan would obsess about Arabella to the exclusion of Lady Pole, and the letters here do nothing to contradict that. This makes his subsequent conversation with Drawlight, two chapters from now, more dramatic and a relief. Second, it increases Stephen’s disaffection with Englishmen and English magic, which will motivate his actions at the end of the book.
Also, the gentleman makes explicit what Jonathan’s fairy dance partner implied: the Darkness will last for one hundred years.
Chapter 58: Henry Woodhope pays a visit
Henry seeks help from Mr Norrell, who tells him that Jonathan is deluded, Arabella is not alive, and Henry should try to bring Jonathan home to be cared for. Lascelles then questions Henry in a way that makes clear that he’s looking to slander Jonathan and blame him for Arabella’s death, and asks to borrow Jonathan’s letters. (Henry mentions that Jeremy Johns, Jonathan’s servant, had Arabella’s coffin exhumed and reportedly found a log of black wood, which Henry doesn’t believe but which clearly means something to Mr Norrell.) Lascelles makes plans to send someone other than Childermass to Venice.
The Duke of Wellington returns to London to discuss the occupation of France. He is unperturbed at the news that Jonathan has apparently gone mad (and that “it was no longer possible to transport pineapples into Venice”).
In January, a bookseller publishes The Black Letters, which purport to be Jonathan’s letters to Henry. Henry swore that he had never given permission for their publication and that they had been altered: “References to Norrell’s dealings with Lady Pole had been removed and other things had been put in, many of which seemed to suggest that Strange had murdered his wife by magic.” One of Lord Byron’s friends also accuses Mr Norrell of trying to steal his correspondence with Lord Byron by magic.
Ugh, I hate Lascelles so much. Norrell too, but it’s at least possible to see a principle behind his actions (I don’t think it’s wrong to want to break English magic of dependence on fairies), even though the actions themselves are deplorable. Lascelles just wants to maintain his power.
There’s another mention of the opposition between religion and magic in this chapter, with Lord Byron’s friend using a Bible to preserve his letters. In chapter 54, Jonathan had told the gentleman that “[a] salt-cellar, a rowan-tree, a fragment of the consecrated host” all make him unsettled and require him to take them into account so that his spells will work. I still find it a little weird that religious magic, essentially, is a thing in this world, but I think I just have to accept that all the beliefs in other-than-natural occurrences have a basis in reality: folktales about fairies and other magical creatures, animism, and religion.
Chapter 59: Leucrocuta, the Wolf of the Evening
Dr Greysteel is approached by a poor yet foppish man who claims to be a friend of Jonathan’s, but is spreading rumors that Jonathan killed Arabella. Under direct questioning, the man is forced to admit that he is Christopher Drawlight. Dr Greysteel visits every British family in the city and warns them to avoid Drawlight; Drawlight attempts to suborn Frank, Dr Greysteel’s servant, but is kicked into the canal for his efforts.
Jonathan has been trying to reach Drawlight with the water from the canals and now brings him into the Darkness. Jonathan calls him a Leucrocuta and threatens to return him to his proper form, to Drawlight’s fear and Jonathan’s peals of laughter. Once they both calm down, Drawlight says that Lascelles paid his debts so he could leave prison and sent him to Venice. Jonathan gives Drawlight three tasks and says if he completes them, he will not take revenge on Drawlight. First, he asks for Lady Pole’s name and location; he tells Drawlight to tell Childermass that Emma Wintertowne is not mad, but that Norrell gave a fairy “all sorts of rights over her” in return from raising her from the dead, and also directs Drawlight to give Childermass the box with her finger. Second, Drawlight must take a message to all the magicians in England:
“My pupils,” he said. “My pupils are magicians. All the men and women who ever wanted to be Norrell’s pupils are magicians. Childermass is another. Segundus another. Honeyfoot. The subscribers to the magical journals. The members of the old societies. England is full of magicians. Hundreds! Thousands perhaps! Norrell refused them. Norrell denied them. Norrell silenced them. But they are magicians nonetheless. Tell them this.” He passed his hand across his forehead and breathed hard for a moment. “Tree speaks to stone; stone speaks to water. It is not so hard as we have supposed. Tell them to read what is written in the sky. Tell them to ask the rain! All of John Uskglass’s old alliances are still in place. I am sending messengers to remind the stones and the sky and the rain of their ancient promises.”
He drinks from the tincture of madness (which he had refrained from using while attempting to reach Drawlight) and shows Drawlight what he means, giving him a vision of Ancient Spirits and of being subsumed into England itself. Drawlight watches Jonathan turn the stones of a nearby wall into so many ravens that they blot out the sky above.
“Lord Magician,” gasped Drawlight. “You have not told me what the third message is.”
Strange looked round. Without warning he seized Drawlight’s coat and pulled him close. Drawlight could feel Strange’s stinking breath on his face and for the first time he could see his face. Starlight shone on fierce, wild eyes, from which all humanity and reason had fled.
“Tell Norrell I am coming!” hissed Strange. “Now, go!”
Back in England, Stephen’s enchantment is taking more of a toll than ever on his emotions, and he is more and more distant from his English friends. The gentleman comes to visit and feels someone attempting to open “the doors between England and everywhere else.” He takes Stephen to see what is happening, and they witness the ravens going “back to England with instructions for the Sky and the Earth and the Rivers and the Hills. He is calling up all the King’s old allies. Soon they will attend to English magicians, rather than to me!” The gentleman tells Stephen “[w]e must redouble our efforts to make you King!”
The title critter is also known as the Leucrota, and is similar to the Crocotta. Honestly I’d have picked something less fearsome and more scurrying for Drawlight, but it wouldn’t have been as effective in scaring him. Also, I am not, as far as I know, mad.
Jonathan’s message to the magicians of England is such a perfect culmination of everything the book has been working toward that, paradoxically, all I can do is admire it. All the groundwork for his conclusion has been laid throughout, and now here it is, said out loud. (Also, I want to hear it. Dear BBC, these scenes are going to be so hard to nail, please don’t screw it up, it will amazing if you get it right!)
Drawlight’s vision of English magic is similarly hard to summarize, so just some minor points. I badly want fanart or something of one of the Ancient Spirits he sees, “a Small Creature with Dark and Fiery Thoughts.” Also, I had forgotten that his vision of becoming merged with England ends with him becoming a tree, which maybe doesn’t explain his later transformation, but at least seems relevant. (I know we’ve discussed this before, but this is happens to be another example of why I prefer the narrator to be omniscient rather than an in-world character who’s reconstructing things after the fact, because I want that vision to be what happened and not what someone else inferred.)
Finally, Stephen’s state of mind. The enchantment means he can only feel bitter emotions now (see also: Lady Pole, at the start of this post). I want to comment on this passage in particular:
The division and estrangement between him and his English friends grew ever deeper. The gentleman might be a fiend, but when he spoke of the pride and self-importance of Englishmen, Stephen found it hard to deny the justice of what he said. Even Lost-hope, dreary as it was, was sometimes a welcome refuge from English arrogance and English malice; there at least Stephen had never needed to apologize for being what he was; there he had only ever been treated as an honoured guest.
Again, this will feed into his actions at the end of the book. But it also made me ache for him all over again in sorrow and sympathy. I’ve had a similar feeling, where after one too many brushes with racism in a row, I just wanted to find some friendly brown faces and not deal with any white people—and those were quite minor bits of racism, nothing like what Stephen regularly experienced. To head off any potential trolls who might stop by: no, I don’t hate white people (see?), but I think most people know the relief that comes from entering the company of people who are all “like you,” on whatever axis is most relevant at the moment (geeks, women, etc.), and who, because of that, know how your position on that axis has shaped your experiences. And Stephen doesn’t even have that: he gets to escape human racism, but lacks the solace of commiserating with anyone who understands what he’s escaping.
I have thus decided to believe that when he becomes the nameless king, he offers black people in England (and elsewhere, if he has the ability to do so) a voluntary refuge in the brugh.
And on that hopeful but entirely speculative note, I’ll turn it over to you all. How did you feel about all the major happenings of these chapters?
See you next week for the second-to-last post (can you believe it?) on this book, covering chapters 60 through 64. Also, if you’re at Arisia in Boston this weekend, I’ll be doing some things, feel free to say hi!
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.