Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: Part 13

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 second-to-last section of JS&MN with chapters 60 through 64, in which magic truly returns to England. (Also, if you’re interested in the upcoming BBC One TV adaptation, there are scattered bits of footage throughout this general 2015 preview video. Why is there no release date yet?! *shakes fist toward the UK*)

Chapter 60: Tempest and lies
February 1817

What Happens

A great storm strikes Padua, where the Greysteel women are now staying, distracting Aunt Greysteel and the household servants. After the household is under control, Aunt Greysteel is badly frightened to discover that a mirror has appeared in the house and that Flora went out in the rain. Flora claims the mirror is hers, delivered in the storm, and that she was going shopping. They soon discover the storm was a cover for Jonathan visiting in the Darkness, and Flora confesses that he came to see her. She denies that she has done wrong: though she will not tell them Jonathan’s secrets, she asserts that she has acted honorably by convincing him to give up a destructive form of magic for the sake of her friendship (no longer love) and for his wife’s sake.

Flora declines to continue traveling or even to leave the house most of the time. She does request one trip to the sea, where she drops the opened bottle containing Jonathan’s essence of madness, and otherwise spends much time with the new mirror, comparing its reflection to the room in front of it.

Commentary

I like Flora and I admire her. What she has undertaken would be a difficult task for anyone, let alone someone who is ensuring the safe return of the not-actually-dead spouse of the person she is in love with. And I appreciate that among all the male magicians, a woman gets to help save Arabella. But I still had to work through two small reservations about her role here.

The easier to dispose of was whether Jonathan was being thoughtlessly cruel in asking her to guard the mirror-door. I suspect he was not in a condition to recognize the pain he was inflicting on her; but I also think that he didn’t have any choice. No-one else in the vicinity could be trusted, and he’d already failed to get Henry to come to Venice, who would seem to be the person most likely to want to help.

I was more troubled, though again only slightly and temporarily, by her role as Another Woman Who Loves Jonathan. On one hand, the parallelism between her and Arabella seems very fitting—they are on opposite sides of the mirror, after all—but on the other, I like it when women get to do things for reasons other than luuuuuuuuv, especially love for a man. But on further thought, I’m okay with it, because she puts aside love and heartbreak to do the honorable thing, and I hate love triangles and petty behavior, plus everyone seems pretty sure that she’s going to get over him just fine. So the overall effect is someone demonstrating their integrity and compassion, and I approve.

On a similar note, though Aunt Greysteel has not been shown to be particularly sparkling or intellectually-inclined, she is extremely kind and thoughtful, as this chapter shows. I particularly liked the detail about “putting all questions of expence aside” so that there are plenty of candles and lamps burning to try and lift Flora’s spirits.

Finally, the storm scene tells us that the lightning turns the room “into something quite Gothic and disturbing,” which is a perfect characterization of the lovely horror bit that culminates in Aunt Greysteel thinking she saw Arabella Strange’s ghost:

Suddenly realization and relief came upon her in equal measures; “It is a mirror! Oh! How foolish! How foolish! To be afraid of my own reflection!” She was so relieved she almost laughed out loud, but then she paused; it had not been foolish to be frightened, not foolish at all; there had been no mirror in that corner until now.

Can’t you just hear it told around a camp fire?

(Also, she may well have seen Arabella, in which case it was unexpectedly perceptive of her to realize it.)

 

Chapter 61: Tree speaks to Stone; Stone speaks to Water
January–February 1817

What Happens

Though England is scandalized and horrified by reports of Jonathan’s behavior, it is not much inclined to employ Mr Norrell either. Mr Norrell travels back to London from Brighton, and the quality of the landscape makes him feel, “[f]or the first time in his life… that perhaps there was too much magic in England.” Back in London, Lascelles and Childermass fight over the priority of the mail; Childermass drags Norrell into another room and tells him that a young man with no training has saved a child’s life by magic, because the trees and the sky told him what to do.

Lascelles then brings Mr Norrell to Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, where Mr Norrell is dismayed to hear that similar spontaneous acts of magic are happening all over England (such as pebbles on a path telling teenage girls how to make their eavesdropping brothers’ ears fly away), and that fairy roads have re-opened in Yorkshire. Lascelles blames Strange, and Norrell agrees. Lord Liverpool commissions him to prevent Strange from returning to England, because as another Minister says, “It is one thing to change Spain by magic, Mr Norrell, but this is England!”

Mr Norrell then successfully performs a spell that stopped working after the Raven King’s disappearance from England, and declares, “Magic is returning to England. Strange has found a way to bring it back.” He states that he cannot prevent Strange from using the King’s Roads, because “[e]very mirror, every puddle, every shadow in England is a gate” to them, but he can prepare to meet Strange at Hurtfew Abbey. Lascelles gets a letter and goes to meet Drawlight, saying he will return within a day.

Commentary

This chapter sees the return of the ballad from chapter 3, “The Raven King.” The British musician Owen Tromans was kind enough to tell me he has recorded it, and it’s really great: go listen free on SoundCloud.

The organic nature of magic; the conflict between Childermass and Lascelles; and the Government’s unease at magic changing England itself—these are all things that either we’ve talked about before, or that are going to bear fruit very soon. So I’m saving your eyes and my hands for then.

 

Chapter 62: I came to them in a cry that broke the silence of a winter wood
Early February 1817

What Happens

Lascelles meets Drawlight at a tiny crossroads in the middle of a wood, hears the messages, and takes the box containing Lady Pole’s finger. He refuses to let Drawlight deliver his messages; Drawlight tries to run away and do it anyway, out of fear of Strange, and Lascelles shoots and kills him. As Lascelles watches, the trees and plants of the wood begin to pierce Drawlight’s corpse:

his limbs and body decayed as plants and other living things took strength from them. Within a short space of time nothing of Christopher Drawlight remained. The trees, the stones and the earth had taken him inside themselves, but in their shape it was possible still to discern something of the man he had once been.

Lascelles leaves, amused rather than disturbed by his own actions or the magic he’s witnessed.

Commentary

Ugh, Lascelles.

Okay, I’m going to talk about him here even he does more in the next chapters, because it is all downhill for him from here (and also I need to spread out my commentary across the chapters a little or the tl;dr effect will be overpowering).

Does anyone else have a hard time with Lascelles? For me he’s intellectually plausible rather than emotionally vivid. I can see the steps that get him to this point: from the beginning, he viewed other people only in terms of their usefulness to him; through Norrell, he gained a taste for actual power; and it is culturally acceptable for him to engage in violence toward those below him in the social hierarchy (in the prior chapter, he tells Norrell that his father whipped servants for “a great deal less” than the quote-unquote insolence shown by Childermass). From there, it makes sense that he would engage in greater violence and discover that he relishes the power it gives him. Plus, it’s necessary that we get a present-day upper-class Englishman who murders, to show that murder is not the sole province of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. But that all is still an intellectual appreciation rather than an instinctive understanding. I’m fully prepared to believe that he’s very vivid and gut-level convincing to others and that it’s just my great good fortune in not knowing anyone like him, though!

As for Drawlight, the description of his death is, I think, the most graphic violence so far (I double-checked the chapters on the Peninsular Campaign and Waterloo). In a neat bit of micro-foreshadowing, nature-based images are used to convey the violence: the first shot “produc[es], for one instant, a red, wet flowering of blood and flesh in the white and grey woods,” and the second causes one Drawlight’s head to “burst open, like an egg or an orange.” And then nature unmistakably comes to the forefront when the forest absorbs Drawlight’s corpse.

This does make me wonder if when magicians die, the trees, stones, and earth take their bodies too. Drawlight said about the trees, “They are waiting for me. They know me!” Did they wait because they wanted him to finally contribute to something, with his flesh and bones if nothing else, or did they wait because that’s what they do to everyone who has magical visions in which they are part of the trees etc.? Or is it caused by the Raven King, given the chapter title? In the full context of the prophecy, that line is a description of the Raven King’s past dealings with enemies: “When they thought themselves safe I came to them in a cry that broke the silence of a winter wood… ” Its use here, though, and particularly its use of an “I” statement for a chapter in which the Raven King is not visible, seems significant.

 

Chapter 63: The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache
Mid February 1817

What Happens

When Lascelles returns (late, to Norrell’s distress), he hurries the household off toward Hurtfew in a disturbingly elated mood, claiming to have received a letter from Drawlight rather than seeing him, and passing on modified versions of the messages for all magicians and Norrell. While getting ready for bed at an inn, Norrell

began to have the strangest feeling… the feeling that something was coming to an end and that all his choices had now been made. He had taken a road in his youth, but the road did not lead where he had supposed; he was going home, but home had become something monstrous. In the half-dark, standing by the black bed, he remembered why he had always feared the darkness as a child: the darkness belonged to John Uskglass.

During the next day’s travel, Childermass enters one of the fairy roads and finds a man naming himself Champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart, who kills people who intend to harm or insult the Lady of the Castle, and then hangs them on the thorns of trees lining the road. Lascelles calls Childermass a coward for not fighting the Champion, though Norrell says he was wise to do so.

At Hurtfew, the conflict between Childermass and Lascelles boils over when Childermass reads his cards and accuses Lascelles of withholding a message and an object meant for him. Lascelles throws Childermass against a wall, deliberately cuts open his face, and demands that Norrell chose between them. Norrell chooses Lascelles. Childermass leaves, having picked Lascelles’ pocket and taken the little box, and sees the Darkness arrive at Hurtfew as he departs into the night.

Strange breaks Norrell’s labyrinth protecting his library and weaves another in its place. Norrell eventually manages to break the new labyrinth, but finds himself separated from Lascelles and the servants and alone in silence.

Commentary

The Italy-based chapters have focused on making us feel sympathy for Jonathan Strange, alone in a perpetual midnight without any living company (as Dr Greysteel pointed out in the first chapter of this set). But we’ve had sympathy for Mr Norrell before at various points and we’re returning to that now, as is necessary for the ending to be not completely terrible. First, there is his growing suspicion, as quoted in the summary, that he has taken the wrong path and can do nothing to fix it now. And while he is absolutely wrong to send Childermass away, his inability to cope with Lascelles and Childermass’ conflict made me pity him slightly for his absolute lack of social skills. (It also demonstrates how people’s adherence to social hierarchies lets other people get away with literal violence.)

On a much less serious note, we get our payoff for chapter 40, footnote 5, when Jonathan moves a whole bunch of landmarks around to confuse the French army, and the narrator says he didn’t just make a labyrinth because he “did not learn this magic until February 1817.” And this chapter has some great new magical-history tidbits: the Cumbrian charcoal-burner, which will be in The Ladies of Grace Adieu; Catherine of Winchester sending a young magician as far away as she could think of because he “kept disturbing her with inconvenient proposals of marriage when she wanted to study”; and a powerful Scottish magician, whose kingdom of Athodel is sometimes seen as “evidence of the superiority of Scottish magic over English” because it remains independent, but as the narrator dryly notes, “Since Athodel is both invisible and inaccessible this is a difficult proposition to prove or disprove.”

Finally, what does Childermass do with his money?

 

Chapter 64: Two versions of Lady Pole
Mid February 1817

What Happens

The servants decide to leave Hurtfew, taking the livestock with them, because they can do Mr Norrell no good by staying and it’s cruel to the animals. When they exit the Darkness, they discover it is about eight in the morning. Lascelles also leaves.

At the same time, Childermass arrives at Starecross (twenty miles away) and asks Mr Segundus to take him to Lady Pole. They both have to be led, eyes closed, through the house, because of the magic surrounding Lady Pole. When they come to Lady Pole’s room, Childermass sees (as the chapter title says) two versions of her, one indifferent in Yorkshire and one furious in a gloomy, labyrinthine house. At Childermass’s urging, Mr Segundus performs his first piece of practical magic, a spell to reunite Lady Pole with her missing finger. This breaks the gentleman’s hold over her, and she passionately tells them about her imprisonment and the continuing imprisonment of Arabella Strange and Stephen Black. Childermass declares that he is going back to Strange and Norrell to offer his help in freeing the two.

Lascelles enters the fairy road and challenges the Champion to a duel with pistols, claiming he wants to redeem Childermass’s cowardice. He thinks the Champion deliberately loses, and “watche[s] him die with the same intense interest and sense of satisfaction that he had felt when he had killed Drawlight.” Not long after he hangs the former Champion’s body on a tree, he sees someone approaching on horseback from the Faerie end of the road, and challenges them as the Champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart.

Commentary

To take things sort-of in order:

The clocks all turn midnight and stop when Strange arrives. We’d talked in the comments to the last post about whether Strange and Norrell might be alive at the end of the Darkness’ hundred years, and between the clocks all stopping at midnight and Jonathan reporting he had not slept or eaten, it seems plausible to me that the Darkness is a kind of stasis.

Starecross: Mr Segundus! Lady Pole! Childermass! Yay, she’s finally free, and yay, one of my favorite characters got to free her by practicing magic for the first time! And it is a poor madhouse keeper (who does the most caretaking of any man in the book) and a servant and former thief, who had previously been set in opposition, who ultimately free her by working together. I love both the length of this endgame—it really does takes up a considerable proportion of the third volume, which makes it balanced given the overall size of the book—and how satisfying it all is so far as everything falls into place.

Also, with regard to the spell that frees her (Pale’s Restoration and Rectification, which was also one of the spells the trees and stone told to the young man in chapter 61): as Farah Mendlesohn points out in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, it’s worth remarking that the text’s barebones “So Mr Segundus did the magic.”—a single paragraph—is demystified by the footnote, which explains that he “used a spoon and a bodkin from Lady Pole’s dressing-case which Lady Pole’s maid tied together with a ribbon” (a bodkin is probably, in this context, a hairpin). It’s kind of like the Rite of AshkEnte in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, where you can use as much magical-looking junk as you want, but three small bits of wood and 4cc of mouse blood will do the job just fine.

I also love that Childermass cuts off Mr Segundus’ cries of dismay when Lady Pole is restored, telling him, “We have no time for trivialities. Let her speak!” But then, since she nearly shot Norrell and did shoot him, Childermass has good reason to respect her acuity and willpower. I’m bemused, though, to hear that she considers Strange worse than Norrell: “By his negligence and cold, masculine magic he has betrayed the best of women, the most excellent of wives!” To me, and I think to most people, intentionally selling someone into imprisonment is worse than being taken in by magic specifically meant to deceive you. I also don’t quite follow what Lady Pole thinks the nature of Jonathan’s magic has to do with anything, but I desperately hope that she will become an accomplished magician herself now that magic has returned.

As for Lascelles becoming the Champion: back in the day, the group blog Crooked Timber ran a seminar on JS&MN. Two of the posts, by Henry Farrell and Maria Farrell, pointed out that the effect of magic is to both support English power structures (for instance, the military and the East India Company) and to destabilize and question English history and society. We have seen it previously when the Johannites (Luddites to us) painted the Raven-in-Flight near destroyed mills and factories; we saw this early in this set of chapters when the Government didn’t want England being changed by magic, just Spain; and we see it very clearly here, where Lascelles’ unthinking adherence to existing social structures (challenges of violence do not go unanswered by gentlemen) combines with his taste for murder to magically trap him into being the Champion.

The slave trade and the treatment of black people are another major example of how the book questions English ideas about its virtuous history and present, and we’ll be turning to that, among many other things, next week in the very last post (!) about JS&MN.


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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