Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: Part 14

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 finishes JS&MN with chapters 65-69, but does not itself conclude, as we will cover The Ladies of Grace Adieu for dessert.

Chapter 65: The ashes, the pearls, the counterpane and the kiss
Mid February 1817

What Happens

The gentleman comes to Stephen to tell him that the magician (Jonathan Strange) has returned to England. Stephen manages to dissuade him from killing Jonathan immediately, but the gentleman tells Stephen, “I have been quite put out of temper this morning and someone ought to die for it.” He thus “ask[s] the North Wind and the Dawn to bring us immediately into the presence of the one person in England whose existence is the greatest threat to me.” They are taken to an empty moor, and as they wait for a far-off person to approach them, the gentleman tells Stephen how he found the name that Stephen’s mother gave him—essentially, by tracking down the remnants of her experiences and body, and killing a whole lot of people more or less incidentally.

The person on the moor arrives before the gentleman can tell Stephen his name. That person is Vinculus, who contemptuously claims to be very hard to kill. As they talk, the gentleman feels Lady Pole’s captivity being broken. In fury and impatience, the gentleman hangs Vinculus with sleet and snow that has twisted itself in a rope. Stephen weeps. The gentleman drags him away to cast a spell on Lady Pole so that she will die shortly.

Commentary

On Tumblr, lookingatmyshoes makes an excellent point about an understated bit of irony on Clarke’s part: as the very epigraph for Volume II says, Strange defines “gentleman” as someone who “never could” kill a person by magic. Yet here and elsewhere, the gentleman with the thistle-down hair—who we only know as “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair”—does just that.

As we discussed in comments previously, Norrell at least must have known the gentleman’s name, to be able to summon him, and so the omniscient narrator must have made a deliberate choice to avoid giving it. But she didn’t have to call him “gentleman”; she could, for instance, have called him “the fairy with the thistle-down hair.” I think that the choice to call him “gentleman” is a very quiet, subtle statement that being of a class that entitles you to be called “gentleman” says nothing about your actual quality as a person—which then calls into question the entire class system.

(Also, while I’m linking out, I put this in the fanworks rec post, but since it’s specifically from this chapter, here it is again: pencil sketch of the gentleman telling Stephen that someone ought to die.)

Going back to the specifics of this chapter, seriously, did anyone guess that Stephen was going to assume the kingship of Lost-hope? There’s two more clues in this chapter: first, the gentleman tells Stephen that among fairies, “a king is most commonly succeeded by the person who killed him.” Second, the greatest threat to the gentleman is Vinculus, who again greets Stephen as “King” and had previously told him the prophecy about the nameless slave—and we are in a chapter where the gentleman describes the lengths he had to go to find Stephen’s name, and then never actually tells him! On one hand, I don’t know how I missed it, but on the other, people haven’t been coming out of the woodwork in the comment sections here to say that they’d seen it coming. So, what did you all think or expect, dear (re)readers?

The gentleman’s tale of finding Stephen’s name is extremely characteristic of him. For those not reading along, the items in the chapter title correspond to his mother’s screams, which sunk into the wood of the ship, which was wrecked and then used to make a house, which the gentleman burned to ashes; her bones, which became dust in the ocean and which were incorporated into pearls; her dress, which a sailor gave to a woman as a gift, who then used it in a counterpane; and “a kiss which the captain of the ship had stolen from her, two days earlier,” the virtue of which had been passed on to many other women the captain kissed before he died. The body count of this search cannot be precisely determined with the information given, but seems likely to number in at least the double digits.

That body count distresses Stephen and, I think, perhaps contributes to his reaction to Vinculus’ murder: “Stephen—forgetting that he had determined to hate all Englishmen—covered his face with his hands and wept.” And the cumulative horror of the gentleman’s murderous ways will lead to Stephen choosing to save Lady Pole at the climax of the book.

Finally, Stephen tells the gentleman that it is February 15th, St Anthony’s Day. A footnote specifies that this is St Anthony of Padua, and after it mentions some of his miracles, almost casually adds, “He also helps people find things they have lost.” *raises eyebrow* Does he, now?

 

Chapter 66: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Mid February 1817

What Happens

Mr Norrell enters his library to find an unexpectedly calm Jonathan researching abductions by fairies (with zero regard for fire safety). Jonathan says that he wants to summon John Uskglass to learn how to defeat his enemy and free Arabella. They use Jonathan’s spell from the first chapter in Volume II and attempt to get around the problem of not knowing John Uskglass’s true name by using the stones, river, and trees of Hurtfew Abbey to summon “The King.” In response, all of the books in the library turn briefly to ravens.

The magicians decide to try a location spell to see how close John Uskglass is. Mr Norrell goes outside for water and discovers that he is now also trapped in the Darkness because the spell was cast imprecisely. The spell reveals that John Uskglass is in Yorkshire.

Commentary

And here we have, well, as much of a redemption as Mr Norrell is going to get. He had been uneasy about the path he chose; Jonathan appears and isn’t interested in continuing their conflict; and he chooses to help Jonathan try to rescue Arabella. The very nature of English magic helps here; as Jonathan says, he is not angry because “One cannot be the conduit through which all English magic flows and still be oneself.” And he is rewarded: the chapter opens by saying that the time they were working together was “the happiest period of his existence,” and he gets to return to that but without any outside distractions. (Their discussion of spells nicely shows how well they collaborate and how they respect each other’s work.) Frankly, I think it’s probably more than he deserves, but I also suspect that there might be some compensation going on in two directions: one, for Jonathan, for being stuck in the Darkness; and two, for Norrell, for breaking his heart over the Raven King earlier in life. So I am less upset about it than I thought I might be, considering how mad I have been at him at various points in the book.

The books turn into ravens, indeed. Subtle, John Uskglass.

Mr Norrell correctly guesses that Jonathan’s enemy was “careless” and “named you as the English magician—or some such vague term.” The gentleman only ever calls Jonathan “the magician.” Further, in chapter 63, Norrell attempts to summon a vision of Jonathan and can only summon a vision of himself: “He was forced to conclude that English magic could no longer tell the difference between himself and Strange.” I’m not sure if this is a side-effect of the gentleman’s spell, since it’s post-Darkness, or it’s some other effect, though.

Finally, near the end of the BBC One all-network preview video that I also linked last week, there’s a dramatic shot of someone I am fairly sure is Jonathan, blowing out a candle; bet you ten bucks it’s from this chapter, where the extinguishing of the candle’s flame is named as the time when the summoned King must appear.

 

Chapter 67: The hawthorn tree
February 1817

What Happens

Childermass has left Starecross and comes across Vinculus’ corpse. He recognizes him, cuts him down, and examines the marks on his body, realizing that Vinculus is Robert Findhelm’s book. He has no practical way to copy the writing, so decides to carry the body away on his horse. He steps away to prepare, and when he turns back, he sees “a pale, handsome man with a peculiar accent and an air of great authority” bending over the body. The unknown man claims Childermass as his servant; takes “a tiny pearl of light faintly tinged with rose and silver” from his own mouth and places it into Vinculus’; stops the bullet Childermass fires at him and changes it into a bird; changes the patterns and symbols on Vinculus’ body; and takes Childermass’ memory of the encounter and heals his cut face.

Childermass comes back to himself, thinking that he cut Vinculus down in time to save his life, and confirms with Vinculus that the writing on Vinculus’ body is the King’s Letters. Vinculus tells him that he found the Derbyshire man who could read the Letters when he was 17 and heard England’s destiny from him, which he then told to Strange, Norrell, and the nameless slave. When Childermass says that he has never heard of this third person, Vinculus is amused and dismissive:

“Of course not. You have lived your life in the Mayfair magician’s pocket. You only know what he knows.”

“So?” said Childermass, stung. “That is not so very trifling, is it? Norrell is a clever man — and Strange another. They have their faults, as other men do, but their achievements are still remarkable. Make no mistake; I am John Uskglass’s man. Or would be, if he were here. But you must admit that the restoration of English magic is their work, not his.”

“Their work!” scoffed Vinculus. “Theirs? Do you still not understand? They are the spell John Uskglass is doing. That is all they have ever been. And he is doing it now!”

Commentary

Mysterious, extremely powerful entities who are moving things behind the scenes are really hard to bring in front of the curtain: too much and they lose their mystery and power, too little or not at all and it’s a tease. This is just the right amount of Raven King, for which I applaud the book.

(He definitely didn’t arrive on a horse, so I don’t think we know who the person is that came from Faerie to be challenged by Lascelles.)

As for the Raven King’s magic, we saw the pearl of light as a person’s life force, basically, in chapter 40, when Strange instinctively summons it out of an attacking French soldier and horse. For what it’s worth, there the light was blue, rather than rose and silver. And my guess is that Childermass wouldn’t present Vinculus to the York Society in the last chapter unless he could read the Letters, so I’m going to infer that the Raven King’s magic also gave him that ability, though he doesn’t recognize it on-screen.

I also really like this sign that Childermass remains a down-to-earth type even after taking up magic for himself, when Vinculus is resurrected and is silently screaming: “He wondered if he ought to try the spell called Gilles de Marston’s Restoration of Flown Tranquillity, but on further consideration, he thought of something better. He took out the claret that Lucas had given him and shewed it to Vinculus.”

Finally, Vinculus’ chapter-closing statement to Childermass, quoted above, underlines the theme of people’s limited perspective that permeates the book and which will culminate in the next chapter, when Strange and Norrell fail to recognize that there might be more than one nameless slave in Yorkshire. On a first read, it also raises the question of how many coincidences and oddities are actually the work of the Raven King, but as we’ve been trying to discuss those as we came to them in this reread, I’ll leave it there—though if anyone has a possible example that we’ve missed, or are just joining us now, feel free!

 

Chapter 68: “Yes.”
February 1817

What Happens

Mr Norrell suggests a spell that asks England to greet John Uskglass, as a way of showing respect and reminding him of the bonds between him and England. They search for the relevant book in the disarray of the library.

At Starecross, the just-disenchanted Lady Pole is furiously writing to the Prime Minister and the editor of The Times to expose Norrell and demand freedom for Arabella and Stephen. A servant comes to tell them that Stephen and the gentleman are approaching; Lady Pole seizes the opportunity for Mr Segundus to “free Stephen as you freed me,” and dashes out, forcing Mr Segundus to follow her.

At Hurtfew, the location spell no longer shows John Uskglass in Yorkshire, but does show “the nameless slave” present. Jonathan dismisses Mr Norrell’s concern that the spell’s result looks different than before—“How many nameless slaves can there possibly be in Yorkshire?”—and they cast the spell that asks all the natural elements of England to put themselves in the hands of the nameless slave.

All those elements thus ask Stephen a question, and he answers them all, “Yes.” Knowing that “all of England lay cupped in his black palm,” Stephen turns away from vengeance and choses to save Lady Pole by killing the gentleman with the borrowed power before it withdraws from him, causing him to faint.

In Padua, the Greysteels see a woman running away from something in the new mirror and help her step out of it. It is Arabella Strange.

Stephen Black wakes and walks away from Lady Pole calling to him, thinking that he casts off that name and cannot return to England. He comes to Lost-hope, which is transformed and “suddenly possessed of a spirit of freshness, of innocence,” and where he is hailed as the new King:

They passed through the opening into a great hall. The new King sat down upon an ancient throne. A crowd of people came and gathered around him. Some faces he knew, others were unfamiliar to him, but he suspected that this was because he had never seen them as they truly were before. For a long time he was silent.

“This house,” he told them at last, “is disordered and dirty. Its inhabitants have idled away their days in pointless pleasures and in celebrations of past cruelties — things that ought not to be remembered, let alone celebrated. I have often observed it and often regretted it. All these faults, I shall in time set right.”

At Hurtfew, “visions appeared in mirrors and clock-faces,” ending with an enormous raven’s eye. The location spell informs them that Lady Pole and Arabella Strange are disenchanted. Mr Norrell is rather cheerful about having to remain in the Darkness, and natters on about magical history.

At first Strange barely answered him and such replies as he made were random and illogical. But gradually he appeared to listen with more attention, and he spoke in his usual manner.

Mr Norrell had many talents, but penetration into the hearts of men and women was not one of them. Strange did not speak of the restoration of his wife, so Mr Norrell imagined that it could not have affected him very deeply.

Commentary

The new King’s speech gives me happy chills down my spine. It is just exactly right.

And I also appreciate that his happy ending has to come outside of England, that of all the things magic can do, instantly making a black man acceptable as King of (Southern) England isn’t one of them. (Or possibly even allowing him to kill in self-defense: I’m not sure if anyone would have tried to prosecute him for the gentleman’s death, but I certainly agree with him that he was right to fear it.) That resolution to the prophecy would, alas, have broken my suspension of disbelief, whereas this is fitting and satisfying in its own right, while also quietly emphasizing that Stephen has to go elsewhere to come into his own.

(By which I mean: the black servant defeats the overwhelmingly-powerful fairy by his choice to be merciful, his strength of will, and his nobility of character that makes the elements believe that he could be the King. And the two wealthy white men have no idea that he is the one to succeed where they failed.)

Lady Pole, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere and clearly intends to use her advantages to fight for as much freedom as she can. When Mr Segundus asks her if her husband should write to “such exalted gentleman” instead of her, she replies indignantly, “I have no notion of asking people to perform services for me which I can do perfectly well for myself. I do not intend to go, in the space of one hour, from the helplessness of enchantment to another sort of helplessness!” (Both of which are silencings, going back to one of the book’s overall themes.) Which further supports my personal belief that she will become a kick-ass magician, rather than have to encourage someone else to defeat her enemy in the future. Sure, it makes sense under the circumstances, and her resolve to have Mr Segundus save Arabella and Stephen is what causes the gentleman to find her outside, where Stephen can more easily call on his temporary allies to destroy him. Still: sister’s doing that for herself, next time.

Two other very minor notes: once again the omniscient narrator pulls back in a time of high emotion, this time showing Jonathan through Norrell’s point of view. And Alessandro Simonelli is mentioned in the footnote as a human king or prince of Faerie; I remember seeing his name in the Table of Contents for The Ladies of Grace Adieu, but nothing else, so I look forward to that.

 

Chapter 69: Strangites and Norrellites
February–spring 1817

What Happens

Vinculus and Childermass are leaving the moor when Vinculus realizes that the words on his skin have changed. Childermass initially panics, but Vinculus points out that there is no reason to preserve a prophecy that has come to pass. Childermass is exasperated to realize that Vinculus has no idea what Book he is now, and tells Vinculus that whether or not he becomes the next Reader, he is not letting Vinculus out of his sight again.

In the spring, the Darkness vanishes and takes Hurtfew Abbey with it; Norrell and Strange’s other houses also vanish, as is the usual way of magicians’ houses. The Ministers are rather relieved that they are gone, as they have enough on their hands dealing with all the new magicians that have sprung up. A notice appears in the York Chronicle addressed to such new magicians (as well as former members of the Learned Society of York Magicians), inviting them to come to the Old Starre Inn.

At the meeting, Dr Foxcastle, once-President, is none too pleased about the lack of gentlemen among the newcomers, and is particularly displeased to see a woman present. The newcomers get in a heated debate about Strange versus Norrell, but are interrupted by Childermass and Vinculus. Childermass tells them all that the former Society members’ agreement with Norrell is null and void, since Norrell is unlikely to be seen again in England in this generation. One of the newcomers asks how the Norrellites are supposed to proceed when all the books of magic vanished with Hurtfew Abbey, and Childermass tells them he has brought them John Uskglass’ book instead. When Dr Foxcastle challenges Childermass, Childermass tells Vinculus to stand up.

In Italy, everyone in the Greysteel household do their best to comfort Arabella, with some success over the weeks. Arabella tells Flora that she is not sure she will see Jonathan again, because she never expected his quarrel with Mr Norrell to last this long: they are both “a magician first and everything else second.”

One night Arabella is walking at night with Dr Greysteel and Frank, because of the lingering compulsion to dance, and comes upon Jonathan in the Darkness. They are very glad to see each other well, and Jonathan tells her of his and Norrell’s plans to travel and research, but neither suggests that Arabella join them. The book ends with this conversation:

“One day,” he said, “I shall find the right spell and banish the Darkness. And on that day I will come to you.”

“Yes. On that day. I will wait until then.”

He nodded and seemed about to depart, but then he hesitated. “Bell,” he said, “do not wear black. Do not be a widow. Be happy. That is how I wish to think of you.”

“I promise. And how shall I think of you?”

He considered a moment and then laughed. “Think of me with my nose in a book!”

They kissed once. Then he turned upon his heel and disappeared into the Darkness.

Commentary

Let’s start where the book ends, with Jonathan and Arabella. I’m not bothered by their separation; I’ve come to be pretty much “if it works for you all and doesn’t cause harm, good for you” about how people arrange their relationships, and that definitely applies here.

But on this reread I have, reluctantly, decided that I wish Arabella were a more developed character. Flora tells her what she was like before her imprisonment, as Jonathan told it to her, and this kind of sums up the issue for me:

You were always cheerful — tho’ often left to your own devices. You were hardly ever out of temper — tho’ often severely provoked. Your every speech was remarkable for its wit and genius — tho’ you got no credit for it and almost always received a flat contradiction.

I don’t believe we ever see Arabella out of temper, even when, as this quote notes, she had ample reason to be. Instead, she’s incredibly accepting of Jonathan’s failings of attention and courtesy, and friendly and a good conversationalist… and that’s about it. I don’t dislike her, but I do feel like she’s so much a figure of virtue that, for me, she ends up being just the woman on a pedestal for Jonathan to try to rescue. Even Flora, who as I’ve noted before is her, ahem, mirror, in many ways, gets to be a little put-out when she thinks Jonathan is associating with another woman, and feels a lot more real to me as a result. Not every female character has to be Lady Pole, but I think it would have taken fairly little for me to feel like Arabella was a person rather than a plot piece.

Also, as a practical matter, she may have to be a widow: we know that she cannot access his money in her own right, because she had to borrow money from friends to bid against Norrell for books while he was in Portugal. Certainly Lady Pole would keep her from being destitute, but Lady Pole also would probably have no patience for her waiting for Jonathan, so Arabella may find that more trouble than it is worth. Anyway: nice sentiment, but unsurprisingly, not the most logistically sensible on his part.

As for Childermass, Vinculus, and the new Learned Society of York Magicians:

This circles around to where the book began, of course, but with Dr Foxcastle displaced from the center of things, both literally (not in the good seats) and figuratively (not in charge of the meeting). He’s a jerk, so yay for that as well as for the broader picture.

Clarke gets in another self-deprecating bit of humor when Vinculus notices that the words have changed: “I was a Prophecy before; but the things that I foretold have come to pass. So it is just as well I have changed—or I would have become a History! A dry-as-dust History!” What, like the one we’ve just spent many hundreds of pages reading?

It is entirely juvenile of me, but when Childermass tells Vinculus to stand up before the assembled magicians in the Old Starre Inn, I like to imagine that Vinculus just strips off all his clothes right there. Hey, he’s already done it once this chapter, and it would serve the snobbier members right.

(As discussed in comments previously, the Redruth family—Yorkshire clergy father, one son, three daughters, all involved in the same pursuit—seems to be modeled on the Brontë family, moved a couple decades earlier.)

My ebook mangled one of the footnotes, so after checking my hardcover: one of the new magicians said he would find Strange and Norrell if he was loaned the Inniskilling Dragoons, a famed cavalry regiment, not the “Inn is killing Dragoons,” which makes sense only from an automated OCR perspective. (The ebook is really quite good on the whole, though.)

Finally, the chapter title, Strangites and Norrellites. As a preliminary matter, I wonder if the intrusiveness of magic settles down somewhat after its return? I’d think it would be a little harder to take the position that books are everything if the trees, stones, etc., are constantly telling people how to do very advanced spells. Certainly people could still do it, but it just seems a bit more of an uphill battle.

But I like that the existence of these two factions realistically captures the kind of divisions society constructs all the time, and that the book undercuts it the way it has undercut so many other social constructs. The last footnote of the book says,

There are very few modern magicians who do not declare themselves to be either Strangite or Norrellite, the only notable exception being John Childermass himself. Whenever he is asked he claims to be in some degree both. As this is like claiming to be both Whig and Tory at the same time, no one understands what he means.

But we the readers understand: we know that Strange and Norrell themselves are no longer at odds, that they are reconciled and working together, and thus this division is also artificial and unnecessary.

Which is a good note to go into a sum-up of the book overall. I have had so much fun really digging into this book: I’ve always reveled in the prose and the humor and the concern with social inequality, but I was delighted to see how much care went into the structure and the pacing and foreshadowing; to visit the minor characters showing the range of roles women could play at this time and in this place; and to learn more about the underlying history.

I may have a few unanswered questions here (Lady Pole’s apparently-supernatural strength when she tries to shoot Mr Norrell) or minor wishes or concerns there (Arabella; what the return of magic means to British imperialism), but on the whole, I like this book even better than I did before, which is the best possible outcome. And as with prior rereads here, your comments have hugely contributed to my understanding and enjoyment, so I thank you for each and every one.

Next week, we’ll start a two-part look at The Ladies of Grace Adieu with its first four stories, through “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse.” I recall very little of this collection, so I look forward to seeing how it fits into JS&MN. 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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