Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Part 1

Hello, everyone! Welcome back to the reread of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell series. 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 Clarke’s works through her tag.

Please note that these reread posts will contain spoilers for all of The Ladies of Grace Adieu plus, of course, JS&MN. There’s accordingly no need to warn for spoilers in the comments—and comments are highly encouraged.

This week, the reread considers the first half of The Ladies of Grace Adieu, the Introduction through “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse.”

“Introduction by Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, University of Aberdeen”

Professor Sutherland is a minor character in his own right, in that he is from the alternate history Clarke is writing about where magic and Faerie exists and Strange and Norrell were historical figures.

Which is why—and this is the only reason I mention the Introduction at all—my brain threw an “Out of Cheese Error. Redo From Start” message when I read this description of “Ladies” in the Introduction:

The events of the story were referred to in a somewhat obscure novel published a few years ago. Should any readers happen to be acquainted with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury, London, 2004), then I direct their attention to a footnote in chapter 43…

On reflection, I have decided that it makes zero sense for JS&MN to have been published in 2004 [*] within the fictional universe Professor Sutherland is writing from in April 2006, and thus this is a deliberate departure from the conceit so as to help actual our-world readers find the other book if they haven’t already. Which bothers me, because I have a thing about sticking to your narrative devices all the way through—why not make it a regular introduction instead?—but probably bothers no-one else.

[*] The omniscient narrator is writing from a time when Childermass is definitely still alive (chapter 69, n. 5 speaks of his actions in the present tense) and when, implicitly, less than one hundred years have passed since the gentleman cursed Strange with the Darkness.

 

“The Ladies of Grace Adieu”

What Happens

Cassandra Parbringer is Mr Field’s niece and ward, and generally expected to marry Henry Woodhope, Arabella Strange’s brother and the local Rector. Mrs Field is Mr Field’s second wife; she is a year older than Cassandra and they became “very fond of each other” after the wedding. Miss Tobias is a governess to two orphaned heiresses. All three of them have been studying magic.

Captain Winbright is the only living relative of Miss Tobias’ charges. One day, he arrives at the house with another soldier and a young woman, and shows himself to be a sexist boor who is crashingly unsubtle about wanting the children to die so that he can inherit. Mrs Field and Cassandra come to the house that night at Miss Tobias’s request. Cassandra is a bit lost in the house when she hears Winbright and the other soldier; she is initially frightened, but then turns herself into an owl. Miss Tobias appears, as does Mrs Field in the form of another owl. They turn the men into mice and Cassandra and Mrs Field eat them.

Meanwhile, Jonathan and Arabella Strange have come to visit Henry. Jonathan goes outside around midnight, falls asleep, and wakes up to see the three ladies dancing in a post-magic euphoria. Cassandra tells him that they could teach him about magic; they are then disconcerted when he reveals his identity.

The next day Henry invites all three ladies to tea, and Jonathan is unusually silent. Mrs Field and Cassandra cough mouse bones and skins into napkins, which Jonathan later sees. He does some sleuthing and, on the last day of his visit, finds the ladies out walking. He tells them he put mouse bones under his pillow and dreamt of an unfamiliar man, and asks them what they have done. Miss Tobias responds,

“That night,” she said, “after Captain Winbright and Mr Littleworth had… left us, I saw someone. At the other end of the passageway I saw, very dimly, someone tall and slender, with the wings of birds beating all around their shoulders. Mr Strange, I am tall and the wings of birds were, at that moment, beating around my shoulders…”

“And so, it was your reflection.”

“Reflection? By what means?” asked Miss Tobias. “There is no glass in that part of the house.”

“So, what did you do?” asked Strange a little uncertainly.

“I said aloud the words of the Yorkshire Game. Even you, Mr Strange, must know the words of the Yorkshire Game.” Miss Tobias smiled a little sarcastically. “Mr Norrell is, after all, the Yorkshire magician, is he not?”

“I greet thee, Lord, and bid thee welcome to my heart,” said Strange.

Miss Tobias inclined her head.

(Ellipses in original.)

Cassandra tells him that he can do nothing, for he cannot tell “this odd tale” that is “full of all kinds of nonsense that Mr Norrell will not like — Raven Kings and the magic of wild creatures and the magic of women,” and his divided self is no match for the three of them united. He has no response.

A month later, Henry is offered a better position elsewhere by Sir Walter Pole, which he accepts. Cassandra, who did not wish to marry him anyway,

only smiled when she heard he was going and that same afternoon, went out walking on the high hills, in a fine autumn wind, with Mrs Field and Miss Tobias — as free, said Miss Parbringer, as any women in the kingdom.

Commentary

This summary is a lot longer than the others will be just because it’s so closely connected to JS&MN.

Scene-setting: this takes place in late summer/early fall, likely that of 1814 (Strange was Norrell’s pupil from September 1809 to January 1815; was on the Continent with Wellington from January 1811 to May 1814; and, according to Arabella in the story, has by this point “studied for a number of years with Mr Norrell”). Jonathan’s discovery of the King’s Roads is in November 1814, and this adds an extra layer to his restlessnes beforehand and his decision afterward (after all, “the second shall long to behold me”).

How does this story otherwise fit in with JS&MN? The ladies are unquestionably magicians, well before Jonathan returns magic to England: besides turning into owls, Mrs Field and Cassandra regularly cast sleep spells on Mr Field. They do have the benefit of the library of a reputed magician in the house where Miss Tobias lives; and that history may account for the mostly-empty house being “too vast and gloomy and full of odd-shaped rooms and strange carvings,” in a way that seems akin to the weirdnesses of the Shadow House and of abandoned houses that belong to the Raven King. So they have both books and a closeness to the Raven King as sources of knowledge and power. Further, I’d venture that they aren’t in the prophecy because they don’t want to restore magic to England (they haven’t appeared publicly as magicians), they want to live their lives without interference from men. So that all fits together fine.

They can shape-change, which Strange specifically mentions as something the Golden Age magicians could do that puts his abilities to shame (chapter 48 of JS&MN). However, in “Ladies,” the boring book Jonathan is reading discusses a theory that “sometimes magicians, in times of great need, might find themselves capable of much greater acts of magic than they had ever learnt or even heard of before.” I suspect this is meant as a reassurance to readers of JS&MN.

“Ladies” continues the theme of JS&MN of magic and people both being overlooked and misperceived, starting with the introduction of Cassandra: “Mr Field, a gentleman not remarkable for his powers of observation, confidently supposed her to have a character childishly naive and full of pleasant, feminine submission in keeping with her face.” The ladies’ study of magic also passes right under everyone’s noses, because “every one knows” ladies don’t do that.

I also wonder if an element that goes unrecognized is Mrs Field and Cassandra’s relationship. Cassandra is resigned to marrying Henry Woodhope only because “in marrying him I need never be parted from my dear Mrs Field”; this is not inconsistent with deep friendship, but is sufficiently fervent that it makes me consider other possibilities. However, I am unfamiliar with the ways a woman of this period might speak, or not speak, of a female lover as opposed to a female friend—my only knowledge is (a) from a later period and (b) from a novel, not a primary source, and thus dubious anyway (A.S. Byatt’s Possession).

I am a great fan of Miss Tobias, who “never smiled unless there was some thing to smile at” (never, ever tell a person you don’t know to smile, especially if that person is a woman), and who refuses to shame the nameless young woman who has apparently had an unwise relationship with Captain Winbright, recognizing that “perhaps” she was “not brought up to” thinking and sending her back to a loving family. Her dates are given as 1775–1819, which is pretty short but which also end two years after magic fully returns to England, so I chose to believe she’s vanished in a magician-ly way rather than died (I think I probably picked this up from the fanfic I previously linked to, The Shadow on the King’s Roads).

Miscellaneous notes:

The only significant bit about Arabella is that Miss Tobias sees Jonathan arrive in a carriage “driven with great confidence and spirit by a lady,” which I assume is Arabella, and which is something we didn’t know about her from JS&MN.

There is another reference to Mrs Radcliffe’s novels, again signposting the kind of story we are in. (This has finally prompted me to download The Mysteries of Udolpho, which I fully expect to be entertaining.)

Cassandra tells the children a story about the Raven King as a child and Robin Goodfellow sending him nightmares, the moral of which is that English children have nothing to fear from fairies, because they are cleverer and because England’s earth and air (and thus, we know, its magic) belong to them.

We saw the words of the Yorkshire Game in chapter 39 of JS&MN, the amazing, creepy tale of the Basque sailor who met someone he came to believe was the Raven King:

And all his life whenever he went into dark places he said, “I greet thee, Lord, and bid thee welcome to my heart” — in case the pale king with the long black hair should be seated in the darkness waiting for him. Across the expanses of northern England a thousand, thousand darknesses, a thousand, thousand places for the King to be. “I greet thee, Lord, and bid thee welcome to my heart.”

We don’t, however, know the Yorkshire Game itself, beside what Winbright and his friend say here, that people “send children alone into the dark to summon the Raven King.” As the friend remembers the phrase being about “hearts being eaten,” they are not super-reliable on this topic, but probably they have the facts right and the implications wrong.

 

“On Lickerish Hill”

What Happens

This retells in dialect the English story “Tom Tit Tot,” which uses the story pattern The Name of the Helper, of which Rumpelstiltskin is the most famous example. Here, the woman who is forced to spin flax, Miranda, gets visiting scholars to attempt to summon a fairy and uses that spell to summon the fairy who helps her and whose name she must guess. She also prompts her husband to go hunting so that his dogs, who are very fond of the fairy, can find the fairy and thus the accompanying humans can learn the fairy’s name.

Commentary

The 1898 Suffolk dialect version of the story by Edward Clodd, which the author cites at the end of the story, can be read online. This version is set sometime in the late 1600s: Miranda’s mother previously buried some money in 1675, and John Aubrey (1626–1697) appears as a character.

I have a really hard time with dialect because I taught myself to read by word-recognition and not by sounding things out. (I still treat most names as “word that starts with this letter and is shaped like this.” Things like the House of Finwë in The Silmarillion are a disaster for me.) So this is not a story I spent a lot of thought on previously.

Comparing it with the traditional version, as mentioned in the summary, shows how Clarke gives Miranda cleverness and agency. It also makes the story more psychologically chilling: her husband is willing to kill her if she can’t spin flax not because that’s the kind of thing that happens in these stories, but because he is “afflicted with a Great Sadnesse and Fitts of Black Anger” that lead him to, for instance, drown a puppy because it soiled his coat. Unfortunately this undercuts the overall humor of the story and sunny tone of the ending, because she will always have to be proving herself in one way or another to avoid being murdered. Unless she summons Tom Tit Tot to do away with her husband, I guess.

 

“Mrs Mabb”

What Happens

Venetia Moore is in love with a Captain Fox and has reason to believe he is going to propose soon, but goes to care for a dying friend for some months and returns home to discover that he has taken up with a Mrs Mabb. She attempts to visit Mrs Mabb twice and each time wakes with no memory of what happened, but with disturbing physical evidence: first, bruises and a slashed gown, and second, bloody feet from dancing. The third time children show her to a small pile of stones; she is surrounded by small flying creatures that she knocks to the ground and attempts to kill. When she wakes, she is told they were butterflies; finding the remnants of two in her closed fist, she sends them to Mrs Mabb in an envelope.

She heads back toward Mrs Mabb’s house, but on the way finds Captain Fox, who thinks only a day has passed and who tells her that multiple people of Mrs Mabb’s household were killed by an unwelcome visitor, and indeed two bodies had just been delivered to the house, at which point Mrs Mabb “declared that the game was not worth the candle” and had him leave.

Commentary

This is set sometime after Wellington’s campaign in Portugal, when Captain Fox made his reputation for bravery by contradicting Wellington. I suspect it’s before 1817, since Venetia and the children are the only ones who suspect supernatural goings-on.

Mab is an often-used name for a fairy Queen, and in her first appearance (in Romeo and Juliet), she is described of miniature size. I guess there’s no reason the fairies we see in JS&MN couldn’t do that if they wanted, and this lets the dual nature of Mrs Mabb’s house begin all the doubling and distorted perception that Venetia experiences with fairy magic:

On the opposite hill stood an ancient-looking house of grey stone. It was a very tall house, something indeed between a house and a tower, and it was surrounded by a high stone wall in which no opening or gate could be discerned, nor did any path go up to the house.

Yet despite its great height the house was overtopped by the bright sunlit forest wall behind it and she could not rid herself of the idea that she was actually looking at a very small house — a house for a field mouse or a bee or a butterfly — a house which stood among tall grasses.

And that doubled perception is something the children fully accept, which allows Venetia finally come to Mrs Mabb’s house while aware of what she’s doing:

“Mrs Mabb lives at the bottom of Billy Little’s garden,” said another child.

“Behind a great heap of cabbage leaves,” said a third.

“Then I doubt that we can mean the same person,” said Venetia, “Mrs Mabb is a very fine lady as I understand.”

“Indeed, she is,” agreed the first, “the finest lady that ever there was. She has a coachman…”

“… a footman …”

“… a dancing master …”

“… and a hundred ladies-in-waiting …”

“… and one of the ladies-in-waiting has to eat the dull parts of Mrs Mabb’s dinner so that Mrs Mabb only ever has to eat roast pork, plum-cake and strawberry jam …”

“I see,” said Venetia.

“… and they all live together at the bottom of Billy Little’s garden.”

There’s also a lot about money and class in this story. Venetia’s sister, Fanny Hawkins, is consumed with surviving on a curate’s pitiful income (£40 a year in 1816 is equivalent to less than £3,000 in terms of the historic standard of living). The children make wishes on daisies, and three of them wish for extravagant or impossible things, and the fourth “that there would be bread and beef dripping for her supper.” And Mr Grout, an attorney who has become employed by Mrs Mabb, is transformed by wealth, in ways he finds pleasing but that we recognize as somewhat sinister.

Finally, this story has a more definitely happy ending than the prior. When Venetia is reunited with Captain Fox, she remembers suddenly “how very exasperating he is!” But she acknowledges his virtues too, and there’s a hint that she’s already developed a strategy to cope with living with him, namely, let him talk while she quietly gets things done: “And as Captain Fox expounded upon the different generals he had known and their various merits and defects, Venetia took his arm and led him back to Kissingland” (the town, appropriately named). Especially in light of the alternative, which is poverty and stress while living with Mr and Mrs Hawkins, that might be a small-scale victory but is a victory all the same.

 

“The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse”

What Happens

The village of Wall guards an entry to Faerie through a literal wall. In 1819, Wellington visits the town and has a series of petty disagreements with the townspeople that leads to his horse, Copenhagen, being put out of the stables and into a meadow. Copenhagen ends up on the other side of the Wall, and the guards hesitate just long enough that Wellington crosses over.

In Faerie, he finds a house with a young woman sewing “a vast and magnificent piece of embroidery.” On closer inspection, Wellington sees that the already-completed embroidery shows all the events leading up to his arrival at the house and indeed his looking at the embroidery; the portion the lady is just finishing shows his death by an arriving knight. Wellington realizes that the embroidery is making the events in it actually happen and objects, but the lady refuses to change it and leaves the room.

Just before the knight arrives, Wellington remembers that he had taken the innkeeper’s scissors and snips out all the threads showing the knight and his death. He then stitches, in stick figure form, himself leaving the house, being reunited with Copenhagen, and going back through the wall.

The Duke believed that he had suffered no ill effects from his short sojourn in the moated house. In later life he was at different times a Diplomat, a Statesman and Prime Minister of Great Britain, but he came more and more to believe that all his exertions were in vain. He told Mrs Arbuthnot (a close friend) that: “On the battlefields of Europe I was master of my own destiny, but as a politician there are so many other people I must please, so many compromises I must make, that I am at best a stick figure.”

Mrs Arbuthnot wondered why the Duke suddenly looked so alarmed and turned pale.

Commentary

This was written originally for a fundraiser chapbook for Charles Vess’s wife Karen and is set in the world of Stardust, the illustrated book by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess—who also did illustrations for this book. (Stardust has also been republished without the pictures, but you really should read the original version. But then, I would say that, as I have a print of “The Slow Dance of the Infinite Stars” hanging over the desk where I’m typing this.)

As such, it’s a bit of an odd fit in this collection, because the idea of Faerie as a fixed geographical location with an actual literal wall marking the border isn’t consistent with the fluid layered-reality nature of Faerie in JS&MN, where it is potentially behind every mirror. (This is even worse if you know Stardust, in which we learn that certain kinds of magic can’t cross the wall.)

Accordingly, and also because it’s very short, the only thing I have to say about it is that it concerns the theme of humbling or questioning men in positions of high authority. We saw this in JS&MN, where until the very end, all the kings are mad, absent, or murderous; I suspect we will see it in the story about Alessandro Simonelli to come in this book, as he is mentioned in chapter 68 of JS&MN as a human king or prince of Faerie (I don’t remember the story at all); and I know we will see it in the last story of the book, “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner,” because the Introduction told me so. => See you next week for those stories and the rest of The Ladies of Grace Adieu.


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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