Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread: The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Part 2

Hello, everyone! Welcome back to the reread of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell series. You can 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 concludes with the second half of The Ladies of Grace Adieu, “Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower” through “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner.”

“Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower”

What Happens

Mr Simonelli is a poor Cambridge scholar who declines to marry a rich, “universally loved” widow because, as he writes in his journal, “I have been too long accustomed to the rigours of scholarly debate to feel much enthusiasm for female conversation.” Instead, he takes the position of village Rector as recommended by a rival, finding out too late that the position pays almost nothing.

Upon Mr Simonelli’s arrival in the parish, he discovers a gentleman who, displeased at the news that the local midwife has died, is making a gesture over the head of the midwife’s widower. Mr Simonelli offers himself as a scholar with knowledge of medicine and is brought to an ancient, filthy house, where he manages to deliver the baby but cannot save the woman’s life. When he breaks the news to the father and widower, John Hollyshoes, he reveals that he sees the filth of the household; John Hollyshoes is surprised and, realizing that they have a strong physical resemblance, declares that they must be kin.

Mr Simonelli comes to the Rectory and learns that, first, the midwife’s widower was found dead, “struck clean in two from the crown of his head to his groin,” and second, a young nursing mother named Dido Puddifer has vanished. He also meets the five Miss Gathercoles, who are the rich, beautiful, unmarried daughters of the only local gentry. Later, from John Hollyshoes, Mr Simonelli learns that his unknown father was John’s cousin and that his father’s extensive estate remains unclaimed.

After about three months, Mr Simonelli is forced to admit that he was probably wrong in thinking that Dido had run off with another man. He is shocked when her mother tells him that she is certain that John Hollyshoes, “a very powerful fairy,” took Dido to be a wet-nurse. He goes to John Hollyshoes’ house and discovers Dido imprisoned there, with a glamour to keep her content. John Hollyshoes arrives and tells Mr Simonelli that he intends to wed one of the Miss Gathercoles.

Mr Simonelli protects the Miss Gathercoles by convincing each of them to enter into a secret engagement with him. He then browbeats John Hollyshoes’ servant into freeing Dido, but they are unable to ride away and must climb a tree. When John Hollyshoes arrives, Mr Simonelli makes the gesture over his head that he saw John use when he first met him, which kills John by splitting him in half.

Unfortunately, Mr Simonelli’s secret engagement to one of the sisters is revealed. Mrs Gathercole is furious, and to defend himself, Mr Simonelli sends her the journal entries that make up the story.

Commentary

The Introduction says that Mr Simonelli first published his journals in the 1820s, and kept revising them into the early twentieth century “to promote his latest obsession,” but that this excerpt is from the first edition. Happily, one of those later obsessions is said to be “the education of women,” so at some point it apparently became clear to him that there was no reason that scholarly debate and female conversation had to be mutually exclusive. The story is full of things not being what they seem to the characters, like the intelligence of women; the desirability of the position as Rector; John Hollyshoes, his house, and the members of his household; and Dido’s disappearance.

The Introduction also calls Mr Simonelli “a monstrously irritating writer,” full of English “conceit and arrogance.” This is quite true. I happen to find him amusing as well, such as this journal entry:

Sept. 9th., 1811.

I was this day ordained as a priest of the Church of England. I have no doubts that my modest behaviour, studiousness and extraordinary mildness of temper make me peculiarly fitted for the life.

Or the bit where he doesn’t realize that he is literally flying on a horse. Some of the journal entries still strain disbelief as journal entries, principally the one he wrote while in a tree, but he’s self-centered enough to make it a little more plausible, enough so that I’ll let it pass.

And while he is terribly dismissive of women for most of the story—not getting married, ignoring the woman who tells him that Dido would never have left her husband and child—he does go to quite significant (and significantly funny) lengths to save the Miss Gathercoles once he realizes that John Hollyshoes is a fairy, going from zero to five (engagements) in under a day.

As I mentioned last time, Simonelli is mentioned in JS&MN (chapter 68, note 1) as one of the human “kings and princes of Faerie”; presumably he claims his father’s estates subsequently. John Hollyshoes is also mentioned, in chapter 5, note 5; Martin Pale finds one of the people who went through Simon Bloodworth’s fairy servant’s cupboard at his castle.

Two minor points:

I love that John says that he lives in “Allhope House,” the same name as the village, but that Dido’s mother calls it “End-Of-All-Hope House”—between that and Lost-Hope, are two data points a pattern? Can we name our own fairy kingdoms? Forgotten-Hope, Stolen-Hope, Extinguished-Hope…

John puts his newborn son under the burning coals of a fire. My guess is this is to burn out the baby’s human side, which I base on (a) Sandman and (b) one of the reported tests for fairy changelings, which is putting the baby on a fire and seeing if it escaped up the chimney; but if anyone knows more, I’d love to hear it.

 

“Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby”

What Happens

This story is introduced by Professor Sutherland as a reprint of an 1820 story about the historically-attested friendship between an eighteenth-century Jewish physician, David Montefiore, and a fairy, Tom Brightwind.

David and Tom come upon Thoresby, a town blighted by both its lack of a bridge and the neglect of the local landowner, Mr Winstanley. David has been lecturing Tom about his duty to his children; Tom decides to build a bridge in a single night as a way of, first, giving himself a night with Mrs Winstanley, who wants a child, and second, giving his eventual child a useful occupation. The bridge is massive and beautiful and does not actually lead to the other side of the river; it also eventually kills Mr Winstanley by causing him to fall into the river. Mrs Winstanley, and later her son Lucius, vastly improve the town, until Lucius gets bored of Thoresby and vanishes.

Commentary

So we have two layers of story here. The friendship between David and Tom is historical to Professor Sutherland, but it’s not clear if the historical figures understood that Tom was a fairy. It’s never actually said in so many words to the people they meet in this story, and David remarks on how Tom imitates Christians in his appearance—indeed one character assumes Tom is an English lord. So on the evidence of the story-within-a-story, Tom going around and interacting with people in the 18th century is not necessarily inconsistent with JS&MN.

But the bits in the scholarly introduction to the story proper give an interesting view of Faerie and human-fairy relations that is not what I would have expected, since we know from the general introduction that Strange & Norrell are historical figures to Professor Sutherland. He writes,

In the early nineteenth century “Tom and David” stories were immensely popular both here and in Faerie Minor, but in the latter half of the century they fell out of favour in Europe and the United States. It became fashionable among Europeans and Americans to picture fairies as small, defenceless creatures.… The following story first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine (Edinburgh: September, 1820) and was reprinted in Silenus’s Review (Faerie Minor: April, 1821).

In the story, Tom also makes a distinction between Faerie Minor and Faerie Major; the latter is where he is prosecuting various wars. Further, a footnote, which must be the work of Professor Sutherland for reasons discussed below, states,

Fairies born in the last eight centuries or so — sophisticated, literate and consorting all their lives with Christians — have no more difficulty than Christians themselves in distinguishing between the animate and the inanimate. But to members of older generations (such as Tom) the distinction is quite unintelligible.

Faerie Minor and Major by themselves are not inconsistent with JS&MN, as we only saw one kingdom, and so it is theoretically possible that there was some part of Faerie we didn’t see, that in 1821 was publishing a literary review and reprinting human fiction. But the idea that all fairies born since 1200 have had close contact with humans is harder for me to reconcile; as is the idea that post-1817 in JS&MN, the general opinion of fairies could devolve into “the sort of fairy that Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dodgson hoped to find at the bottom of their gardens.” I’m sure one could construct ways in which these are consistent, but frankly I consider this overall framing device to be something the publisher thought was a good idea to tie the book more closely to JS&MN, rather than something organic to the collection, and thus have decided to ignore it where it doesn’t make sense to me. Like here.

(The footnotes are Professor Sutherland’s because they’re modern. Footnote 4 cites Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Kingdoms of Elfin (1977), which I mentioned once before as a collection I (partly) read because a friend recommended it as possibly influential on JS&MN. The same footnote also describes the brugh thusly: “To paraphrase a writer of fanciful stories for children, this was not a comfortable hole, it was not even a dry, bare sandy hole; it was a nasty, dirty, wet hole.”)

All that said: I would happily read a dozen stories about Tom and David. Between David’s belief “that if only one talks long enough and expresses oneself properly, it is perfectly possible to argue people into being good and happy,” and Tom’s high-handedness and over-the-top gestures (not just building a bridge, but sending Mrs Winstanley cupids, in a floating gilded ship, who sing in Italian and cast out rose petals!), they’re just a great odd couple.

Also, they are another opportunity for Clarke to explore the restrictions of English society, as seen here in David and Tom’s discussion about whether they have each abandoned too much of their ancestral practices to fit in with the English, and in Mr Winstanley’s anti-Semitism (“I am glad to say that I am completely indifferent to a man’s having a different religion from mine” is not up there with “I don’t mean to sound ___, but” as a red flag, but I definitely agree that it warns the listener to be on guard). The dispute over whether Tom should pay any attention to his children also highlights the lack of things for women to do; and the town’s subsequent thriving under Mrs Winstanley’s guardianship while Tom’s son grows up indicates that women are perfectly capable of doing more than they are often allowed.

Finally, the story says that the bridge is modeled on one in Giambattista Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione, a series of prints that Wikipedia calls “whimsical aggregates of monumental architecture and ruin”; the specific image might be “The Grand Piazza” or “The Well.”

 

“Antickes and Frets”

What Happens

Mary, Queen of Scots, is imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth in the care of the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury. Mary is intrigued to hear that the Countess was once merely Bess Hardwick; “had achieved her present rank by marrying four husbands, each richer and greater than the one before”; and is rumored to have killed her first husband by driving him mad with an embroidered coat. Mary attempts to get the Countess to help her harm Elizabeth through embroidery, but the Countess steadfastly declines to understand Mary’s broad hints until Mary begins a campaign to seduce the Earl.

The Countess tells Mary to send Elizabeth a skirt of white satin with little pink carnations. Mary complies dubiously, but then is delighted to hear that Elizabeth had the pox. However, her delight is quenched when the Countess tells her that Elizabeth’s illness frightened her councilors into passing a law preventing Mary from ever being Queen. She also dreams that the Countess has stitched her to the bed.

Years pass in “powerlessness and despair,” until one evening Mary sees an embroidered hanging in which a lady is running away, sets the hanging on fire to “free” the lady, and then stitches the flame-embroidered petticoat that she is executed in.

The Countess of Shrewsbury lived on for twenty years more. She built many beautiful houses and embroidered hangings for them with pictures of Penelope and Lucretia. She herself was as discreet as Penelope and as respected as Lucretia. In the centuries that followed, her children and her children’s children became Earls and Dukes. They governed England and lived in the fairest houses in the most beautiful landscapes. Many of them are there still.

Commentary

Interestingly, the closing quote doesn’t mention Elizabeth II; I’m not sure if the reader is presumed to know it and thus it’s deliberate understatement, or it’s the story equivalent of an Easter Egg.

I do not particularly care about Mary, Queen of Scots, and don’t come to do so from this story, which portrays her as dangerously lacking in intelligence and self-awareness. So most of my interest in this story came from being a (much less accomplished) stitcher, which is to say, I would love to see the Oxburgh Hangings or the textiles at Hardwick Hall in person. (From a stitching standpoint, apparently Mary foisted off the dull work of tying off her thread on her lady-in-waiting? The Countess says that the embroidery on the pox-skirt unraveled and that she believes the lady-in-waiting “did not knot and tie the threads properly.” I’m sure that wasn’t the real reason it unraveled, but regardless even as an excuse it’s a little weird to me.)

On looking up the history, the story does seems to be in a slightly alternate universe, as among other things, Elizabeth’s smallpox was in 1563, and Mary wasn’t put in the Earl’s custody until 1569. Mary’s red petticoat is historical, though I’m not sure if the flames are; it’s understood to represent Catholic martyrdom.

The idea of affecting events through embroidery is repeated from “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse.” Its use here is more interesting, as it demonstrates that “women’s work” can be more powerful than many recognize (like Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan getting to raise and educate Emperor Gregor), but is also a prison when that’s all that’s available. Because none of that is present in “The Duke of Wellington,” where the fairy woman is a black box of malice, this story (as slight as it is) makes “The Duke of Wellington” look even less substantial in retrospect.

 

“John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner”

What Happens

This is a selection from Lord Portishead’s A Child’s History of the Raven King, and tells how John Uskglass offended a charcoal burner by wrecking his hut and clearing during a deer hunt and, later, eating his toasted cheese. The charcoal burner, never realizing the Raven King’s identity, gets various saints to punish him by trapping him in rocks for a day to deprive him of hunting; having all the nearby animals and stones tell him not to steal; and making him to speak for three days straight. Completely mystified, the Raven King is forced to apologize, to undo the harm to the charcoal burner’s residence, and to give the charcoal burner another pig.

Commentary

This is charming; the only thing keeping me from agreeing with Jonathan Strange’s assessment as “one of the most perfect things of its kind” is that I haven’t read the whole book it came from (that being non-existent). The introduction states that the story “bears similarities to other old stories in which a great ruler is outwitted by one of his humblest subjects”; if anyone would like to mention their favorite variants on this topic, I’d be delighted to hear them.

I think my favorite part of it is the Saints looking out of heaven, though it’s a tie between Saint Kentigern (who is apparently better known as Saint Mungo) telling the charcoal burner, “Saints, such as me, ought always to listen attentively to the prayers of poor, dirty, ragged men, such as you. No matter how offensively those prayers are phrased. You are our special care.” and the irritable Saint Oswald. It’s pretty much all funny, though, from the pig under the Raven King’s horse to the toasted cheese to John Uskglass’s “condition of the most complete mystification.”

It’s a small-scale story to end the collection on, but again, such a charming one that I’m happy to leave on that note.

And so we come to the end of the reread! What bits were your favorite or least-favorite out of JS&MN and Ladies, what do you wish might be the subject of a hypothetical future short story or sequel, what are your hopes and fears about the upcoming TV adaptation? Regarding the TV show, I’ll be writing something about it here, but what exactly is going to depend on various schedules (still no release date! Gah!). If you’re going to watch, I hope this reread has been good preparation, and if you’re not, I hope you found it worthwhile in its own right. I’ve had a great time talking with you all about these books—and I’m still subscribed to the comments for all the posts, so feel free to keep the conversation going!


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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