Anyone who is not dead will know we have a problem here. The problem, for anyone still exposed to any of the media that afflict the living, is hype. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell—an extremely English fantasy about the unthinning of the world, set in an England at a cusp of change two centuries ago—has been so mercilessly oversold by Bloomsbury that it is almost impossible to open this huge volume without premonitions of loathing. These premonitions may soon dissolve in the crisp civil radiance of Susanna Clarke's narrative voice, which she has assembled out of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, and possibly Ann Radcliffe, in order seductively to negotiate her early 19th-century setting, but the foetor of hype does, inevitably, block one's attempts to traverse this ultimately almost superb first novel without tripping over spaniel dew. The decks need to be swabbed before we can really get a look in.
It is unfortunate that we must therefore focus for a moment on Neil Gaiman, who is here as always generously supportive of his fellow writers, but Bloomsbury has used as dustjacket copy a somewhat overstated claim from him about the importance of the book, which, in the context of the hype blizzard, does less good than Gaiman might have hoped. This is all the more unfortunate because, stripped of excess, Gaiman's statement points right to the heart of the book. We do, all the same, have to start with what he does actually say, which is that Strange is "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years." To which one's immediate response is: bollocks. But there is a still small voice in there. What Gaiman was pretty clearly not quite getting around to saying in clear was that, in his opinion, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was the finest English novel of the fantastic since Hope Mirrlees's great Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), which is almost certainly the finest English fantasy about the relationship between England and the fantastic yet published (a personal communication from Gaiman has confirmed this sense that Mirrlees was very much on his mind).
So we're entering the heartland. There is only one thing to clear up, the claim that Clarke's undoubtedly remarkable first novel does actually excel any other English novel about the relationship between England and the fantastic, a relationship that ordonnates almost every English fantasy of merit published since 1926, including the central works of J.R.R. Tolkien, T.H. White, C.S. Lewis, Mervyn Peake, Alan Garner, Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, Philip Pullman and, for that matter, Neil Gaiman. To iterate these names (they are by no means the only English authors who have influenced her) makes it clear that Susanna Clarke, in Strange, has partaken of and contributed to a long and honorable English tradition, a long conversation of genre; nor is her contribution negligible. A more cautious claim about the stature of her offering might run something like this: that if Susanna Clarke finishes the story she has hardly begun in Strange, and that if she does so within the confines of the three-book contract she has apparently gained from Bloomsbury to accomplish that task, she may well have then written the finest English novel of the fantastic about the myth of England and the myth of the fantastic and the marriage of the two ever published, bar none of the above, including Mirrlees.
So the veils begin to fall. Though the Bloomsbury machine does not mention the fact that Strange is the first volume of a much larger enterprise, Clarke has made this clear in interviews; my own reading of the text would have been made much easier had I read any of these interviews in advance, as I would not have had to struggle with the presumption that Strange could be read as a tale that was meant to conclude; that this painstaking prelude to a New Story of the World was meant to comprise in itself the instauration and triumph of that new Story of the World, a new world irradiated by a magical strangeness—which it absolutely obdurately does not. Readers of this review (and of interviews with Clarke) will not have the same struggle. They will know in advance that Strange, like John Crowley's Aegypt (1987), opens the gates, but does not travel through them.
But there are, I am afraid, a couple more veils to slit. The dozen of so full-page illustrations (by Portia Rosenberg, whose work I've not encountered previously) are quite astonishingly inappropriate in the context of Clarke's note-perfect creation of an idiom that rarely violates the timbre and tessitura of early 19th-century prose style, nor did Rosenberg seem to think it her brief even remotely to heed the references Clarke makes to artists like George Cruikshank and George Rowlandson, whose works are central examples of early 19th-century illustration, which is line-dominated, intricate, scabrous, cartoon-like, savage and funny. Rosenberg's work is simultaneously soft and wooden, as though she were imitating (without quite understanding) Edward Ardizzone on a bad Sunday, fatally Heritage Society, fatally National Trust tea service special offer, fatally and distancingly sentimental about a world Clarke clearly wants us to enter in our hearts and minds.
And one final veil, a veil of great delicacy and beauty and wit, the veil of language. The instrument Clarke has constructed to tell her story is extremely subtle, extremely potent and hardly falters, pushing the envelope of Jane Austen's remit with fluent and learned skill. It is a joyful and intoxicating creation; sentence after sentence tickle at the tongue to be uttered aloud; and this, I think, is the problem. Either Clarke, or her agent (the very much missed Giles Gordon, who died earlier this year), or her editors at Bloomsbury, or indeed all of them, seem to have been so caught up in the exhilaration of the language of Strange that they failed to note that almost every scene in the first 300 pages should have been carefully and delicated trimmed; that many of these scenes do almost nothing to advance a story that begs, often unavailingly, to be continued with; and that (in the end) the crystalline civility of the Austenesque voice begins to baulk its author's clear need to begin to convey something of the smell of worlds beyond the fields we know as the novel (whose story we're almost ready to hint at) begins to pry the gates open. In the end, in other words, that civility of language works as an engine to maintain the world, not to change it, an effect only intensified by Clarke's great skill at deploying Austen; in the end, it is a civil language, wedded to the thinning it depicts.
We begin in 1806, in the north of an England identical to the England we know, with two main exceptions. It is universally understood that magic—always it seems enacted through the invocation of spells learned from Books—has existed from time immemorial, but that over the past centuries magic has thinned from the world, and that the magicians of 1806 are essentially antiquarians. The second exception is magico-political: For 300 years at the height of the Middle Ages, the north of England was ruled by John Uskglass, which is not his True Name (the fact that several True Names are referred to but that we are told none of them is one of Clarke's clearest internal signals that this novel is just the start of something); though born mortal, Uskglass had at an early age become king of Faerie, and of Another Land we may learn more of in further volumes. From these ascendencies, it is to be presumed, he gained immortality, and an amused, supernatural insouciance. Even in 1806, echoes of Uskglass' enormously long reign can be heard throughout the North—one of Clarke's many conversations with genre seems certainly to have been with Joan Aiken, whose Is (1992; U.S. title Is Underground) dislocates its readers from consensual history precisely through a division of England on north-south lines (there are other similarities, too). So we are in England, but not quite in the England we know. But it is precisely the England we know that—due to the thinning of the world—shows its face most clearly.
In the absence of real magic, in the failure or refusal of John Uskglass to show himself, those who now call themselves magicians are in effect antiquarians. A society of these in York is impelled by a new member, John Segundus (who may eventually turn out to be the author of Strange and its sequels), to challenge a magician named Gilbert Norrell to prove his claim that he is in fact capable of real magic. He does so, from a distance, spectacularly—animating the stone sculptures adorning York Cathedral until the conclamation of old stories caught in stone nearly deafens the city. It is soon clear that Norrell, a reclusive figure miserly of his vast library of Books of Magic, has exposed himself for a reason: He wishes to reinstate magic in England, but only the decorous rule-bound forms of Book Magic he himself approves of. Only slowly (everything is slow in Strange) do we begin to understand that Norrell's caution does not simply reflect his need to hoard his knowledge and to control its use; he is also, inarticulately, apprehensive of a return of naked magic, of the chaos that might ensue, the lack of order, the cavitation of the real. Very very late in the game of Strange, we also begin to understand that, more than anything, he is terrified at the thought that John Uskglass himself might return, and in returning give England back to the elements: to the elementals: that the old old Story might become a new Story of the world.
These apprehensions are moderately difficult for Clarke to convey through her chosen idiom; not until page 512, in fact, does she allow Norrell's mysterious servant Childermass to subvocalize (as it were) what looks to me to be the central movement of story in Strange, the central gate it unlocks but does not quite unlatch:In his weakened state Childermass had been thinking aloud. He had meant to say that if what he had seen was true, then everything that Strange and Norrell had ever done was child's-play and magic was a much stranger and more terrifying thing than any of them had thought of. Strange and Norrell had been merely throwing paper darts about a parlour, while real magic soared and swooped and twisted on great wings in a limitless sky far, far above them. But then he realized that Mr Norrell was unlikely to take a very sanguine view of such ideas and so he said nothing.
A passage like this takes Jane Austen way beyond the fields she wishes to describe, and Clarke is careful to restrict her organ notes to moments such as this (of her predecessors, T.H. White uses similar shifts of diction to convey a similar sense that the real story he is telling, whether or not the surface of the tale admits it, is in fact the real story, and never forget it). But we remember the great wings and the limitless sky above an England caught in the thinning; and we expect that the magic—perhaps in the form of the innumerable ravens whom everyone in the north of England knows stand for Uskglass—will land.
But first Norrell has to leave York, and begin to establish himself in London, where the war against Napoleon dominates the government. A highly placed politician loses his young wife to a strange illness, and is induced to ask Norrell for help. In order to gain influence, Norrell invokes Faerie, which manifests as "the gentleman with thistle-down hair"—a frivolous, deadly, heartless, gay figure whose avatar appears in Lud-in-the-Mist and whose nature and habitat are described in Sylvia Townsend Warner's Kingdoms of Elfin (1976). He is only truly controllable by Uskglass himself; Norrell's bargain—the young woman returns to life, but half her time must be spent dancing the nights away in Faerie—is a bad one from the get-go, not only because it subjects her to a living death (Faerie itself, as Clarke puts it somewhere, is a bit like the north of Scotland in the rain), but begins to open the gates.
Still, Norrell is now famous, and begins to assist in the war effort. I am not expert in the Napoleonic Wars, but I have the impression that Norrell's, and later Strange's, efforts to aid England have the effect of ensuring that the war comes out exactly as it did in our own history: The reinstitution of magic in England, it seems, has the main effect of sustaining the old England. The only date to violate our own history—it is I believe the latest date given in a text full of dates—relates to the death of Byron, who in 1816 insults "the gentleman" (he is never named) by continuing to talk, and who is therefore cursed to die in five years. A footnote (the novel dangles with footnotes, some supererogatory, some twee, some pretty fascinating) duly informs us that Byron does die in 1821, some years after Strange ends. As this date is three years short of Byron's real death in 1824, we may indeed assume that the ravens do land somewhere early in volume two, and that a new Story of the world has therefore then begun.
Norrell's fame arouses the interest of a brilliant young man of good birth named Jonathan Strange, who becomes his pupil. Their relationship is never easy, as Strange is entirely disinclined to go by the Book (and in any case Norrell refuses him access to his unique library); and Norrell is soon estranged from his pupil, who has gone to Spain to help Lord Wellington in his campaign, and who makes magic up in order to do so. This makes Norrell jealous, and appalls him, and the novel begins finally to climb toward slingshot.
(Around about here, Clarke almost drops the ball. After the apparent death of his wife, Strange has gone to Venice, where on page 568—very late to introduce significant characters—he meets an entire family named Greysteel, who turn out in fact to have absolutely no function in the story that could not have been conveyed otherwise, through other eyes and hands, in a paragraph or two. But Clarke can't leave them alone, even though her huge prologue of a novel is begging to have to end. I think, once again, it is the trap of the style: It is so much fun to write the Greysteels, to explore their Englishry in Clarke's unstoppably impeccable Austenese, that nobody cared to tell her to scissor them out completely, nobody seems to have cared that she almost loses her novel right here, because of her virtues. Virtue is not enough. ... But finally the Greysteels do traipse offstage, in the end, when there is no way to retain them any longer. The story bales itself of them. They sink into the lagoon. Bye-bye.)
"The gentleman with thistle-down hair" has attempted to draw King George III, who is mad, into Faerie, so that his own candidate for kingship, a black man named Stephen Black, can mount the throne, but has been thwarted by Strange, and things begin to get naked. The novel darkens. Strange's own wife is abducted into Faerie; Norrell by magic attempts to disappear Strange's newly published book on the subject; Waterloo, which Clarke describes with blackened decorum, transpires; and the book begins to mount toward a cunningly plotted slingshot, in which all the main characters meet or do not meet, and Faerie begins to crosshatch more and more terrifyingly with the mundane world, in passages of considerable splendour, especiallly those in which Faerie is described as intrinsicate with meaning: Faerie Story; Faerie asa kind of puzzle or labyrinth [in which] "everything had meaning. Stephen [Black] hardly dared take another step. If he did so—if, for example, he stepped into that shadow or that spot of light, then the world might be forever altered.
And Uskglass himself flickeringly appears.
Everything has happened in order for that to happen.
In the end, we understand that Norrell and Strange have not themselves brought magic back to England, that they are not of themselves the agents of change. What they are is something entirely different, something that points us to the next volume:"Their work!" scoffed Vinculus [a man whose skin has been tattooed from within, at birth, with Uskglass' own primal book of magic, who is that Book]. "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!"
If Susanna Clarke continues to do it now, we will follow her anywhere.