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Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susannah Clarke


Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is an eccentric book. It takes a lot of time and patience; but in the end it is worth all the effort. This book is rather an odd one to classify- its like nothing else I've ever read. It puts me in mind of a combination of Edmund Spenser's The Fairie Queene and Dickens's Pickwick Papers. I would argue that this book is nothing like Harry Potter- the magic in the Harry Potter series in darker and more sinister, though the magic performed in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell turns out not to be all that it appears. Don't be intimidated by the length of the book- nearly 800 pages- this is a good, satidfying read which will have you hooked. The action centers around two magicians: Mr. Norrell and Mr. Strange, the former of which is determined to get rid of all the magicians in England aside from himself- and successfully wipes out all of the magicians of the city of York. He them goes to London, where he tries to bring the spirit of magic back into England. I found it interesting that Clarke combines religion and magic in an interesting way- Mr. Norrell performs a spectacular act of magic in York Cathedral. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is filled with all kinds of magical lore and magical history. Primary in the events of English magic is the reign of the Raven King, aka John Uskglass, whose reign lasted for 300 years. There are the Other Lands, which include Faerie, Northern England, and the Other Side of Hell.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell takes place between the years of 1808 and 1817, covering the events that took place in the wars against Napoleon and his French armies. Susanna Clarke tries to make light of a period of English history which was particularly troubling for the English. Throughout the course of the book Strange and Norrell perform acts of magic which include, but are certainly not limited to: creating roads which disapear again; moving rivers and other geographical features (ie moving Brussels to America); creating illusions to confuse the French; walking through mirrors; and looking into a bowl of water to determine what other people are doing. The book is filled with all kinds of fantastic similes- for example, "House, like people, are apt to become rather eccentric if left too much on their own; this house was the architectural equivalent of an old gentleman in a worn dressing-gown and slippers, who got up and went to bed at odd times of day, and who kept up a continual conversation with friends no one else could see" (452).

There are some other characters which are worth paying attention to: Sir Walter Pole, a minister in Parliament; his wife, Lady Pole, who is brought back from the dead thanks to Mr. Norrell; Pole's butler, Stephen Black; Strange's wife, Arabella; a street performer named Vinculus; and the mysterious man with the thistle-down hair.

Strange publishes an article in the Edinburg Review which challenges the views of his former tutor, Mr. Norrell; he later publishes a book called The History and Practice of English Magic, which outlines the subject from its beginnings to the present. Of course, there is a lot missing, as Mr. Norrell won't allow Mr. Strange to view the 4000 + books in his library at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire. The article and the book cause a divide in the relationship between the two magicians. It is at this point in the book that it becomes clear that the magic performed in this book is a lot more serious than we'd previously thought. In Fairie, there is a place called Lost-hope, where Stephen Black, Lady Pole, and later Arabella Strange spend all their time. The place is symbolic of the fates of all three of these characters.

As Susanna Clarke mentions, "magic is the noblest profession in the world" (456). It may just be true, in the case of this book. I've said before that, although Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a long, often complicated book, it is not without its mysteries. It is precisely because of this that this book is worth reading.

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