The next book in the Mythgard Academy series – as chosen by donors to the Mythgard Institute – is Susanna Clarke’s acclaimed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Though published over a decade ago in 2004, Time magazine’s #1 Book of the Year, winner of the Hugo and Mythopoeic Awards (among others), and Man Booker Prize nominee, it is telling that critic Jo Walton’s recent essay on the novel implores the question, “Why Hasn’t Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Been More Influential?” in its subtitle. Despite these many honorifics and much praise from such literary celebrities as Neil Gaiman, Clarke’s magnum opus still seems a relatively cult classic. Having lately finished my third jaunt through the novel and thoroughly enjoyed the excellent BBC adaptation, now seems an appropriate time to convince everyone I can of why they should finally give it a try.
In his blurb for the book, Gaiman called Jonathan Strange “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years.” Leaving aside questions of the accuracy of this statement, Gaiman’s quote highlights the essential elements of Clarke’s book: its Englishness, its fantastic qualities, and its status as a novel. J.R.R. Tolkien famously preferred to call his work of epic fantasy a romance rather than a novel, putting it in line with the medieval works he studied and loved. Jonathan Strange, by contrast, is unquestionably a novel in technique and structure.
Written in the style of Victorian novels of manners, Clarke’s influences are those great chroniclers of life in nineteenth century England, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Though statements such as “this is a fantasy for those who don’t like fantasy” are often inaccurate and reductive, it is certainly true that lovers of the classic British canon will find much to enjoy here. Clarke has the skill to both parody the style of these authors, while also mimicking them well enough to truly invoke them and do them justice.
The scope of the tale is quintessentially Dickensian, both in length (Clarke writes as if she were paid by the word, with the novel clocking in at a thousand pages) and in narrative ambition. The story itself covers the period of a decade, and like Dickens, Clarke is interested in the entire social spectrum, including everyone from paupers to the mad King George as characters in her epic. And yet, she is equally capable of narrowing the focus down to the minutiae of daily life.
Set in Regency England during the Napoleonic wars, the machinations of Drawlight and Lascelles rival the pettiness of Austen’s most scheming social climbers. The dry wit invokes Austen, too. At one point the local Portuguese are confounded by the English army’s magical creation of a new series of roads, and they worry that they are “certain to disappear in an hour or two taking everyone upon it to Hell — or possibly England.” This kind of laconic irony is typical of the book’s humor, and Clarke delights in the subtlety of the English language as much as any of her sources.
The implicit (and hilarious) identification of England with Hell (at least to foreigners) is also typical of the novel’s anxiety about the very nature of Englishness, as highlighted by Gaiman’s blurb (further discussed on his blog). Set as it is in the ascension of the British Empire, Clarke’s novel interrogates those virtues of Englishness and imperialism that novels of this period often did unironically celebrate. The warrior-magician Jonathan Strange uses his magic not only to create new roads at the request of Lord Wellington but to win battles for his king and country, while his mentor Gilbert Norrell uses his wealth, status, and comparative experience to hoard all extant books of magic and books about magic (and yes, there is a difference) for himself.
While the titular characters use their privilege to both noble and less than noble ends, Clarke uses the supporting cast to explore issues of gender (heroines Arabella and Lady Pole), class (manservant Childermass and vagabond Vinculus), and race (black butler Stephen Black) in an imperialist world. Though using the tools of the nineteenth century novel, Clarke is firmly a twenty-first century writer with modern concerns and her story is therefore both enjoyably old-fashioned and refreshingly inclusive. African American blogger Gita Jackson even went so far as to declare that Clarke’s “book about British wizards taught [her] something about American blackness.”
This is not to say that Jonathan Strange is any kind of treatise or soapbox rant, because of course there is the fantasy. It remains, in the end, a “book about British wizards.” There are the inherent comparisons to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series implicit in that phrase, and like Rowling, Clarke gleefully plunders the history of British folklore to create her equally (perhaps exceedingly) rich alternate world. Copious and often ridiculously long footnotes detail the history of English magic for the reader, complete with references to the wealth of magical literature such as Strange’s seminal The History and Practice of English Magic (1816) and Lord Portishead’s A Child’s History of the Raven King (1807). The tropes and archetypes of British folklore are all present, including a chillingly amoral fairy antagonist (the Gentleman with Thistle-down Hair). Spells go wrong, ancient prophecies are invoked, and nature itself has animistic vitality. What she doesn’t joyfully steal from primary-world folk and fairy tales, Clarke invents for herself. Her mythology of the legendary Raven King and his kingdom in the North of England – as well as realms in Faerie and on the far side of Hell – feels as naturally and typically British as everything else. Clarke is clearly not just a superb novelist, but a well-read and imaginative fantasist, too.
While I’m at it, I may as well plug the miniseries, as well. Debuting over the summer, the seven part adaptation brings all the virtues of BBC period drama to the piece: immaculate costuming and set design combined with stage-trained thespians and meticulous writing. Though several characters are taken in different directions (in both appearance and action) to their novelistic sources, the acting is uniformly excellent, and their journeys are nonetheless satisfying. Peter Harness – writer of Doctor Who‘s infamously polarizing series 8 episode “Kill the Moon” and an upcoming two-parter for series 9 – ably tackles the intimidating task of compressing and adapting Clarke’s tome into seven parts. Director Toby Haynes (another Doctor Who alum) proves himself equally at home in a London drawing room and on the King’s roads in Faerie. The adaptation is faithful where it can be, and discards what it needs to, and those are often the best kind.
If you’ve been enjoying Corey Olsen’s Mythgard Academy lectures so far, don’t stop here. If you have yet to join in, this the place to start. The first session will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 16.