In the King’s Wild Company: Re-Reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Updated: May 4, 2018

by Andrea Macalino

▶︎ For many years now, I’ve stopped being a re-reader. Whenever I find a book that I feel enchanted with, I gobble it up, swoon about it, and then realize that I still have unread ones sitting around, so I plunge into new pages in the blink of an eye. It’s a cycle, really, and I think it’s fueled by this fear that the world will end before I gobble up as many books as I can.

But a few weeks ago, I did what I’d considered unthinkable: picked up my copy of Susanna Clarke‘s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and started re-reading it–all 1006 pages of it.

A novel consisting of three volumes, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell spins a tale of how practical magic is revived in Napoleonic England. Spearheaded by the antisocial and ever-selfish Mr. Gilbert Norrell, the story traces how the perception of magic is gradually changed first as something only limited to theory, then gradually into something so practical it helps defeat the French, and finally to a cesspool of madness that the government–and indeed, domestic affairs–can do without. In the process, the ever-fickle and mysterious characters from Faerie wreak unseen havoc, and Norrell’s sole pupil, Jonathan Strange, forever longing to know more about John Uskglass, the Raven King and magician-ruler of Northern England, courts power beyond his darkest imaginings.

Now a lot can happen in a thousand pages, and if you want a fast-paced book, I wouldn’t recommend JSMN, especially since of all things, this novel has footnotes.  Clarke herself has admitted that these weren’t originally supposed to be part of the novel and they were placed there initially to help her keep track of things. In fact, she never spared the reader any kind of thought when she was writing the novel (which, I think, is a wonderful and unconscious kind of gift writers ought to give themselves every now and then, you know?). The result of this, admittedly, is that any reader will always be torn between continuing to read the main text or following the stories in the footnotes.

This time around, since I was re-reading, the answer was pretty simple: if I was in a part of the novel I wasn’t particularly interested in, the footnotes won; if the footnotes were rather dull, the main text won.

Doing this taught me a couple of things (about myself as a re-reader as much as about the book itself). First of all, I have this tendency not to savor words as much as I tend to do the first time I read them. I find this to be ironic, as JSMN is a great read, if not for its bulk, then for its dry, witty humor. Everywhere in the book, the description of characters, the weather, and the self-deprecating attitude towards the distinct Englishness of English magic made me laugh and, when I realized how I was prone to jump from one word to the next, read the same sentence over and again in the (futile) attempt of learning how Susanna Clarke managed such subtle distinction in her wordplay.

Yet at the same time it pleased his vanity to think how much better suited he was to his adventure than Norrell. “…Who was it that said a magician needs the subtlety of a Jesuit, the daring of a soldier and the wits of a thief? I believe it was meant for an insult, but it has some truth in it.” – Clarke, p. 793

After all, what I was really looking forward to–and was rewarded with, gladly–was the playfulness of Clarke’s language; how she can describe something without actually going through any detail. I continue to be drawn to this trait because frankly, it put to question what I know of adjectives and (on a related although more removed side note), synesthesia.

The box was small and oblong and apparently made of silver and porcelain. It was a beautiful shade of blue, but then again not exactly blue, it was more like lilac. But then again, not exactly lilac either, since it had a tinge of grey in it. To be more precise, it was the colour of heartache. But fortunately neither Miss Greysteel nor Aunt Greysteel had ever been much troubled by heartache and so they did not recognize it. – Clarke, pp. 786-787

Ironically, what makes JSMN so distinct in terms of language also makes it, well…tedious. The first volume, which focuses on Mr. Norrell, is so extremely slow-going and is so styled as Norrell’s own character, that my main fear whenever I think of new readers picking the novel up is that they’ll get so bored at the beginning and they’ll give up before Volume II: Jonathan Strange, where the plot really thickens.

Still, I tend to recommend this novel because, as Clarke admitted in taking her cue from Ursula K. Le Guin, the magicians here and the very practice of magic itself, all seem so real. You’ll almost believe that the repercussions of its practice are as palpable as those of medicine and agriculture. I like this novel because it allows itself to be indulgent. It doesn’t boast of turning faerie tales into sinister stories (although it succeeds in the turning). It doesn’t use accepted objective correlatives usually found in horror stories, but it manages to scare just the same. Unlike Harry Potter, it doesn’t have wands erupting with sparks or dishes that clean up after themselves or moving photographs.

Instead it relies on those feelings you get when you’re alone and start to suspect that something is happening around you, just around the corner of your vision…

It was as if a door had opened somewhere. Or possibly a series of doors. There was a sensation as of a breeze blowing into the house and bringing with it the half-remembered scents of childhood. There was a shift in the light which seemed to cause all the shadows in the room to fall differently. There was nothing more definite than that, and yet as often happens when some magic is occurring, both Drawlight and the lady had the strongest impression that nothing in the visible world could be relied upon any more. – Clarke, p. 496

And of course, JSMN has that tasteful touch of understated romance, humor, irony, and longing that is always associated with 19th century England, in the character of Jonathan Strange.

But that’s not what makes this book such a great (re-)read. It’s the fact that the titular characters are not the protagonists at all. It’s the (re)discovery that something darker and more ambiguous arranges every chess piece; it’s that mystery hinting at another opening just as you turn the last page, that really makes the characters wild and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a fantastic novel. ***

Andrea Macalino is a graduate student of Comparative Literature. This was previously published in her blog in 2012.