If the awards and critical acclaim have not steered you towards the fractious company of the two foremost English magicians of the nineteenth century, then it is unlikely my meagre addition to the chorus will tip the balance. Nevertheless, I exhort you to go get this enchanting novel. And I was enchanted.
Susanna Clarke’s prose is styled as that of a nineteenth century author, perfectly suited to this tale of the titular magicians and the fairy that, with a perfect whimsical savagery, wrecks their lives. The conceit is brilliantly sustained. The book describes an England that was once two kingdoms, north and south, with the south as ‘real historical’ but the north ruled by John Uskglass, England’s greatest magician, until he disappeared, centuries before Norrell surfaces. The opening of the novel focuses on Norrell’s desire to bring magic back to England, though strictly on his insufferably dull terms. Norrell is wonderfully realised, heading a cast of characters that are ‘Dickensian’ in the best possible sense.
This alternate history is referenced in fabulously entertaining asides, lengthy footnotes to the references the characters make to magicians, folklore and manuscripts pertaining to magic. There’s a depth and wit to these beautifully judged vignettes of fairy tales (literally in most cases) and historical notes and they are a fitting and elegant way of illuminating the world in which Norrell and then Jonathan Strange come to prominence.
Their relationship falls apart in the main because of the actions of the ‘gentleman with the thistle-down hair’, a fairy king that Norrell summons to bring the wife of a politician back to life, in the hope of showing he can be useful to the English government’s efforts to combat Napolean in France and Spain. The gentleman’s actions against Strange and Norrell create both the central crisis of the novel but also the resolution, which is as unexpected as it is perfect.
I shan’t go into more of the plot details, it’s a thousand pages and those pages fly by, particularly with lines as good as these:
“It was an old-fashioned house – the sort of house in fact, as Strange expressed it, which a lady in a novel might like to be persecuted in.”
“”Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange.
Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”
Finally, I can strongly recommend the BBC adaptation of the novel, but of course, implore you to read the book first.