The best novel so far this century.Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

  • Author:  Susanna Clarke  (b. 1959)
  • Rank:  #22
  • Published:  2004
  • Publisher:  Bloomsbury
  • Pages:  846
  • First Line:  “Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.”
  • Last Lines:  “They kissed once.  Then he turned upon his heel and disappeared into the Darkness.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Acclaim:  Man Booker Prize Longlist; Time Novel of the Year; Hugo Award
  • Film:  2015 BBC (****)
  • First Read:  Fall, 2005

The Novel:  It is to the distinct loss of those who will not peruse the Fantasy / Sci-Fi section of their local bookshop that those who appreciate great literature should never stumble upon this book.  It is dismissed by those who claim “I don’t read fantasy.”  But to dismiss this novel as such is idiotic.  This is not a genre novel.  It does not favor plot over character, action over thought.  This is a 19th Century novel, disguised as modern fiction in which the two primary characters happen to be magicians.  It is as much about England and the North, about gentlemen and ladies, about the very manner of English character (especially during the long war with France) as it is about magic.  It is the finest novel produced so far this century, and that it is a first novel is all the more astonishing.

Look at the way the novel opens, with that society of magicians in York.  Before long, we realize that this is a gateway, a leaping off point, from which we can find ourselves introduced to Mr Norrell, not so very different than the tenant in Wuthering Heights or the Bishop in Les Miserables.  We begin with those argumentative magicians and slowly transition to Norrell, the boring little man (“I appear to have conjured the spirit of a banker.” Jonathan Strange remarks upon first seeing Norrell in a vision, unsure of who he has conjured).  Norrell is no one’s idea of a great hero: “He hardly ever spoke of magic, and when he did it was like a history lesson and no one could bear to listen to him.”  But he is the soft-spoken, veddy British gentleman who has seen fit to bring about the revival of English magic (that there is an entire back story as to what constitutes English magic, and the whole history of it, is one of the true joys of this book).  The first third of the book involves Norrell, as he moves from the North down to London and goes about his mission.  We see some of his amazing magic, wrapped in the very language of the period: “It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry.  Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne!  No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.”

Though at this point we have not yet been introduced to Jonathan Strange, the young man who will be his apprentice.  Yet, we have already had signs of him.  Clarke’s novel is filled with wonderful foot-notes, ones which help elucidate the history that is hidden in the pages and slowly slip us into the world.  They tell us, not only of the past, and those long dead magicians discussed in drawing rooms, but we also learn what will come.  In one early footnote, we get a glimpse of the history, the character of our two magicians and the differences that will begin to divide them: “Francis Sutton-Grove (1682-1765), theoretical magician.  He wrote two books De Generibus Artium Magicarum Anglorum, 1741, and Prescriptions and Descriptions, 1749.  Even Mr Norrell, Sutton-Grove’s greatest (and indeed only) admirer, thought that Prescriptions and Descriptions (wherein he attempted to lay down rules for practical magic) was abominably bad, and Mr Norrell’s pupil, Jonathan Strange, loathed it so much that he tore his copy into pieces and fed it to a tinker’s donkey (see Life of Jonathan Strange by John Segundus, 1820, pub. John Murray).”

In all of this, we never forget the time and place.  The drawing room discussions revolve around Ms. Ratcliffe’s books (which Jane Austen’s books would also allude to).  Strange, when performing an early piece of magic, and disturbed by another shouts out: “I am rather of the opinion that in England a gentleman’s dreams are his private concern.  I fancy there is a law to that effect and, if there is not, why, Parliament should certainly be made to pass one immediately!  It ill becomes another man to invite himself into them.”  One of the key lines of the novel takes place during the Peninsular War, when Strange is appointed Magician-in-General to His Grace, the Duke of Wellington:  ” ‘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.’ ”  This divide, which Strange will not cross, becomes a key factor in third part of the novel, when the pupil and the master find themselves divided, by secrets, by society, by life, by death, by the very history of magic itself.

Nor is the action fully confined to the stuffy rooms of the upper class.  Strange not only goes abroad to the Peninsula, but is there for Waterloo:  “There was a pause.  Both men felt faintly embarrassed.  The ranks of dead and wounded stretched away upon all sides as far as the eye could see.  Simply being alive at that moment seemed, in some indefinable way, ungentlemanly.”  We spend a great deal of time in the Faerie world, with tragic characters whose fates are bound up with Strange and Norrell, without their knowledge.  We follow the lowest of the low, a man named Vinculus, who ties together the destiny of all of them, as well as Childermass, perhaps the most fascinating character in the book, a servant of Norrell who finds way to bring fate to others.

I do not know what I could say to convince such a person who would walk past this book that they should read it.  It is long, it deals with magic, it is wound up in history and the very nature of the English character.  But some people must be listening.  In the three and a half years since I first made my list of the Best Books of the Century (so far), almost 2700 have clicked on the link to where they can buy it.  It has had more clicks than any external link in the history of this blog and it continues to have the most clicks every single week (usually twice as many as anything else).  Perhaps that says it all.  It is a book I continually return to, and I can not think of any other book I have ever read in which I more desperately craved a sequel.  Go beyond what you normally read.  Read this book.  Or read it again.

strangeThe Film:  

I don’t much like American television, but I end up enjoying almost every British show I watch. With this one, I didn’t ever have to wonder – I knew I was going to enjoy it; it was just going to be a question of how much I would enjoy it and how close they would stick to the book.

I’ll answer the second part of that first – they do a magnificent job of sticking to the book, and when they don’t stick to the book they are staying true to the spirit of the book. Some minor characters are dropped and some of their aspects are picked up elsewhere (in Venice, Dr. Graysteel is much more reticent over his daughter’s relationship to Jonathan, picking up some of the worry from his sister who is excised). Some of the scenes are adjusted for dramatic effect (when Jonathan discovers that he must go to Waterloo it is presented much more dramatically than it is in the book, and the Waterloo scenes are dramatically different in the book, although handled very well within the historical context). But overall, I wasn’t particularly worried (this is the BBC after all) and I was right not to be – this is what I could have hoped for in terms of fidelity.

Now what about the quality? Well, I wasn’t really worried about that either, in spite of not knowing who most of the cast was. The first reason is that this is the BBC and every new actor they throw in front of me I generally end up liking. The second reason was that I was already pleased with the first cast member I knew about – Eddie Marsan. You might know Marsan; he’s a character actor in these days where stars rule the roost. Maybe you recognize him as Lestrade from the two Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes films. Or as the fifth member of the clique in The World’s End, doing comedy alongside the likes of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Martin Freeman. But Marsan has quietly been giving fantastic performances for years. His performances in two Mike Leigh films, Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky paint him as a younger Timothy Spall, but with a reservoir of rage underneath that sadness. His Norrell is everything we might have expected from the role – a man who is very prim and proper, determined to bring back the importance of English magic without ever allowing anything to happen that might bring it into disrepute. When faced with his first important challenge he makes the wrong move and when faced with his second, he is paralyzed with indecision. It would have been easy to underplay the role too much, but Marsan provides just the right level of primness and is able to rise into some excitement at the proper moments.

But Marsan was the known quantity. Slightly less known was Marc Warren, who had been so unbearably creepy as Mr. Teatime in Hogfather and here brings just the right amount of insanity, rage and power into his performance as the Man with the Thistle Down Hair.

Then there are all those I didn’t know. Ariyon Bakare is so perfectly civilized, restrained and finally pained as Stephen Black. Paul Kaye is disturbing and disgusting as Vinculus. Charlotte Riley provides the right measure of determination and devotion as Arabella Strange and we can understand why he would be so determined to restore her to his life, whatever the cost.

Before I come to the two key performances, I should mention the production values. I would have loved to see a feature film of this novel, but loving it as much as I do, I know there is no way that one film, or even two could have possibly done it justice. So I am glad that it was the BBC that brought it to life, the modern BBC, not the one that spent so little on those ridiculous effects for Doctor Who in the 70s and 80s. The special effects are magnificent (especially the way they envision the black tower which imprisons Strange, or the way Strange brings the horses to life out of the sandbank), the costumes and cinematography look great, and the art direction, oh, aside from the way it brings the 19th Century to life, just look at the magnificent set for Lost Hope, not just the house itself, but the world around it. Need any more proof of how good the sets were? Watch the Waterloo scene and then find yourself reminded of it by this picture here.

Now I come to those two final performances. I was not familiar either with Enzo Cilenti or Bertie Carvel before this show. I was staking my love for this book on two actors there were almost completely unknown to me. Cilenti was more tricky – he is clearly younger in the show than he was in the book and far better looking than he is in the various illustrations which show Childermass. Yet, he so perfectly embodies the character, that dedicated servant who is determined to try and make his master see what needs to be done, no matter the cost. He is the most interesting character in the book and Cilenti’s performance never disappoints. Carvel is in a more difficult position, being the young brilliant student, the man who must find his magic within his own movements, his own thoughts. He must be careless and casual, then devoted, a man who finds his path in the war and will eventually deliberately descend into madness. Carvel comes through with flying colors, his careful movements in the sandbank scene, his idle rich lifestyle coming down to earth in the brutality of the Peninsular War, his fierce devotion leading him down the darkest paths.

There is more I could write about the series. Every actor shone through, every moment came to life, and when the script strayed from the book, the characters never strayed from their core. This is exactly how a great book should come to life.