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:  none
  • 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.  Yet, they also tell us, not only of the past, and those long dead magicians discussed in drawing rooms, but 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.