The following quote by Time magazine graces the back cover of my copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell:
[It] combines the dark mythology of fantasy with the delicious social comedy of Jane Austen into A MASTERPIECE OF THE GENRE THAT RIVALS TOLKIEN.
Which pretty much perfectly describes the book: Jane Austen + Tolkien = Strange & Norrell. Or, really: Any-decent-Victorian-novel + magic-and-faeries = Strange & Norrell.
That said, it’s not the Disney-fied Tinkerbell kind of fairy that Clarke employs; no it’s the classic, vindictive English/Irish sidhe type faerie, which makes for a thrilling combination. There is something wonderfully amusing in seeing the man with the thistle-down hair carelessly disrupt the social norms of England with a wave of his hand during a time when social norms and mores were everything.
Clarke’s England feels like the England of Jane Austen (which, it should be noted, I despise), yet it’s also more relaxed. Something about the magic in the novel smoothes out the edges and behaviours of Victorian society that I find harsh and turns it into something I truly enjoyed, though I normally refuse to read Victorian literature.
Part of that, I think, is the footnotes. They are highly entertaining and the little side notes and stories give the book an encyclopedic feel, and make the world feel that much richer for its complexity, and less like the Victorian England of Austen and more like Tolkien’s appendices in The Lord of the Rings.
Clarke also strikes a great balance between characters. Norrell is a controlling, crotchety old man, Strange is brash and reckless, yet neither is flawless and — even at their worst — neither is ever totally unsympathetic. Arabella Strange is lovely, Childermass has a great development arc, and characters like the despicable Drawlight and the lowly Lascelles are never given enough screen time to be overpowering in their vileness, yet they still play key roles and can be understood.
That said, I did feel a bit of a lack in terms of female characters. The few significant ones seemed more to have things happen to them, instead of doing things on their own. This wasn’t a huge issue while I was reading, as most of this has only occurred to me after finishing, but it does feel a bit like a boys’ club, justified only by the fact that it’s set in Victorian England.
While the two main characters are largely different, both want the same thing — the restoration of English magic. Norrell’s need to control magic — who has access to it, what is deemed good or bad magic, etc. — is set against Strange’s need to recover the lost magic of ages past — the ability to summon fairy servants, and to do fairy magic — creating great conflict and tension. This actually allows for a great look at the ethics of magic, which I was not expecting at all when I picked up the novel.
I also wasn’t expecting the relationship between Strange and Norrell to pan out the way it did. Even from the beginning the two of them are, to some degree, at odds with one another. There’s a beautiful tension simmering under the surface of their relationship throughout the duration of Strange’s tutelage, and while it would be easy to take one side over the other, both sides of the argument are easily understood, especially once the novel has been finished.
That ending, though, is something that cannot be rushed. It is a long book (my copy is 1006 pages), and, even though I lamented the length while reading sometimes, wanting things to happen, I don’t think a single page could be cut easily.
I’m a little torn about this book, to be honest. I’m not overjoyed with it, but I’m not disappointed at all. There is something quietly amazing about it.
So yes, it is good.