Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel
Britain is, for lovers of literature, a magical place. Its history of poets and wordsmiths tangles back to time out of mind, conjuring images that exceed its small area and population. But if you read recent Brit Lit, it has a distinct atmosphere of discouragement about it. So when English author Susanna Clarke recaptures pre-Victorian times in a heroic fantasy, we know exactly what she means when a character asks: “Why is there no more magic done in England?”
Clarke tells a story that delves into two worlds at once. Her plot, stripped of the language in which she clothes it, tells of two men, wanderers outside their time. Gilbert Norrell is a collector, an introvert, a man with his head in the clouds. Jonathan Strange, who first apprentices to Norell before they descend into rivalry, is eminently practical, a man of the people. And both of them happen to be wizards, with power unmatched in Britain since time of myth.
But Clarke doesn’t strip the story of its language. The events of her story don’t just happen; they happen in a very specific context. Hers is the world of Jane Austen and Laurence Sterne, of Mary Shelley and Sir Walter Scott. And the language she uses painstakingly reconstructs the time in which its set. Clarke infuses her words with the intricacy, lyricism, and humor of Britain’s pre-Victorian heyday, a time when, for literature lovers, England still had magic.
Because the time in which she sets her story is so well known, Clarke feels free to insert characters who will be instantly recognizable to readers. In addition to the title heroes, Clarke trots out stock characters like Sir Walter and Lady Emma Pole, and the slave Stephen who possesses practical wisdom his masters don’t share. She also uses historical figures: George III, Lord Nelson, and Lord Byron make cameo appearances.
And the works produced in that time have been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the linguistic flowering that began with Marlowe and Shakespeare bore fruit in the days of Wordsworth and Johnson. On the other, because the pre-Victorians accomplished so much, they have linked British letters to a veritable industry of nostalgia. No wonder English Literature progressed through Victorian weariness to the sooty, emasculated world of Amis and le Carré.
Clarke at once channels that nostalgia industry, by recapturing the pre-Victorian tone, and challenges it, by forcing a conflict between the past and the present. Just as Austen’s excessively prim patriarchs subtly mocked the mores of her time, Clarke’s wizardry mandarins, frozen in their worship of the past, point the finger at today’s professors and librarians. Our best work is not behind us, Clarke says. But we have to actually do that work.
But it’s not just about who creates the work. By mocking the nostalgia industry, Clarke also indicts us readers for keeping our eyes turned backward. We, like the authors, are not living up to our potential. We are creating a system of rewards in which all of us feel free to rest on the accomplishments of the past. And we have convinced ourselves, by lionizing how good things used to be, that we can never be that good again. Shame on us.
As the forces our title heroes unleash turn on them, forcing them to overcome their rivalry for the greater good, Norrell and Strange go on a journey in which they come to grips with the future. Neither Norrell’s dusty historical scholarship nor Strange’s practiced applications mean anything when apocalyptic forces threaten. England is changing around them, and they must find the strength to change with it. They have so much to accomplish, if they (and we) will survive.
And the same applies to us. The broad, fantastic world Clarke reveals indicts us for accepting smallness and diminished hopes. She challenges us to honor the past by making a present, and planning for the future. In short, she tells us that, if we fear there is no magic being done in English, we have no one to blame for that but ourselves.