Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

My reactions to Susanna Clarke’s lovely and complex work are more complicated than I expected.

This is a book steeped in artifice. It’s set during the Regency, an age that readers of Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and Patrick O’Brian have a special affection for. It partakes of the drawing room and the campaigns of Wellington. And the style is completely true to the time and the subject matter: Clarke writes in an old-fashioned omniscient third, stepping aside to address the reader from time to time in a delightfully Austenish way. The all-knowing narrator is well aware of her characters’ flaws, and there’s a cool irony in the presentation. Sound familiar? And yet, the book seemed far removed from Austen in its effects on me, and I had to stop and think why.

I didn’t feel emotionally involved. Oh, I was interested; I kept right on reading, which, given that I have stacks and stacks of books I can’t seem to get through — I have years of concentration problems — is significant. But I felt no particular investment in the characters, at least in the first section. This was in clear opposition to my reaction to, say, Pride and Prejudice, where the members of the Bennet family made an immediate claim on my affections. Clarke’s book, by contrast, struck me as having great charm — it was all about the fascination of artifice, about opening one amazing Chinese box after another — but not much good, red blood. It felt cold.

I should pause here and say that I’m not representing this as a flaw in the book; a novel doesn’t have to hit my emotional buttons to be a good novel, and this is clearly a fine work indeed.  What’s more, I feel fairly confident in saying that I suspect Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell does everything its author designed it to do, and it’s a beautiful thing. It simply struck me, at first, as a cold, removed beauty in a gown and long gloves, who was dancing somewhere in an icy marble ballroom, moving from suitor to suitor with a clockwork heart. Too fascinating not to go back to, not to keep turning the pages, and yet, calling up no real tenderness on my part.

I had to question why I was reacting this way. First I thought, “Well, it’s the characters. The beginning of the story is centered around Mr. Norrell and his hangers-on, and he’s not a terribly likeable person.” But Austen is full of characters unaware of their own flaws — look at the opening of Sense and Sensibility, where a husband and wife scheme only half-consciously to cut their deserving relatives out of their inheritance, so they can keep a greater share of it.

Then I thought, “Maybe Clarke doesn’t love her characters enough, and her lack of involvement is triggering mine. Maybe the distance of the omniscient POV is keeping me away from them.” But there’s one line, the author speaking of Jonathan Strange — and now I wish I’d marked it — that brought me right back to a similar line of Austen’s, where she’s speaking (as I recall) of Henry Tilney, and remarks that there may be young men who can see the affection and admiration a young woman has for them without responding to it, but “I would be loathe to think my Henry among them.” That’s the omniscient author, the goddess of her creations, expressing the love she feels for one of them. That love is transmittable, and the reader shares it.

So I must believe that Clarke does love Jonathan Strange, and I built up some affection for him myself as the story went on.  Which left the question, where was my reaction coming from?  I suspect the choice of presentation.  Austen loves her heroines, and these heroines are thrown right at the reader’s head within the first couple of pages. It’s a royal command: Fall in love with them as I have! (Omniscient third is especially appropriate for royal commands, don’t you think?) One hardly feels equal to refusing. The really dislikable characters, on the other hand, are all secondary, and neither the author nor the reader has to spend much time with them.

For Clarke, it’s not about Jonathan Strange as much as it’s about the construction of this complex series of lacquer boxes — the talking statues in York cathedral with stories to tell; the journey behind the mirrors; the bits of lore from scholar-magicians in old books, presented in footnotes you can’t bear to skip. You don’t want to look away, it’s all too fascinating; but it’s not all engaging. In a way, it’s very like the novel’s view of Faerie, a place of strange attractiveness, but no heart.

And because Clarke is occupied in creating this enchanting world, her first thought isn’t to open with the life of Jonathan Strange. That would claim our emotions and our identification from the very beginning, and the entire shape of the book would be different. Her thought is instead to set us down in a little boat, and let the strong current pull us past the sights we need to see to form a view of the world. The very first sentence just gleams with the light of fairy-stories: “Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.” God, the very construction of that sentence says so much.

I think the book is a remarkable achievement. When I imagine seeing that dark cover in my bookcase someday years from now, I don’t think I’ll say to myself, “Dear Jonathan! I need to take him down and read about him again.” I think whatever warm feelings the sight of that cover calls up will be given over to the sheer wonder of the artifice — to the footnotes, the lore, the cleverness. To the author, that is, rather than to the character.

Any writer reading this will have to think which they would want more.  Remember, though — I will be re-reading it in years to come, for the nature of enchantment is that you return to it.

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