Saturday, October 3, 2020

REVIEW: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (book) by Susanna Clarke, illustrations by Portia Rosenberg

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is historical fantasy. I bought my copy used.


The book begins in 1806. Although England still has magicians, they are all simply theoretical magicians, endlessly discussing, writing about, and researching the topic. They occasionally discuss the loss of practical magic, but it's the existence of Mr. Norrell that really shines a light on that topic, because Mr. Norrell is rumored to be an actual practical magician. He is also generally inclined to stay at home, with his enormous library. At least until he finally decides to venture outside and restore magic to England. 

However, Mr. Norrell is very particular about how he'd like magic to be restored. He believes that he is the only one fit to practice it, and his ideas about magic are the only ones fit to be in print. He manages to make most of England's theoretical magicians abandon their studies and becomes determined to be England's most important (and only) practical magician, aiding his country in the Napoleonic Wars. In his desire to gain the right connections, he does something that seems wondrous at first but gradually becomes a terrible act that affects multiple people's lives.

Approximately 100 pages into this, Jonathan Strange is finally introduced, and approximately 100 pages after that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell finally meet. A bit of carelessness on Mr. Norrell's part has resulted in Strange being England's second practical magician, and he eventually becomes Mr. Norrell's student. He's a very different sort of person and magician: better able to make friends and relate to others, and more willing to adapt and try new magic.

Although Strange and Norrell initially get along well enough (Norrell admires Strange and Strange puts up with Norrell), the differences in their personalities and approaches to magic, as well as Norrell's secrets, eventually drives a wedge between them. Their story eventually becomes the story of English magic.

I've had this book in my collection for several years but was too daunted by its length and reviews talking about its imitation of 19th century literary style to try it until now. It seemed like most reviews bringing up the book's style focused on its spellings (like "chuse" instead of "choose"), but that was less of an issue for me than its wordiness and large quantities of footnotes that didn't necessarily add anything to the primary story. 

Readers who fall in love with the book's world may enjoy all those footnotes - the do give Strange and Norrell's world a sense of depth and history. However, I generally found them to be a chore, and I eventually decided that they took away from my enjoyment of the story because they prompted me to think about the things Clarke was not writing about. The footnotes mentioned magic-related folkore and history but never once brought up science, a topic I had a hard time not thinking about when, say, Strange moved whole cities and natural features and made rivers flow backwards and didn't always bother to put things back the way they originally were.

It was clear that readers weren't really supposed to like Mr. Norrell. He hoarded books on magic in order to keep others from reading them and tried to make himself the only authority on English magic. Even though he respected and admired Strange, he tried to keep limits on him. His dealings with a faerie gentleman caused great harm, completely altering multiple people's lives, all so that he could get the right political connections. But I didn't particularly like Strange, either. He was arrogant and never stopped to consider the possible unintended consequences of his magic. Even when others told him some of the consequences and asked him to take more care, he continued to do as he pleased and never became more thoughtful in his actions. I couldn't help but think that Strange and Norrell's world would have been better off without them. 

There were several characters I cared about enough to worry over: Stephen Black, Lady Pole, and eventually Arabella Strange. It wasn't necessarily because I liked the characters themselves - with the exception of Stephen, they weren't really that interesting - but rather because none of them deserved the things that happened to them simply because they were near Norrell and Strange's magical orbits. Although I suppose the book ended well enough, I was ultimately left feeling hollow and vaguely disappointed. 

At one point I'd wanted to watch the miniseries, but I think reading this may have killed that desire off - I might have been better off watching it first, but then I might not have had the willpower to finish the whole book. At any rate, I'm glad to finally be done with this. It probably would have worked better for me if several hundred pages had been edited out. All of the extra stories that had little or nothing to do with the primary story could easily have been published as additional stories set in the same world. As it was, reading this book felt too much like being encouraged to skim - after a certain point I realized I was better off not paying attention to every word and footnote and that it wasn't even all that necessary.


  1. Your review brings back memories! Years ago, when this book came out, I heard good things about it and also a lot of "It's so slow, I couldn't get into it." Since I had a 45 minute to 1 hour commute, I bought the book as an audiobook and listened to it on the way to work. I think it was much easier to sit back and let the author taker time when you're "reading" with your ears. Congrats on sticking with it. I don't know if I would have.

    1. Ooh yes, this probably would have worked much better in audio - I listen while at work, and with this book it wouldn't have mattered if I couldn't give it 100% of my attention. I passed audio by because I thought the footnotes would make paper a better option, but I wish I'd switched to it after realizing that the footnotes generally didn't matter much.