Saturday, 27 September 2008

Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

On a purely personal level, England sometimes does seem like a magical place to me, in the sense that certain places, certain landscapes resonate with me in ways I can’t quite account for. Dark winter woods are just as creepy as they ever were — and you’re just as likely to get lost in them.

- Susanna Clarke

Every so often, a novel comes along which so completely captivates you that you have to limit your consumption, so as not to read it all in one massive, gluttonous go. At thirteen, I devoured The Lord of the Rings, a novel which fails to thrill me in the same way at twenty-seven.

LOTR was also a seminal influence on Susanna Clarke, author of the monumental, international bestseller Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Her magnum opus is, as Neil Gaiman tells us, 'unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years'. High praise indeed, coming from such a quarter. Combining the ironic drawing-room comedy of Jane Austen with macabre fairy magic, it is absolutely sui generis.

The plotting and characterisation are both masterful, but it is the setting that gives the novel its capacity to entrance, and which I want to discuss here. Simply put, the novel is set in an alternative early 19th century England. In the imagined history of this other England, during the Middle Ages magic worked. Medieval England was divided into two countries: Southern England, with its capital at London, ruled by the kings with whom we are all familiar, and Northern England, which was ruled for over four hundred years by a magician-king, the mysterious John Uskglass. Also known as 'The Raven King', he was a human being raised by fairies, here in their disturbing, folklore guise, quite unadulterated by Victorian prettiness. But sometime in the late 15th century, the Raven King left England for reasons of his own, and magic began to fade. (We learn that Northern England was not his only kingdom; he also had a kingdom in Faerie, and a third kingdom reputed to lie on the far side of Hell.) By the time the novel begins, the study of magic is an entirely learned pursuit, the province of dusty pedants and enthusiastic gentleman-amateurs, divorced from any practical attempt to use it. It is the world of Pride and Prejudice, brilliantly pastiched, but with this one, vital twist.

Clarke's 800-page book is, in essence, the story of the return of 'English Magic', at the hands of two practical magicians: the bookish, pedantic and secretive Mr Norrell, and his younger pupil, and later rival, the dashing, arrogant and charming Jonathan Strange.*

The first time I read the novel, I found myself gallopping through the plot wanting to know what happens to its enormously varied cast of characters. There is gentle, wise Arabella, Jonathan Strange's wife, who is abducted into Faerie by the sinister 'Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair', and who is forced to dance all night through dank corridors filled with bones and rotting standards, to the mournful scraping of a single fiddle. (Clarke is particularly good at capturing the eerie, unsettling quality of English folktales and weaving it into her plot.) There is Mr Norrell's Yorkshire servant Childermass, with his face 'like a twisted root' who knows much more about magic than he lets on. Then there is the young and beautiful Emma Wintertowne, later Lady Pole, whom Mr Norrell succeeds in raising from the dead, at a terrible cost. ('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 on the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.') And indeed there are many more, even before Lord Byron, George III, Pitt the Younger, and the Duke of Wellington (in a splendid, brisk portrait) make appearances.

The level of detail of Clarke's alternative past - and of the past of her alternative past - astound. As one reads, the novel's many pseudo-academic footnotes and charming miniatures gradually build up a picture of the history of English Magic, which is, as the Time reviewer said, 'a melancholy, macabre thing, confabulated out of snow and rain and mirrors and described with absolute realism...' The narrator, incidentally, is never indentified, but seems to me to be a woman, and to be writing about 20 or so years after the events, so around 1828. (I constantly got the impression that she might resemble Austen's Lizzie Bennet, were the latter a skilled magician - a bizarre thought.)

Clarke perfectly combines the early 19th century social milieu with the magical, and in this her period spellings ('chuse', 'shew', 'sopha') and sparse punctuation help enormously. 800 pages give you a lot of room for leisurely detail, after all. Take, for example, this passage:

'Mr Norrell rose every day to new heights of public greatness and an enterprising printmaker called Holland who had a print-shop in St Paul's Churchyard was inspired to commission an engraving of him to be sold in the shop. The engraving shewed Mr Norrell in the company of a young lady, scantily dressed in a loose smock. A great quantity of stiff, dark material swirled and coiled about the young lady's body without ever actually touching it and, for the further embellishment of her person, she wore a crescent moon tucked in among the tumbling locks of her hair. She had taken Mr Norrell (who appeared entirely astonished by the proceedings) by the arm and was energetically pulling him up a flight of stairs and pointing in a most emphatic manner towards a lady of mature years who sat at the top. The lady of mature years was attired like the young lady in smock and draperies, with the handsome addition of a Roman helmet on her head; she appeared to be weeping in a most uninhibited fashion, while an elderly lion, her only companion, lay at her feet with a gloomy expression upon his countenance. This engraving, entitled The Spirit of English Magic urges Mr Norrell to the Aid of Britannia, was an immense success and Mr Holland sold almost seven hundred copies in a month.'

Like the novel as a whole, this vignette betrays a great deal of enjoyable research on Clarke's part, underpinning both the style and content. (She's obviously sat and looked at a lot of political engravings from the first decades of the 1800s). A large section of the novel takes place in Spain and Portugal, after the Cabinet has dispatched Jonathan Strange to offer what help he may to the Duke of Wellington in the war against Napoleon. Clarke relishes the opportunity to go all Bernard Cornwell here, depicting the Peninsular War with tremendous gusto and realism. (Magic notwithstanding.) Again, this is clearly the product of very careful research, and it comes off brilliantly.

As one reads, one longs to know more of Clarke's imagined 'Aureate' magicians - the greatest of whom was the Raven King - who included Thomas Godbless, Ralph Stokesey, and Catherine of Winchester, and of the lesser, 'Argentine' magicians who followed them. Their names, careers and volumes are illuminated only incrementally, through a tangle of footnotes and donnish references, which give the whole imagined past of the novel an uncanny verisimilitude. (Of course Dr Martin Pale was the last Englishman to venture willingly into Faerie, sometime in the 1550s - who else could it have been?) One feels by the end of the novel as though one is the only person in Britain not to have grown up with a copy of Lord Portishead's A Child's History of the Raven King. Chapter 38 consists of an article, by Jonathan Strange, in The Edinburgh Review of January 1815, and this provides an opportunity for Clarke to show off (or shew off) her mastery of the style, and how good she is at mysterious details:

'Everyone has heard of the four magical woods that surrounded JOHN USKGLASS's capital city of Newcastle. Their names were Great Tom, Asmody's Citadel, Petty Egypt and Serlo's Blessing. They moved from place to place and were known, upon occassion, to swallow up people who approached the city intending harm to the inhabitants. Certainly the notion of man-eating woods strikes us as eerie and horrible, but there is no evidence that JOHN USKGLASS's contemporaries found it so. It was a violent Age: JOHN USKGLASS was a mediaeval king and he acted as a mediaeval king should, to protect his city and his citizens.
Often it is difficult to decide upon the morality of USKGLASS's actions because his motives are so obscure. Of all the AUREATE magicians, he is the most mysterious. No one knows why in 1138 he caused the moon to disappear from the sky and made it travel through all the lakes and rivers of England. We do not know why in 1202 he quarrelled with Winter and banished it from his kingdom, so that for four years Northern England enjoyed continual Summer. Nor do we know why for thirty consecutive nights in May and June of 1345 every man, woman and child in the kingdom dreamt that they had been gathered together upon a dark red plain beneath a pale golden sky to build a tall black tower. Each night they laboured, waking in the morning in their own beds completely exhasuted. The dream only ceased to trouble them when, on the thirtieth night, the tower and its fortifications were completed. In all these stories - but particularly in the last - we have a sense of great events going on, but what they might be we cannot tell. Several scholars have speculated that the tall black tower was situated in that part of Hell which USKGLASS was reputed to lease from LUCIFER and that USKGLASS was building a fortress in order to prosecute a war against his enemies in Hell. Howver, MARTIN PALE thought otherwise. He believed there was a connexion between the construction of the tower and the appearance in England three years later of the Black Death. JOHN USKGLASS's kingdom of Northern England suffered a good deal less that its southern neighbour and PALE believed that this was because USKGLASS had constructed some sort of defence against it.'

We long to find out the back-stories to them, as to so much else in the novel, which suggests itself to the imagination but is not made explicit.

I really don't know how Clarke does it - she makes her imaginative choices seem inevitable, as though one had heard of them long ago but had simply forgotten. Tiny details - such as the custom that successful magicians, upon being acclaimed for some great feat, were crowned always only in chaplets of honest English ivy - seem absolutely apt. It all seems so...natural. You end up wondering how on earth you missed hearing the tale of 'The Master of Nottingham's Daughter' as a child, or learning of the Mage of Athodel (a lost Hebridean island), or how you neglected to read that Grantham (...where else!?) was once burnt to ashes by a phoenix. As a result, when I watched Sense and Sensibility the other day, I couldn't get over the feeling that something was missing. Where were the magicians?!

Clarke is a master of the disquieting detail, and has clearly learned the lessons of Angela Carter well. A book in Mr Norrell's library at Hurtfew Abbey is called How to Put Questions to the Dark and Understand its Answers. A Faerie ball in the dismal kingdom of Lost Hope gives Clarke the opportunity to parody all those Jane Austen dancing scenes, in which young men and women say witty things to each other whilst swirling round in candlelit rooms dressed in breeches and taffeta. A character named Stephen Black, who is close to being the novel's hero, dances with a series of beautiful faerie-women, one of whom wears 'a wig of shining beetles that swarmed and seethed upon her head.' A second wears 'a gown the colour of storms, shadows and rain, and a necklace of broken promises and regrets.' A third 'complained bitterly whenever Stephen's hand happened to brush against her gown; she said it put her gown off its singing; and, when Stephen looked down, he saw that her gown was indeed covered with tiny mouths which opened and sang a little tune in a series of high, eerie notes.' Tales of abducted children, child-murder and so on, are liberally sprinkled in the footnotes. When, in Spain, Jonathan Strange revives the corpses of some Neapolitan soldiers so that Wellington may question them, they start speaking in a language 'that contained a much higher proportion of screams' than any language known to the onlookers. The Duke of Wellington asks what they are speaking. 'I believe it is one of the dialects of Hell', replies Strange, unsettlingly.

Further, almost all the plot takes place in the winter, and much of it in dark, snowy woods. Clarke is brilliantly good at evoking the English landscape - Ted Hughes' 'wraith-rain pulsing across purple-bare hills' is a phrase just made for her novel. 'English Magic' turns out to be intimately linked with the English landscape - Jonathan Strange's great, deranging discovery is that all that seems inanimate is in fact communicating ('Tree speaks to stone; stone speaks to water; it is not so difficult as we had supposed') and that it is bound via ancient oaths to the Raven King. (It is this link between magic and nature that made me dismiss the idea that Clarke's 'English Magic' might be a metaphor for industrialisation.) The very earth of England speaks, though Mr Norrell, in his bookishness, resists this knowledge:

'...[T]he next thing to haunt Mr. Norrell’s imagination were the wide, cold puddles that were thickly strewn across every field. As the carriage passed along the road each puddle became a silver mirror for the blank, winter sky. To a magician there is very little difference between a mirror and a door. England seemed to be wearing thin before his eyes. He felt as if he might pass through any of those mirror-doors and find himself in one of the other worlds which once bordered upon England. Worse still, he was beginning to think that other people might do it. The Sussex landscape began to look uncomfortably like the England described in the old ballad:

This land is all too shallow
It is painted on the sky
And trembled like the wind-shook rain
When the Raven King passed by

For the first time in his life Mr. Norrell began to feel that perhaps there was too much magic in England.'

So. I'm aware that I've written a gushing appreciation here rather than a review, with a bit of the fanboy's geeky love of detail. A selection of insightful press reviews can be read here, but I really would urge you to read this novel, and if you have read it, to let me know what you thought. (I remember waiting impatiently for my mother to read it so that we could discuss it). Clarke's 'English Magic', in its perfect realism and imaginative density, feels like something one has always known; her novel emerges as a deep meditation on the nature of Englishness itself, and the place of nostaligia in the national psyche. It's no coincidence that her rainy, frost-bound landscapes echo those of the earliest English poems, such as The Wanderer. 'English Magic' is also exclusive; there is no 'French Magic', or 'German Magic' in the novel. Magic flows only from the mysterious compact between England and Faerie, filling up 'the wood and the wold' with its eerie dislocations and disquieting miracles. In brief, Neil Gaiman's assessment of this remarkable achievement is, in my opinion, nothing short of the truth.

* * *

* JS&MN is currently in preproduction from New Line Cinema, with Clarke as an executive producer. I've cast it all in my head, of course. Mr Norrell is clearly meant to be played by Ian Holm; The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair might do well played by Jonathan Rhys Myers, were it not for the fact that he is a quite appallingly bad actor; for Jonathan Strange, David Wenham is about right: Simon Woods is a bit young. For the Raven King himself, Hans Matheson.


June C said...

I am looking through the internet for commentary on JS&MN in order to prepare for an assignment in a graduate course on Menippean Satire. I found your blog-post which exactly mirrored my impression. We just finished with Gargantuan and Pantagruel in our class and the parallels are unmistakable. Now to convince my professor.

June C said...

I have been poking around the internet looking for scholarly writing on JS&MN. Your blog-post reflects my pleasure in finding this book (I had to buy an audio version so my family could experience it on a long road trip). I especially appreciate your comparison to the atmosphere of Old English poetry- The Ruin seems to be linked in my mind also.

Bo said...

Glad you enjoyed it!

Miss Jess said...

You must have been writing this at the same time as I was writing my mini-thesis for my creative arts degree - 4,000 words on the way Susanna Clarke achieved verisimilitude in the novel (and I had a great deal of difficulty keeping to the word limit). JS&MN is my absolute favourite book and I have re-read it every year since - I even had to buy another copy so that I could leave my hundreds of post-its in my first copy. Thank you for your thoughtful article, I think you have really hit on the tone of the book with the words 'disquieting' and 'unsettling'. It is so very, gloriously, so!

By the way it looks like the film adaptation has fallen through - but I had hoped for Benedict Cumberbatch for Strange and Paul Bettany for The Gentleman. Ian Holm goes without saying!

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