Saturday, 21 May 2016

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - The Finest English Novel

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me …

Dressed in an oriental robe and a white skin-suit scribbled all over with the predictions of a medieval English magician, I cried out those lines in a fit of madness. 





I was playing Vinculus, a character in the amazing, intriguing and compelling book called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. A group of 10 of us, all lovers of this 1000 page (if you include the copious footnotes) work of magical fiction, had gathered together to enact, discuss and explore this amazing achievement. Acting out a huge piece of fantasy is not as daunting as it may seem; the same group of people have acted out Tolkien’s work and all of Homer’s, using a three day period to do so. In that time, we eat, dress and sleep the book in question. 

 Susanna Clarke writes about her invented world with such ease; it’s easy to believe England could really be like this – filled with magic and romance. It has been described as  'Harry Potter for grownups’ but that really does not do this eloquent and momentous work justice, although adults who adored Harry Potter will be impressed with the rich characterization and the great finale to the story.

Clarke has a flair for language, utilising the right words at all the right moments. She chose for her style an emulation of Jane Austin, (including archaic spellings). Some passages made me laugh aloud – Austin was funny, and here is another layer spread upon that ironic wit. 

I’m not alone in loving the book; Neil Gaiman said,  Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years. It's funny, moving, scary, otherworldly, practical and magical...

This was Clarke's first book, although she’d prepared the ground by writing some short stories set in her parallel universe – a world that has the same history as our own, except for the fact that England was once filled with magic and magicians, and the North of England was ruled separately, by the Raven King – John Uskglass – a man who had been spirited away to fairyland as a child and returned full of fairy magic.

Ready to dance till dawn
 at the Fairy Ball in the kingdom of Lost Hope
But all that was centuries ago. When the book starts in1806, England is struggling with the Napoleonic war, and practical magic has faded into the nation's past – now magic is only studied ‘theoretically’.  But two of these students discover that Mr Norrell can really do magic. He’s studied the books all his life, and his displays of magic lead him, and his mysterious servant, John Childermass, from the north of the country to the bustling city of London. After he successfully brings a beautiful woman back from the dead and  terrifies the French army with a fleet of ghostly ships, he is taken to the bosom of the rich and fashionable. Gilbert Norrell is dedicated to book-learning and he's trying desperately to ignore and forget that in raising Lady Pole from the dead, he has awaken an amoral fairy king, who is now strutting around our world, enchanting people. When Jonathan Strange, the 2nd magician in the prophecy emerges, a dangerous battle of wills begins. Strange is young, dashing and daring, and not at all interested in only learning magic from books. While Norell,  a reclusive and cautious man,  is trying to get rid of any taint of dangerous fairy magic, Strange is actively bringing it back. He has no idea what a menace the fairy king posses, especially to his own lovely wife.

I was soon hooked on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell the first time I read it, even though you need to get through at least the first 200 pages to even begin to see where the plot is going. Reading it again for the weekend event made me love it even more. All its depth and humour and the true cleverness of the carefully crafted plot became even more clear. One thing I really loved was the vast history of magic Clarke invents for England. Long after I finished it, I was still thinking about the menacing settings,  the wonderful characters, the brilliant narrative development and the history she creates.

Of course, I also watched the TV series, now available both in the UK and the US to watch again.  Bertie Carvel who plays Jonathan Strange so well, said; I read it years ago and loved it … They've preserved the scale and majesty of the story … So you have credible, fully imagined characters recognisably of the same world we inhabit.  Paul Kaye, who played my chosen character in the film said, I read the book and loved it. It sort of obsessed me for a while and I felt an affinity with what turned out to be my character, Vinculus. I found the footnotes addictive! If there wasn't one on the next page I would be disappointed

You can watch the TV adaptation at:

US; http://www.bbcamerica.com/shows/jonathan-strange-and-mr-norrell

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