Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell: Magic’s answer to Middlemarch?

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Sometimes, you encounter a book and know a copy will sit on your shelves until the end of your days. For me, ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell’ is one such book. Susanna Clarke has created an immersive alternative Regency world where the forces of magic play alongside the fortunes of the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon and Lord Byron. In reading it, I felt myself beginning to believe that England had a Raven King who had ruled the North as the magical history of England is explained through footnotes and legends as the story of the two English magicians unfolds.

As the story begins English magic is in decline (this is the age of the Enlightenment) and is studied in a purely theoretical form. The difficulty with studying magic is that the vast majority of magical books are in the keeping of one man in Yorkshire, Mr Norell. The magicians of York apply to him for assistance, and he responds with the first demonstration of magic in York’s medieval Minster. Mr Norell soon moves to London as the first practical magician in hundreds of years and his trickery means he is the only person allowed to practice magic. However, a street magician, dismissed by the crotchety Norell as an amateur makes a prophecy about the arrival of a second magician as foretold by the Raven King. The Raven King, John Uskglass, is the man credited with bringing magic to England from the faery realm. He reigned in the North of England for three hundred years, weaving magic through the kingdom. Norell’s fears about this prophecy are realised when Jonathan Strange appears, wanting to be his student. Strange has all the flair and flourish of a Romantic poet while Norell remains a fusty old man, following magical procedures to the letter, wearing his old-fashioned powdered wig and criticising Strange, most of all for his curiosity about the magic of John Uskglass. Unbeknown to Strange, Norell has his reasons for hiding fairy enchantments, and these unfold with the story.

It is a long book, and it did take me some time to read. Like a novel from the Victorian period, it does not rush at telling the story, taking its time to build Regency London around the reader. I felt it was a book to savour rather than devour, though, when I got to the end, I could quite happily have turned back to the beginning and read it again. Neil Gaiman describes it as the best work of English fantasy for seventy years. I agree that it feels like a very English book. It draws on so many themes that were present at the time, war, the Gothic, nature and Romanticism, and weaves them through the story so that if I opened an anthology of Byron’s poetry and found a poem about the madness of Jonathan Strange, I would not be surprised.

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