Book Review – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

jonathan strange mr norrell - book coverOne of my friends back in college recommended Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to me so I went ahead and bought a copy but with all the reading I already had to do for my literature classes, I didn’t have the time or motivation to start such a long book and it went into my massive To Read pile. Then last year BBC America started advertising their miniseries adaptation of the novel. Since I had a vacation coming up and would be spending many hours in the car—prime reading time—I decided it was the perfect time to tackle the book and thought I’d have it finished in time to watch the show. I quickly found myself bogged down by the pacing of the novel and ended up sidelining it, reading a chapter here and there between other books but after almost a full year, I’ve finally finished Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

At the start of the nineteenth century, men of leisure in England are looking for new areas of study to explore and the illustrious history of English magic finds new life as Mr Norrell appears on the scene as the first practical magician in an age. But Mr Norrell is a bit possessive and controlling when it comes to magic. He hoards books of magic in his massive library, bars others from attempting to practice magic or call themselves magicians, and controls what magical theory is published—until Jonathan Strange stumbles into magic. Younger and with little knowledge of magical theory or history, Mr Norrell actually agrees to teach and work with Strange but he is still restrictive in what he will allow Strange to learn—a practice which begins to sow resentment between the pupil and his mentor until they eventually part ways and turn antagonistic towards one another. All through this, a faerie, initially summoned by Mr Norrell for assistance, intervenes with people in the two magicians’ lives to general misery without detection. Efforts to countermand the faerie’s enchantments may require the two magicians overcome their enmity and work together again.

There is much in the novel that I might have found truly interesting if the pacing weren’t such and unexpected issue for me. At the same time, I don’t know that it is entirely a matter of pacing. In some ways I find Clarke’s prose style tedious—it fails to hold my attention the same way Thomas Hardy’s prose style does. Whether it was the prose or the pacing, I ultimately found the book more tedious than the story was compelling. I was disappointed to find so few female characters and to find the few that were present in the text to play such passive roles. Among the male characters, there weren’t many I found interesting or particularly engaging—several of them, in fact, I found myself confusing for one another at many turns. I didn’t find the overall plot to be strong enough to carry the weight of so many narrative tangents.

The aspect of the story that kept me going was the debate over, what amounted to, censorship. Mr Norrell begins the story with a monopoly on English magic—its past and future, its theory and practical application. He goes out of his way to ensure no one but him will have access to any books of magic, that no one will print anything about magic that he hasn’t first approved, and urging those with the power to denounce as frauds anyone he doesn’t personally consider to be a magician. When Jonathan Strange comes along and seeks an education, Mr Norrell realizes how freeing it can be to have someone to share magic with, but he is still restrictive and controlling and it ultimately causes the pair to rupture. Mr Norrell insists his requirements/control is necessary to protect magic from people who would misuse it and people from the harm that a lack of understanding can inflict—though in many ways, their lack of understanding is because he won’t educate them in the first place. When magic becomes an analogy for other topics, the debate presented is a familiar and relevant one. Where do the rights of individuals end in order to protect others? Who has the right to say what is appropriate or safe and who should be responsible for enforcing it? How? The parallels between Mr Norrell’s methods and intent and those of the dictatorial and capricious faerie gentlemen can’t be ignored, nor can the fact that in some of his fears and predictions, Mr Norrell proves right.

There’s just so much about the novel that I feel could have been tightened or trimmed to improve the flow—a number of scenes that seemed unnecessarily repetitious (many of the scenes with Stephen Black and the faerie were painfully repetitive); additional female characters wouldn’t be unwelcome either, especially if they were given more to do. I’m not sure that I’ll actually try to watch the miniseries adaptation now that I’m finally through the book, though it might be interesting to see where they chose to streamline the narrative.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

  1. Azura says:

    the book had an interesting idea going for it (magic is real and was used during the Napoleon Wars) but the writing was tedious. I started reading the book because the BBC adaptation was good but found the book dull.

    • Lauryn E. Nosek says:

      Yes! Excellent concept—wonderfully developed and thought out/plotted—but the execution left so much to be desired. 90% of the stuff with the silver-haired fairy was repetitious and I just stopped caring about the characters (and once that happened, they started blending together). I’ve heard mixed things about the BBC adaptation. I’ll probably see it eventually but I’m not going to go out of my way to get my hands on a copy so I can watch it.

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