Sunday, January 5, 2014

A magical rendition of an alternative history


'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke is a modern Gothic entertainment that is beautifully written, imaginative and clever.

Two magicians aim to restore 'English magic' at the opening of the nineteenth century - the scholarly and timid Mr Norrell and the intuitive and courageous Jonathan Strange. They begin as teacher and pupil, descend into rivalry and 'end' as collaborators. Whilst they assist the British government in diverse ways, creating an 'alternative' history of the Napoleonic Wars as they go, by the end the government is tired of 'magic', creating, as it does, unforeseen consequences, and have begun to regulate it (undoubtedly for its own good)!

Neither Norrell nor Strange in accomplishing their magical feats are ever quite clear why what they do achieves (or fails to achieve) what happens in spite of their learning. It proves a beautiful analogy for our lives: we act in diverse ways in unacknowledged ignorance, things happen, we muddle through but the wider and deeper pattern of things often eludes us. This does not, on the whole, stop us nor (as in the case of the magicians) deflate our own sense of 'being in control', our own sense of our self importance. Except possibly at the end, as the magicians struggle to break free of their enchantment, they come face to face with a 'raven's eye' (symbol of the Raven King, mysterious originator of English magic) and are both 'seen' and find themselves, by comparison, very small. In humility might be the faint beginning of wisdom.

The book is lengthy but never loses its pace, inventiveness nor humour nor its sense of the period nor of the period rendered strange. The historical figures that emerge manage to behave precisely as they might in the face of this alternative history - Wellington putting Strange practically to work on his campaigns or Byron using the Gothic intensity of Strange's use of madness (to see Faerie) and grief (at the loss of his wife to enchantment) as matter for his poetry seen through a dispassionate, greedy eye. It, also, has a fine eye for the corroding differences of class and gender and mocks them. Nor does it ever lose a sense of its own logic. It creates a believable world that is a blending of history and the magical. It is a rare achievement.


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