Historical Fantasy: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

BBC America has announced that their adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will air in 2015. Naturally, I thought we’d better recommend the book to you, before the seven part series gets started.

259035I read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell two years ago, during one of the most hectic, frustrating times in my life. My husband was living in another state, we were selling our Denver condo and Spring semester was ending. To say I was stressed is an understatement. Yet, somehow Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a monster of a book, gave me an escape. Clarke’s novel, is long. Very, very long. At 846 pages it will take a while for anyone to read, but adding to that, the text cannot be skimmed easily. No, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a book that should be read slowly and carefully.

Perhaps this complexity is the reason people have had a hard time pinning the book to one genre. Some say historical fiction, others fantasy, but truly, it’s such a unique book I’m going to try to avoid putting it in one category. I think fans of British fantasy and fans of historical fiction alike will enjoy this book. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is set in an alternate timeline, in 19th century England, during the Napoleonic wars. At the start of the books, it is believed that magic has disappeared from England until Mr Gilbert Norrell reveals himself to The Learned Society of York Magicians.

Until Mr Norrell admits to his abilities, the Society believes that magic is largely theoretical and that no real magic has been done in England for hundreds of years. They are somewhat bemused by Norrell’s claims, especially when he gains celebrity, surpassing them quickly. Norrell’s self-imposed reclusivity and his tendency to hoard magical knowledge isn’t very popular. When Jonathan Strange, another practicing magician comes onto 760690the scene, Norrell is perplexed and agitated. The story follows their rivalry and eventual friendship (though I’m never certain “friendship” is the right word for their relationship — “friendly adversaries” might be more accurate).

For me, this part of the story was just alright. It was interesting and Clarke’s storytelling ability is engaging and her worldbuilding is believable, but it was the sub-plot of “the gentlemen with the thistledown hair” and his relationship with Emma Wintertowne (later Lady Poole) and Strange’s wife, Arabella that really intrigued me. Woven into what is essentially an alternate timeline/historical fiction novel is a story that digs deep into the mysteries of English fairy lore.

For fantasy fans, there isn’t a lot of flashy magic going on in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.  Though those interested in fairies will find themselves quite satisfied, as Clarke’s rendition of Faerie is well-developed. Fans of alternate-timeline historical fiction, will most likely enjoy this book, due to the fact that it is entirely well-researched, and if you can suspend your disbelief the idea that magicians could affect the outcomes of global politics is engaging. Additionally, the footnotes are a little joy to readers who want to know more about Clarke’s world, which is good, because the book ends on something of a cliffhanger (from my perspective) and there’s no sequel (as yet).

Clarke has written a book of short stories entitled, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories and some of the same ideas and characters from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are carried over into these stories (I haven’t read this collection, btw). I would love to see a sequel or companion novel that focused more on Arabella Strange, but for now, we’ll have to be satisfied with the television show. Here’s a clip of the full trailer to whet your appetite.

Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, a teacher and a maker of excellent fairy food. Say hi on Twitter.

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One thought on “Historical Fantasy: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

  1. I loved this book; I’m so excited for the miniseries!

    Thfootnotes are an interesting touch, and I do wonder how they’ll incorporate them into the TV series.

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