The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susanna Clarke

Above all remember this: that magic belongs as much to the heart as to the head and everything which is done, should be done from love or joy or righteous anger. (The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, p. 7)

It’s no secret that I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but even though I’ve read it several times I’ve never gotten around to The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. After watching last summer’s BBC miniseries I was reminded of just how much I love this world Susanna Clarke’s created, and I immediately bought The Ladies of Grace Adieu, but it ended up buried in my TBR and I only recently excavated it (I’m sure you can relate!).

The Ladies of Grace AdieuAt any rate, I’ve finally gotten around to reading these stories after more than ten years, and I’m so glad to have done so. Like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, they’re a wonderful mix of social satire and macabre fairies. They’re also terribly clever and wonderfully snarky. In one tale, a woman from early 19th-century England tells a story of the mediaeval Raven King’s foster father trying to find ‘a spell for turning Members of Parliament into useful members of society’ (p. 23), which he has misplaced. As with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the tale is written as though it was recorded 200 years ago, although in this case it’s framed as an entry in a modern scholarly anthology of faery myth, supposedly compiled by a professor in the alternate universe’s 21st century. The joke about MPs’ uselessness reverberates through the centuries; it’s funny to modern readers in the real world, but, references to magic excepted, snark about the inefficacy of MPs would not be out of place in an Austen novel.

In fact, several of the stories in this collection reference early nineteenth century. ‘Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower’, for instance, is told entirely through the journals (and one letter) of one man, who is not the most reliable of narrators. He describes himself as having ‘extraordinary mildness of temper’ (p. 115), yet he delights in harming a colleague’s reputation. It is, however, a format very well-suited to the time period these tales purport to be from. The epistolary novel was popular in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, used rather contradictorily to either imbue the story with a sense of verisimilitude or to take advantage of the unreliable narrator it provides. ‘Mr Simonelli’ plays with the line between fact and fiction even further. It reads as a fictional tale presented as diary entries, much like Frankenstein or Evelina, but the (fictional) introduction to the anthology makes it clear that it is, in fact, an extract from the published journals of Simonelli himself. However, that doesn’t make it factual, as Simonelli, it seems, heavily edited his journals and republished them several times over the course of his life, in order to better reflect his current worldview. And, of course, this is all wrapped up in the fact that the entire book is clearly a work of fiction. It’s a delightful exploration of fact and fiction in its own right, but it also fits in perfectly with the Regency world of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

While some tales reflect Regency-era literary and social commentary, others are much more reminiscent of fairy tales. There’s an almost primal brutality to the heroines of ‘The Ladies of Grace Adieu’ and ‘Mrs Mabb’, something dark and twisted in their actions that is also, somehow, right; the women of Grace Adieu punish a philanderer and rescue his wife, while the heroine of Mrs Mabb rescues the man she loves from the eponymous Mrs Mabb. While their actions may be justified, they show a chilling lack of remorse in a manner rather reminiscent of fairies themselves.

If you loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, don’t wait a decade like I did to pick up The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Likewise, if you loved the miniseries but are rather daunted by a thousand-page book written in 200-year-old English, this 200-page collection of short stories is a little less of a commitment. Although two of the stories include characters from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, however, you don’t need to be familiar with that story to enjoy these tales for what they are: a blend of witty and morbid stories that encapsulate human nature.

Nicola is an English Literature graduate who lives and reads in Edinburgh. She has a particular fondness for the fiction of the Regency period and for the creepy, amoral fairies of British myth.

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What Next? Wednesday: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr NorrellI remember quite vividly the first time I read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. At the age of fourteen, I was making my first forays into the adult fantasy realm, when what should fall into my lap than one of the year’s most anticipated books, set in an alternate England filled with magic? I was immediately drawn into Susanna Clarke’s world, and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell soon wormed its way into my heart and settled there.

Perhaps you’re like me, and you picked the book up more than a decade ago and have remained haunted by the phantom tolling of bells ever since. Or perhaps your introduction to the world is more recent, courtesy of the recent BBC adaptation that has brought the story to life on screen. Whether you’re new to all things Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell or you’re a veteran reader, if you’ve devoured the novel and ploughed through the companion short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, then like us you’re probably looking for more stories of nineteenth-century manners and trickster faeries. We’ve got you covered with our suggestions below.

In case you need a wee refresher:

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England–until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.

Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear

(summary from GoodReads)

Allison’s Recommendation: A Natural History of Dragons

A Natural History of DragonsIf I had to put Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell into a “genre” I’d say historical fantasy, with an alternate timeline. There aren’t many books out there that are “like” it (that I’ve read anyway!). However, if you’re looking for something with a similar tone and feel, I think A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan might work for you. Like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, A Natural History of Dragons is fantasy, but the fantastical elements (namely the dragons) aren’t super flashy. While A Natural History of Dragons isn’t technically set in Victorian England, Brennan’s Scirland is a good approximation of what you might imagine Victorian Europe seeming like if dragons were afoot, so for me it acted a lot like an “alternate history.” Brennan is a self-proclaimed “ex-academic” and her reimagining of European history is a good follow-up to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Plus, there’s sequels!

Nicola’s Recommendation: The Falconer

The FalconerIf you thought the only thing Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was missing was some kick-ass women, The Falconer is your book. Set in mid-19th-century Edinburgh, it has a more steampunk feel than Jonathan Strange, but, like Susanna Clarke, Elizabeth May weaves an alternate history where gothic faeries and real-world politics collide. Lady Aileana Kameron has the rare ability to see faeries, meaning she is the only person who saw what really killed her mother a year ago, and she is determined to avenge her mother’s death, but life, of course, is not so simple as that.

Until next time!


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.


Where Are They Now?

Every week The Broke and the Bookish hosts a fantastic feature called Top Ten Tuesday. I love lists and this week’s theme of “checking in” really spoke to me, as I seem to be feeling rather nostalgic. The ladies and B&B want to know about what characters you’d like to look in on, now that the book or series is over. So here’s my top ten musings about where my favorite characters ended up, in no particular order.

86678481. Gallowglass from Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy. I feel like Diana and Matthew’s story wrapped up pretty nicely, but I’m dying to know what Gallowglass is doing (and if I can come along). Gallowglass is a smart, sensitive bad boy with tattoos, a motorcycle and immortal life. His story seemed so unfinished at the end of The Book of Life and I’ve heard whisperings that if Harkness picked up the All Souls world again, he might be one of the main characters.

138332. Daine and Numair, from Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books. Out of all of Pierce’s Tortallan cast, I feel like their story was the most open to new adventures. Do they ever get married? What are their children like? Does Kitten (the dragon) still live with them? What can Daine do now that she’s even further along her journey as a demi-god? Does she ever see her parents? So many questions.

7719533. Elnora Comstock from Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost. Y’all know this is my favorite book of all time and I would love to know the entire story of Elnora’s life. I feel like she must have grown into such an interesting old woman. What was she like in the 20s? Did she ever cast off convention and start wearing pant in the Limberlost? Sure, I’d like to know what happens to good old Phil, but you know their marriage probably isn’t the most interesting part of whatever happens next for Elnora.

22945284. Sophie Hatter from Diana Wynne Jones Howl’s Moving Castle books. You get sneak peeks of her later in the series, but I feel like Sophie and Howl are out there having so many wonderful adventures and arguments.

 

2590355. Arabella Strange from Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The most frustrating thing in the world to me about that book is that it isn’t all about Arabella Strange. Seriously, at some point all I cared about was where she went and what happened to her. Supposedly, Clarke may write a sequel, but it’s up in the air and until then, I’m grumpily left wondering.

6. Ka13528340rou from Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. I felt like those books could have gone on for longer and I would have been very happy.

 

 

11620167. Aeriel and Erin from Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel Trilogy. Those girls were about to set off on one epic adventure at the end of The Pearl the Soul of the World. I’m dying to know if they’re more than friends and what it takes to put the world back together.

 

TheNightCircus8. Everyone from Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. This is one that I’m happy to imagine in my head, since I dream of joining the circus myself. If Morgenstern ever tells, I’ll certainly read it, but I’m happy with my daydreams.

 

418659. Everyone from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books that are not Edward and Bella. Seriously, don’t you want to know the entire backstory on Alice? Rosalie? So it’s not exactly that I want to check back in with them to know what they’re doing now, it’s that I want to know about them period.

 

323380210. This one breaks my heart a little to say, but it’s been 20 years and I fear Isobelle Carmody is never going to finish the Obernewtyn Chronicles and I love them so much. I will buy the entire series in hardcover the day that Penguin announces The Red Queen’s actual release. It will be one of the sorrows of my life if I never know what happens to Elspeth. OMG, this is making me emotional… Probably best that I’m at 10!

Who would you like to check in with most, if you could? 

Read Alyssa’s most recent Top Ten Tuesday on Spellbinding Books and Nicola’s on The Prattle of Hastings.

Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, teacher and tired cat mom. Her Colorado roots leave her in constant, open-mouthed wonder this time of year in Missouri, so if you follow her on Twitter, expect to see a lot of chatter about trees and plants. This cycle repeats in the fall.