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!).
At 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.