Susanna Clarke, 2004
the thirty‐first book in the visitor
suggested by Adam Leigh, Saira, and Cora
I think that pretty much everything I have to say about this book is already covered by my list of evaluative patterns, so let’s fire up the ol’ Pattern‐O‐Matic™ and see what it says:
Pretty self‐explanatory, but for the sake of getting this article to a respectable size, let’s spell it out. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell takes place in a world in which the magical realm of Faerie not only is a real dimension adjoining our own but even controlled northern England in the late medieval period. Now it’s the early nineteenth century, and the links between the dimensions seem to have been sundered. Magic hasn’t worked in centuries. No one denies that it once did—that’s a matter of historical record—but while it is still studied by a handful of amateur scholars, it is never performed. Until a crotchety hermit who has amassed the world’s premier magical library brings every statue in York Cathedral to life.
Pattern 38, near the smiley face, says that one of the things I most look for in a narrative is the integration of multiple story ideas. Back in my IF‐writing days I had a bunch of ideas for games, but it took several of those ideas to create one finished product. “Ruthless protagonist uses underhanded tricks to dispatch rivals”, “player monitors several dozen rooms via hidden closed‐circuit cameras”, “Renaissance politics plus modern technology”, and “setting increasingly choked by green glop” were originally intended for four separate games, but they came together to become Varicella. “Big Lebowski‐style wackiness in Las Playas”, “early moves determine which of several different storylines will unfold over the same set of locations”, and “as many different authors as possible contribute dream sequences, none of them knowing anything about the main game, because the dreams are random, not symbolic” were originally intended for three separate games, but they came together to become Narcolepsy. Etc. In JS&MN, Susanna Clarke weaves together at least three major storylines:
- the rivalry between the title characters (interpersonal drama)
- the abduction and imprisonment in a dark corner of Faerie of several
of the title characters’ associates by an epicurean fairy aristocrat
- the effect of the rediscovery of magic on the world, particularly as it reshapes the Napoleonic Wars (alternate history)
As for that alternate history, Patterns 14 and 39 both touch on aspects of copiousness: the former praises authors who thoroughly think through their premises, while the latter reminds authors that their job is to generate content, not the illusion of content. Clarke, flirting with the 1000‐page mark, is exemplary on both counts. The text is rich with references to incidents from the history of England under Faerie and of Faerie itself, to scholarship about magic and actual spellbooks, to the backstories of the characters… and then the footnotes actually relate the hinted‐at historical anecdotes in their entirety, and present passages from those magazine articles and even from the spellbooks. The world‐building here is as deep as you could realistically ask for in a single volume, especially given that it couldn’t just be invented from scratch but had to be integrated with real‐world history.
That brings us to Pattern 33, which says that I’m drawn to the uncanny valley between realism and fantasy: I like my real‐world stories to be full of people with extraordinary qualities and abilities, and my fantasy stories to be treated naturalistically, with careful attention to mundane detail. There are various ways to satisfy this pattern, and JS&MN’s approach is one of them. It reads like a historical novel, and Pattern 24 says that I like those—or, rather, that I like geographically and chronologically grounded narratives in general. This one is so committed to staying chronologically grounded that Clarke actually uses the orthographic conventions of the period, so that characters are frequently surprized by what other characters chuse to shew them. Unfortunately, on the geographical side, the book runs afoul of Pattern 23, as it is very, very English, which I generally find alienating. But that pattern is mitigated by the fact that the book is about an England transformed into an alien place, criss‐crossed by fairy roads and ruled by raven kings. I found that a more comfortable setting to spend time in than the version with A‐levels, triangular sandwich packets, and people who think that compasses point “norf”.
Along with the multiple story threads come multiple tones. One of my early notes was that the novel was charming, and Pattern 1 appears in the Pattern‐O‐Matic™’s readout because I initially bookmarked a number of wryly amusing sentences. For instance, when the fairy aristocrat uses the overlap between dimensions to make a room in his own castle appear in an English lord’s house, Clarke has her narrator relate how the butler “supposed the gentleman must be a guest of Sir Walter’s or Lady Pole’s—which explained the gentleman, but not the room. Gentlemen are often invited to stay in other people’s houses. Rooms hardly ever are.” But it’s not all Late Georgian dry wit. The magic feels genuinely magical—I’ve heard people argue that the world as we perceive it no more captures what the universe is “really” like than the desktop of an operating system captures what’s really going on inside a computer, and in this book the magic feels less like a source of superpowers (here’s a spell to make me invisible! here’s a spell to make me fly!) than like a way to hack reality at a level we don’t normally see. For the most part this is great, but it is also the reason that Pattern 37 pops up: the passages that reflect a character’s lost grip on reality also lose me.
And since I feel like I should probably make at least one point that isn’t just a matter of rehashing my patterns page, I guess I’ll say this. There are works—a lot of the best interactive fiction falls into this category—that are much more satisfying to have finished than to be in the middle of: they’re fascinating to think back on, but frustrating to play. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is sort of the opposite. I really enjoyed it while I was reading it, but when I was done, I did wonder whether it was about anything other than its own world‐building. And I think what might end up sticking with me the longest is the thread about the fairy aristocrat and the butler who makes the mistake of winning his favor. The aristocrat is certainly a villain, who cheerfully does any number of despicable things, but ironically, it is his attempt to perform a series of boons for the butler that demonstrates the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw’s objection to the Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” The aristocrat honestly thinks that he’s doing the butler a great service by keeping him ensorcelled, giving him the gift of an honored place in what he considers a far superior realm, but which the butler considers a species of hell. It’s hard to miss the parallel to those who have felt like they’ve done the benighted populations of the world a great service by imposing upon them the gift of a type of civilization few of those people have actually wanted.