Life in England must be hell on earth. How else to explain the huge number of fantasy authors who hail from its shores? While America has produced sci-fi authors focused on the application of technology for the betterment (or detriment) of humanity, many British authors seem to value nothing more than a headlong flight from this world into another. J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Neil Gaiman have all made themselves rich and famous by running away. Joining this exodus from reality is Susanna Clarke and her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is being billed as a Harry Potter for adults.
Ten years in the writing, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a fantasy novel about two magicians—the wizard kind, not the Siegfried & Roy variety. Clarke has created a magic so plain and practical that even the most fantasy-averse reader would find it not unacceptable. As one character huffs, “Do not speak to me of magic! It is just like everything else, full of setbacks and disappointments.”
Set in Regency England, Jonathan Strange is a Dickens pastiche marinated in early-19th-century British literature until it swells to epic proportions (782 pages). A combination of historical research and pure fancy, the novel has 185 footnotes tucked into its margins, representing a mountain of unlikely scholarship fabricated by the author. It’s a deft way to convey major backstory, which goes, much simplified, as follows: A Golden Age of English magic in the Tudor period saw fantastic feats of thaumaturgy performed by humans with the assistance of fairies. Since then, the practice has declined until no one knows how to do it anymore, and fairies—nasty creatures, whimsical to the point of psychosis—have entirely disappeared. Enter Mr. Norrell, a Yorkshire gentleman who is the only practical magician in England, and a stuffy prig to boot. He and his vast library move to London, where he attempts to bring about a rebirth of English magic, lending the occasional pinkie finger to England’s war with the French. Norrell quickly becomes the focus of a national craze, surrounded by sycophants, and buffeted by the unpredictable tides of society.
Then Jonathan Strange appears. A country squire with the instincts of a dilettante who picks up magic with a natural ease, Strange becomes Norrell’s student and friend. But he’s vulgarly curious and, much to Norrell’s dismay, he wants to summon fairy servants, whom Norrell regards as mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
While the book is ostensibly about magic, it has more important concerns, like manners and class. At one point, Lord Wellington asks Strange whether a magician can kill a man with magic. Strange replies, “I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could.” It’s this unexpected turn of mind that disarms the reader, convincing him to get lost in the story.
The joys of simply telling a story have, somehow, become the exclusive province of genre fiction, and the fantasy label allows the author to give full flight to her imagination. Her language can be simultaneously literal and metaphorical (when a character steals a kiss it’s treated like an actual theft), which is something Anglo authors rarely get to do in literary fiction without sounding like they’re poaching on magic-realism territory.
The book’s major defect is that the narrative drive jostles disconcertingly with the novel’s sherry-dry, Jane Austen tone. The result of this disjuncture is a weird stasis in the first 400 pages of the book. Things do happen—fairies spirit humans away to their bleak houses, the dead are resurrected, the French are fought—but the author’s gentle tone is so lulling that the creation of a phantom British fleet seems to carry the same dramatic heft as the list of attendees at a monumental dinner party in Norrell’s honor. About 200 pages from the end, the gears catch and the book takes off in ways one couldn’t predict, but for the first chunk only the awareness that Strange and Norrell are going to fall out (the back cover tells us so) reminds the reader that he’s reading a sweeping epic, rather than a domestic novel.
But an entertaining story is so rare that anything short of a major crime is forgivable. Clarke gives her theme away in the title: She’s writing about a friendship between two men. It is a meeting of like minds, and while their bond is sorely tested, it is never shattered. The problem here is that Clarke sets so many fascinating characters scuttling across her stage that when the time comes to wrap things up, many of them get unceremoniously booted into the wings. It could be backhanded praise that Clarke’s characters are so eccentrically human that you want to know where each and every one of them winds up, but maybe she’s saving it for the sequel. By all reports, she’s already chained to her desk, and if the past is any indication of future performance, in 10 years we’ll finally get to know what happens.