Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is indeed a strange book… So far, I’ve only read through about 25% of it, and its very strangeness keeps me reading more.
Taking place in early 19th century England, it deals with England’s loss of true magicians and magic. Whereas England had a long tradition of magic prior to this time, magic seems to have left England. Oh, it is still studied–several societies of learned men throughout England actively study magic intellectually–but practical magic has long since fallen into disuse. Enter Mr Norrell, who wants to help England fight its war with the French through the use of magic, thereby restoring magic to its rightful place in British contemporary culture. The problem is, we learn, is that he wants to be the only magician, since he is the only magician for whom he has any regard. Why, wasn’t he the one who brought back to life the wealthy fiancée of a Parliamentary minister so that the man could continue to serve his constituency? The mere fact that he had to enlist the help of one of those unpredictable faeries to do so was not a detail anyone else needed to know.
But now, at the end of Volume 1 of this tome, Norrell learns that he may have real competition. He has succeeded in driving out all the other magicians in London, but his manservant, Childermass, (who has hidden his own magical skills from Norrell) tells him that the magician Vinculus has foretold the coming of a new magician. Norrell’s status as England’s foremost magician may be coming to an end.
Lastly, we meet Jonathan Strange, a young man who has no real direction in life but has recently come into a rather sizable inheritance. His father, who hated his existence because it cost him the money that he loved above all else, inadvertently froze to death. Jonathan is not good at following through on any serious endeavors, except leisure activities. He has only one real goal, and that is to marry Arabella Woodhope. Arabella, however, may be reluctant to marry a young man with no occupation, neither agricultural, artistic, nor academic.
The day after his father’s funeral, Jonathan makes his way to visit Arabella, who is visiting nearby. He and his manservant, Jeremy Johns, manage to encounter Vinculus, who tells Jonathan he is a magician, and sells him some spells. Vinculus is immediately encountered by magistrates who arrive to haul him to the workhouse. However, Vinculus’ spell fee makes him no longer indigent, and he runs off in a direction opposite to that of Jonathan and Jeremy. Shortly after he arrives at the home of Arabella’s hosts, Jonathan decides to try one of the three spells he purchased, making his selection with input from Arabella. The selected spell allows him to see what his enemy is currently doing. Jonathan, who knows of no enemies, is as surprised as everyone else to see that a figure appears in a mirror that he is using for the spell.
And that is as far as I’ve gotten. More tomorrow…
Clarke, Susanna. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.