The Magic of Old

Cover illustration by Dan Mumford, Bloomsbury Modern Classics edition.

In 2004, Bloomsbury took the risk of printing a manuscript that other publishers had deemed ‘unmarketable.’ It is indeed a long and slow-paced novel, focused on worldbuilding rather than action. Yet the risk paid off:  Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke sold more than 4 million copies and won several awards. In 2015, its adaptation by the BBC was nominated for the BAFTA Film Awards.

This book is a worthy choice for those not intimidated by a lot of detailed descriptions, sometimes only loosely connected to the main plotline. Not only is it a work of art and an entertaining read, it is also one of those rare 21st-century novels that fills readers with love and appreciation for British history, inspiring them to learn more. It treats Britain’s past with the utmost respect it deserves; the regency world is presented to the reader in all its glory. Clarke does not betray its spirit by infusing it with modern culture, unlike so many other representations of the period—the Bridgerton TV series, for one, makes London of the 1800s look like a present-day Hollywood albeit with dresses and carriages. This makes Susanna Clarke stand out: her story is distinctly English in every respect, from her writing style to the characters and setting.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an example of a pastiche well done. Its style is based on classic British literature of the 19th century, complete with ornate, somewhat antiquated prose, an omniscient narrator, witty banter, and a considerable number of footnotes. The latter is often not necessary for the plot but adds to the setting in terms of both fiction and history. Clarke clearly did her research into the events, persons of note, and customs of the era: there are many exciting details to be noted by an attentive reader. At the same time, fantasy elements written into the historical tapestry are thought out, rooted in English mythology and thus feels very natural.

The novel is over a thousand pages long, and the story takes time to unfold—again, quite an unusual occurrence for modern, fast-paced literature. We follow two magicians destined to restore English magic, which has been all but gone for a few centuries. Mr Norrell arrives in London offering his services to the government, but has to build up a reputation first. He resurrects one of the ministers’ wife in order to get his attention; however, in the process of doing so Norrell has to summon a powerful yet vile fairy, which gives rise to a series of events foretold by an ancient ruler known as the Raven King. The story takes us through the political and social life of London, Wellington’s wars, the quiet countryside, and picturesque canals of Venice, as well as enchanted lands beyond the fog. It balances a classic fairytale and historical drama. It does not try to set clear rules for its magic, making it as mysterious and wondrous as it is in Arthurian legend. However, it also exists as a matter of fact, written down in the ancient tomes of Mr Norrell’s vast library. The descriptions and imagery they evoke are essential to the novel’s allure. There is the sublime majesty of York Minster, the elegance of the capital, the dignified melancholy of old mansions, and the eerie wilderness of the northern moors. 

As for the characters, they are numerous but very memorable. There are actual historical figures, like the Duke of Wellington, Lord Liverpool, Lord Castlereagh, and King George III. The fictional characters do not feel out of place beside them, acting and thinking as early 19th-century Englishmen should, which speaks to the author’s diligent research. The protagonists, Gilbert Norell and Jonathan Strange, are complex and interesting; they are genuinely in love with their art but flawed in many ways and are often the architects of their own troubles. Norrell is bookish, reclusive, shy, socially clueless, and jealously protective of his knowledge and position. Strange is the complete opposite, a rather agreeable gentleman with an energetic and romantic personality, prone to risk and full of curiosity. Nevertheless, it is Norrell who first tampers with dangerous creatures, unintentionally putting others in harm’s way. 

Another prominent character is John Uskglass, the Raven King. Although he only appears in one scene, he is constantly mentioned, discussed, and referred to. He is a legendary medieval ruler and the most powerful magician, but little is known of him as a person. He is a transcendent being, an embodiment of the magic of old—if anything, he is the spirit of England that is hidden behind its civilised façade. The duality of England’s character is reflected in the description of a mural that Strange stumbles upon while visiting Windsor Castle:

In the middle were two kings seated upon two thrones. … The left-hand part of the painting was steeped in sunlight. The king upon this side was a strong, handsome man who displayed all the vigour of youth. He was dressed in a pale robe and his hair was golden and curling. There was a laurel wreath upon his brow and a sceptre in his hand. … In the right-hand part of the painting the light grew dim and dusky, as if the artist meant to depict a summer’s twilight. Stars shone above and around the figures. The king on this side was pale-skinned and dark-haired. He wore a black robe and his expression was unfathomable. He had a crown of dark ivy leaves and in his left hand he held a slim ivory wand. … Between the two thrones stood a young woman in a loose white robe with a golden helmet upon her head. The warlike king had placed his left hand protectively upon her shoulder; the dark king held out his right hand towards her and she had extended her hand to his so that their fingertips lightly touched.

Throughout the book, one can spot the contrast between the regency, a ‘contemporary’ era as far as the plot is concerned, and the older, half-forgotten age of the Raven King. The former is bold, self-reliant, down-to-earth, and dismissive of the latter’s wisdom. The conflict between the two wizards reflects it: Strange actively seeks the legacy of his predecessors, while Norrell wishes tradition to be abandoned and another respectable magic to be constructed in its place. However, this is a futile attempt; all his knowledge ultimately comes from the books he studied, and his ideas are influenced by his heritage. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and modern achievements always stand on the shoulders of past ones. Understanding this continuity deepens our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.

Novels like this one serve a purpose greater than simple entertainment. They help us to glimpse into the past and establish a link between it and the present. They remind us of our roots. They help us understand our ancestors instead of measuring them by our own standards. And by doing this, they contribute to saving the Western culture.

Modern-day London is but a shadow of its former self, a hub of the global economy rather than a capital of a proud nation. Entire towns, like Blackburn, have been overtaken by migrants. Yet the ancient spirit still lives, in York and Whitby, in Muncaster Castle and its rhododendron groves, in Westminster Abbey, holding against the assault of the vogue, and in the Cumbrian Mountains. Will it rise again? Will it return, as magic returned to England? It is hard to say. But Susanna Clarke’s remarkable book certainly did its part to help summon it back.

Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.