Susanna Clarke’s 2004 fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is set in an alternative early nineteenth-century England very like Jane Austen’s but with a fantasy twist. In Clarke’s world, a medieval magician king, John Uskglass (known as the Raven King), had ruled the northern part of England from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. Clarke’s novel begins in 1806, over two hundred years since anyone has performed “practical magic” in England and recounts how the two rival gentlemen-magicians of the title endeavor to bring magic back to England, with alarming, unforeseen consequences that shift the tone and narrative from that of polite, mannered Regency society to a darker, transgressive world of Romanticism.
During the first volume of this three-decker novel, the elderly, reclusive, scholarly magician Mr. Norrell astonishes society by re-introducing magic to Regency England. By the second volume, he has acquired a student, the younger, more extrovert and intuitive Jonathan Strange. Norrell is essentially an eighteenth-century rationalist who has learned his magic from books (which he jealously hoards), shunning (with one fatal exception) the Raven King’s legacy of fairy lore, while Strange, in contrast, seeks to recover and share the powerful fairy magic of the past. By the third volume, Clarke’s apparently Austenian world of light, bright, sparkling dialogue and well-mannered gentility darkens to a Byronic Romanticism, thus transforming Austen’s comic legacy much as Romanticism changed the English novel throughout the nineteenth century.
But of course, from the opening of Clarke’s novel, those threads of dark, transgressive irrationality are woven into the polite fabric of Regency society. In 1110, according to Clarke’s alternative history, John Uskglass, a fourteen-year-old orphaned, dispossessed Norman aristocrat who was rescued and raised as a slave child in Faerie, returned to England at the head of a Fairy Host to claim his birthright. He conquered one northern city after another until King Henry agreed to cede him the northern half of the kingdom. The Raven King, who ruled his Northern Kingdom “between the Tweed and the Trent” (499) for over three hundred years, was the greatest magician ever known, and he bequeathed England a rich heritage of magic, including ancient, disused roads leading to now-malign fairy kingdoms. (Much of this history and folklore is provided in plausibly scholarly footnotes.)
To Clarke’s gentlemen magicians, imbued with Enlightenment values, however, actual “practical” magic appears not only impossible but vulgar. As one scholarly “theoretical magician” observes early in the novel, “A gentleman could not do magic. A gentleman might study the history of magic (nothing could be nobler) but he could not do any” (4). Indeed, Clarke’s polite ladies and gentlemen behave exactly as one would expect Austen’s characters to behave were they to share their world with magic and magicians. They speak with Austenian diction, wield Austenian wit, observe Austenian social conventions and manners, and espouse Austenian values:
“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange.
Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.” (304)
Clarke pays tribute to Austen not only in her characters’ dialogue and manners, but even in her narrative style. Many of the sentences in this complex work read as though written by Jane Austen (with occasional assistance from Byron and Dickens). Clarke’s dialogue even employs and echoes Austen’s characteristic free indirect discourse: “He told the young lady that he heartily wished that he had gone into the Navy years ago. Nothing in the world would have suited him so well!” (194). Clarke’s sentences frequently sound as though they began life in an Austen novel:
The intimacy between the two gentlemen advanced very rapidly. Soon Mr. Segundus was spending two or three evenings out of every seven at the house in High-Petergate. (5)
A gentleman in Mr. Norrell’s position with a fine house and a large estate will always be of interest to his neighbours and, unless those neighbours are very stupid, they will always contrive to know a little of what he does. (37)
Rich old uncles who die are in shockingly short supply. (47)
“And what is your opinion of the Raven King, Mr. Norrell?” asked Mrs. Littleworth eagerly.
“I have none. He is a person I never think of.” (55)
“He is very entertaining. Quite unlike most people one meets.” (338)
These Austen-like sentences are perfectly at home in the new setting and plot that Clarke has devised for them, for she interweaves her magical fable with tough threads of authentic history: Wellington plays a convincing role, as does the poor, mad King. Byron appears in the third volume, modeling his own Manfred on the increasingly Promethean Jonathan Strange.
Moreover, Clarke’s characters mention actual writers, artists, institutions and public figures of the day, such as Madame d’Arblay (72), Ackermann (136), Castlereagh (165), Canning (176), The Gentleman’s Magazine (225), Mr. Beckford, Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Radcliffe (245), Haig and Chippendale’s Upholstery (259), Wedgewood (260), Mrs. Edgeworth’s Belinda (262), Wellington and the Peninsula campaign (285 ff), Goya (333), the King’s madness, the Prince Regent, and the rival Royal Dukes (Ch. 32), Cruickshank and Rowlandson (407), Mr. Jeffrey and The Edinburgh Review (410ff), Brussels on the eve of Waterloo (430ff), the Princesses at Windsor (467), the publisher John Murray (passim), Lord Byron, his friends and his lovers (553ff), D’Israeli’s Flim-Flams and Miss Austen’s Emma (557). The narrator, who writes exactly as an early nineteenth-century narrator would write, even alludes to Jane Austen: “It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry” (92).
The most elaborate Austen reference occurs about half way through the novel with the introduction of a minor character clearly based on Mrs. Rushworth, the former Maria Bertram—not surprisingly, since Clarke chose Mansfield Park as her favorite novel to discuss on a Daily Telegraph website in December 2005.1 Here called “Mrs. Bullworth,” she has been abandoned by her lover, Henry Lascelles, and lives in affluent retirement in Hampstead with an old aunt. Mrs. Bullworth is described as “tall, well-formed and beautiful. Her gown was of scarlet velvet and her white neck was set off by an intricate necklace of jet beads” (387). In the style of those “desultory novels” of which Cassandra Austen disapproved, she recounts her history to Strange:
I am, as you know, the daughter of a gentleman in Northamptonshire. My father’s property is extensive. His house and income are large. We are among the first people in that county. But my family have always encouraged me to believe that with my beauty and accomplishments I might occupy an even higher position in the world. Two years ago I made a very advantageous marriage. Mr. Bullworth is rich and we moved in the most fashionable circles. But still I was not happy. In the summer of last year I had the misfortune to meet a man who is everything Mr. Bullworth is not: handsome, clever, amusing. A few short weeks were enough to convince me that I preferred this man to any one I had ever seen. . . . Two days before Christmas I left my husband’s house in his company. I hoped—indeed expected—to divorce Mr. Bullworth and marry him. But that was not his intention. By the end of January we had quarrelled and my friend had deserted me. He returned to his house and his usual pursuits, but there was to be no such revival of a former life for me. . . . No more balls for me, no more parties, no more friends. No more any thing. (390)
Mrs. Bullworth attempts to hire Jonathan Strange to exact painful revenge upon her family, her in-laws, and her former lover. She is particularly venomous about a certain Miss Elizabeth Church:
A cousin of mine—a tedious, embroidering sort of girl. No one ever paid her the least attention until I married Mr. Bullworth. Yet now I hear she is to be married to a clergyman and my father has given her a banker’s draft to pay for wedding clothes and new furniture. . . . They are to live in York where they will attend dinners and parties and balls, and enjoy all those pleasures which ought to have been mine. . . . [S]urely there must be spells to make the clergyman hate the very sight of Lizzie? (391)
Strange refuses, in part because he does not undertake “private commissions” (he and Mr. Norrell work for the Government to help England defeat the French), but also because he finds her request morally repellent, as he explains: “a system of morality which punishes the woman and leaves no share of blame to the man seems to me quite detestable. But beyond that I will not go. I will not hurt innocent people” (393).
As the novel progresses, however, the polite gentility and rigorous morality of its Austenian world is increasingly permeated and undermined by the dark magic whose presence, from the opening pages, has cast strange shadows upon the familiar Georgian landscape. By the close of the final volume, the two magicians are once again united, trapped together, not unhappily, in a permanent darkness, cut off from human society with only their magical books and one another for company—but beyond that darkness, the revolution that they initiated continues to transform England, much as Austen’s own legacy has evolved in unexpected, magical ways.
1. Clarke writes about Mansfield Park more insightfully than some Austen critics:
In some ways Mansfield Park is Pride and Prejudice turned inside out. The qualities that make Elizabeth Bennet so irresistible—the vivacity, the wit and the sparkle—are given to Henry and Mary Crawford, the brother and sister who arrive at Mansfield one summer and throw the dull, ordered life of the household into emotional chaos.
We, the readers, fall for Henry and Mary just like the rest of the house’s inhabitants—and with less excuse since, like Fanny, we suspect that they are superficial and heartless. Yet maybe that cold London sophistication will wear off somehow? Couldn’t the decent values and country air of Mansfield cure them?
Re-reading the book for the umpteenth time, I often long for it to turn out differently. Maybe this time Fanny could get the pots of cash and stately home to live in, as Elizabeth Bennet did? But Fanny and Jane Austen are too wise to want a stately home; they prefer Edmund.
I thank Susan Allen Ford for pointing out this article to me.
Clarke, Susanna. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Ill. Portia Rosenberg. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.
_____. “Susanna Clarke introduces her choice for December: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.” The Telegraph 4 Dec. 2005. 31 Oct. 2008 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2005/12/04/svbookclub04.xml .