England's dreaming

by Tze Ming Mok / 23 October, 2004

Imagine, if you will, an early 19th-century England straight out of Austen, Thackeray and Antiques Roadshow. George the Third is in his mad dotage, Napoleon is ploughing through Europe and Lord Byron is whoring his way to Greece. And despite its rich and well-studied history, there has been no magic practised in England for 200 years. Deep within a library we are introduced to the Greatest Magician of the Age, Mr Gilbert Norrell - a studiously unlikeable, self-centred miser of magic, and Yorkshire gentleman. His greatest love: books. His greatest hate: other magicians. The first magician to successfully practise magic in centuries, he sets out to make magic a respectable English profession through the reliable method of authoritarian academic censorship, and restriction of all legal practice of magic to himself.

Meanwhile Jonathan Strange, a charming, wealthy gadabout, takes up magic on a whim after becoming bored with trying to write lyric poetry. He becomes Mr Norrell's student, but this odd couple soon find themselves at loggerheads. Strange develops an obsession with the origins of magic in the Land of Faerie, that most dark and un-English of all places, for which Mr Norrell bears an abject terror. Norrell is further disturbed by an obscurely messianic prophecy. Will the enigmatic Raven King, first Magician ruler of medieval Northern England return from Faerie and restore Magic to the land? Or will Stephen Black, butler and orphaned child of a Jamaican slavewoman, be crowned King of England?

They say this is a fantasy novel for adults - Harry Potter for the receding generation. Evidence that may be used: its protagonists are adults. Good sign. Longlisted for the Man Booker, not the Boy Booker. Eight hundred pages with footnotes. Could this be the Infinite Jest of magician adventures? Here are some caveats: 800 pages is a walk in the park in the fantasy genre - 1000 would have been more respectable. Lord of the Rings didn't have any kids in it. And receding adults already read Harry Potter. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is for adults who are never too old to relive the childhood thrill of hiding under the covers with a torch and a packet of biscuits. It's also for adults who are partial to a convincing Jane Austen parodic style, all delicate 19th-

century fruit knives slipped into the back.

Because of this pearl-handled approach, and despite its physical weight, Strange & Norrell manages not to seem a terribly heavy novel. It's not for children or adults: it's for fun and profit. It's clever. It's witty. It's very enjoyable throughout. It has just enough moody, poetic Gothic darkness to keep Neil Gaiman fans happy. And There Will Be Sequels.

The novel lays on the charm in absolute terms. The historical detail is nothing less than rigorously complete. We encounter the quality of Neopolitan roads (abysmal), late Georgian snuffbox design (exquisite), and fondly remember the scandalous attitudes of the Edinburgh Review. The reader is treated throughout to the footnoting of major magical texts and histories that display a perfect feel for fairy-tale form. It is in these asides that Clarke's imagination seems limitlessly productive. The footnotes are the best bits.

Similarly, the truly muscular charisma and sympathy lie with the secondary characters rather than the two title magicians. The deflected irony of Clarke's style particularly mutes the impact of her contrary hero Jonathan Strange. Cutting more sharply into the senses are the dandies and cads, the worthy scholars and workingmen, the lords and butlers, charlatans and madmen, the ladies under cruelly perverse spells, and the cruelly perverse fairies with eyes for the ladies, all crafted with a barely restrained agility. It's for them that you'll wait for the next instalment - particularly the three down-at-heel magicians,

Vinculus, Segundus and Childermass.

The fanfare surrounding the release of this novel is a sure sign that the Anglo West is sick of the postcolonial magical realists having all the fun. Given that traditional English fantasy fiction is rooted firmly in its own native pre-Christian paganism, it seems clear that that fantasy is and always has been the

magical realism of the British Isles. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is all about this re-emerging palimpsest. The concerns of its plot embody the project of new fantasy writing - the resurrection and return of magic to the prissy drawing-rooms of English modernity. Clarke's great achievement is that she has woven just such a traditional, epic, medieval, magical historiography into an annotated comedy of corseted English manners, where the pure shadows and light of Le Guin and Tolkien lurk just behind the Haig & Chippendale cutains.

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL, by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury, $39.99).


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