I’d wanted to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell since I first saw it on bookshelves a few years ago. I didn’t really know much about it except that it involved magicians but isn’t really fantasy. Which meant to me that it might not suck. I had a feeling that I’d really like it, but I didn’t even try reading it because it’s so long. Like 900 pages long. In fact, if you count Lord of the Rings as three books, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is the longest book I’ve ever read. But, you say, I have an English degree! Colleges don’t assign long books anymore, so I wasn’t in the habit. Even Lord of the Rings took me several months to read, and I was quite impressed with myself after finishing it.
Here’s the most basic of summaries, as the plot is quite complex (note: there are spoilers.): In early ninetenth-century England, there is a society of magicians. They don’t actually practice magic – they just study it. Someone gets to wondering why no one in England practices magic anymore, and a couple members if the society find the one magician who actually practices magic: Mr. Norrell. Mr. Norrell wants to get involved in the government, to help England in its war against France, but no one in politics seems to respect magic. He has a cousin in Parliament, Sir Walter Pole, who refuses to help him. Sir Walter’s wife dies, though, and Mr. Norrell says he can bring her back to life, which he does, except he doesn’t exactly know what he’s doing. He asks a fairy, known as the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, to help him. The fairy makes a deal, saying he’ll revive her as long as he gets half her life. Mr. Norrell thinks the fairy means that Lady Pole will only live for half her normal lifespan, but the actual deal is that Lady Pole will be spirited off to Faerie every night to dance in a ball, a captive of the fairy. So, since Mr. Norrell “helped” Lady Pole, he gets his foot in the door at Parliament and becomes involved in the war, using magic to defend England. Meanwhile, a younger man named Jonathan Strange stumbles into magic because nothing else interests him, and he eventually becomes Mr. Norrell’s student. He learns quickly and then goes off to Belgium to fight in the war. At some point, the fairy decides he wants Strange’s wife, Arabella, for his collection, so he charms a swamp log to look like her and then kidnaps her. The charm wears off after a few days, and it looks like Arabella is dead, though she is stuck in Faerie with Lady Pole. Then there are a few hundred pages of war and the like, and, somehow, it doesn’t get boring. Eventually, Strange and Norrell separate, and since Norrell has hoarded all the magic books in England, Strange runs out of material to study. Not knowing what Norrell did with the fairy, he decides to summon his own fairy. The problem is that it’s the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. The fairy refuses to help him, so Strange casts a spell and makes it to the fairy’s mansion, and he sees his wife at the ball. The fairy curses him and sends him home, and he obsesses over getting his wife back, deliberately making himself crazy in the process. Eventually, he convinces Norrell to help him, and they team up again, fading off into magicland together.
And that’s only the most skeletal of summaries.
I absolutely loved every minute of this novel. I was totally intimidated by its length, but it was so worth it. I was sad when it ended because Susanna Clarke had drawn me into a world I didn’t want to leave. The funny thing is that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was her first novel. I can’t wait to read the rest of them, though I have a feeling that after this one, I’ll find myself disappointed.