By Susanna Clarke
I’ve realized now that I’d inadvertently picked the perfect book for my first live-blogging—The Shining has three characters and almost nothing happens. It makes for very concise recaps. Atlas Shrugged was a complete mess, of course, and now I’m struggling with the various characters and plot threads in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, as well.
I have (mostly) stopped sulking over the size of this brick of a book, and am starting to appreciate the absurd humor of all the side diversions (though they do make it hard to figure out what will be pertinent later in the story – I have even more appreciation for the script writers of the television show now). I think part of my problem was that I was expecting what it seemed to be at first glance – a historical fiction with magic and adventure – but now I think that it is really more of a satire of the different social circles of high society, military, and academia, with the magic providing a distance with which to skewer them. Let’s dive right into Episode 2/Chapter 10-22, with spoilers:
My original plan was to recap the novel in chunks roughly matching the TV episodes, but that might not be possible any more. I kept waiting for Jonathan Strange to conjure the horses out of sand that ended the second episode, but it still hasn’t happened by Chapter 22, which was the end of Volume I, so I figured I’d better go ahead and post.
Now that Mr. Norrell is settled in London, things don’t pick up the pace, exactly, but there are more characters interacting, at least. He finally gets to help the British in the war effort when he creates ships out of raindrops to hover around France’s ports and make them think they are blockaded. It seems characteristic of this book and show that the most impressive piece of magic so far is actually a fairly short scene that is entirely from the perspective of the French soldiers. There is also a short but funny scene that I wish had been in the TV show, where he animates the mermaid figurehead on a captured French ship so that she can tell them any plans she knows – it turns out she despises the English and simply hurls abuse at them until they think to send a particularly handsome officer to cajole her.
Norrell uses his new political influence to run all of the street magicians and fortune-tellers out of London, ostensibly in an effort to make magic more ‘respectable’ but in fact he simply wants to eliminate all potential competition.
The most popular of the street magicians, Vinculus, refuses to leave and instead breaks into Mr. Norrell’s house in order to recite a prophesy from the Raven King, a fabled magician from ancient history that Norrell scorns, that predicts a bad end for two magicians, clearly Norrell and Strange. Since Norrell is extremely obnoxious, and Strange completely absent, I don’t really care.
Norrell then sends his servant, Childermass, to use magic to spell Vinculus out of London. Childermass is a suspicious character that I first thought might be a fairy in disguise, but now I think might be a murderer, since the prophesy had a vague allusion to that. Instead of using Norrell’s spells, Childermass tells Vinculus’ fortune on an unusual deck of tarot cards (that I assure you has a long backstory that I’m not going to bother you with here), and discovers that Vinculus was planning to leave London on his own anyway, in order to find the second magician.
The first mention of this second magician, Jonathan Strange, doesn’t happen until Chapter 14, where he is only briefly referenced in a lengthy history of his father that can be summarized by the father being a very unpleasant person who alienated everyone around him and finally died from his own maliciousness. We do get more about Jonathan Strange in the last chapter, where he is settling his father’s accounts and trying to convince a young lady, Arabella, to marry him.
Arabella, my new favorite character, has been refusing Strange because he is a listless layabout. Strange is on his way to propose when he runs into Vinculus, who tells Strange that he will be a great magician and sells him some spells. Strange accepts this prophesy solely in order to convince Arabella that he has a sense of purpose, which she sees right through.
Most of this section is about the resurrected Lady Pole, who now spends all her nights (or “half her life”) dancing at a fairy ball, and Stephen Black, one of the servants of the house, who has also been invited to the fairy ball. In fact, the vast majority is about Stephen Black, who is tied with Arabella for the role of most decent character in the book. By the end of Volume I, though, both Lady Pole and Stephen are in pretty bad shape, completely exhausted from the requisite dancing.