By Susanna Clarke
Volume II is titled “Jonathan Strange” and focuses primarily on him, which is a relief since he is much more pleasant than Mr. Norrell, for the reader and all the other characters, as well. It also jumps ahead by about a year and a half, and starts with Segundus and Honeyfoot, just like Volume I. They are going to visit the ruins of the estate of one of the last great magicians, and they run into Jonathan Strange attempting to contact the spirit of the magician in order to get magical instruction. They somewhat hesitantly recommend that he should apply to Mr. Norrell for training, which he goes on to do. The meeting…does not go well.
One thing the TV show does for conciseness is make both Strange and Norrell much more straight-forward – Strange is more of an upstanding protagonist, while Norrell is more despicable as the antagonist. Norrell is very dislikable in the book, as well, but you do get a sense that he is just so very bad at society that a lot of it is unintentional and he makes himself very unhappy, too.
Anyway, on a second meeting, Strange demonstrates some magic by swapping a book with its mirror reflection, which delights Norrell, and he agrees to tutor Strange, though he does this by giving him many long books of history to read instead of any practical magic. At this time, the various ministers meet Strange at Norrell’s house, and find him much more pleasant to deal with than Norrell, so start to ask him for assistance in the Napoleonic War. This is how Strange and his wife, Arabella, meet Sir Walter Pole and his wife, who is now completely spent from spending every night at the fairy ball. Arabella feels sorry for her, and continues to visit, where she also meets the fairy that resurrected Lady Pole, known only as the man with the thistle-down hair, which goes a little towards explaining his appearance on the show. (The man with the thistle-down hair has also decided that the servant Stephan Black should be King of England, and is working towards that end, despite Stephan’s objections.)
And, finally the sand horses from the show appear – I’d been waiting on them for so long! The two magicians are invited to Portsmouth to view the naval fleet, and at that time one of the ships gets stuck on a shoal. Norrell refuses to help, but Strange summons horses out of the sand, which in the show dramatically charge the ship and carry it rightside up into deeper waters. The book is much less impressive, but sillier and funnier. The horses sort of swim out to the boat instead of charging, and no one is quite sure what they even are at first. Out of the 100 that Strange makes, the sailors are able to harness about 20 in order to drag their ship back into deeper waters, while the rest of the sand horses just swim aimlessly around. Afterwards, all the horses swim around the harbor for the next couple days before finally disolving into brand new sandbanks that need to be re-charted, causing lots of exasperation to the navy.
The ministers were so pleased, however, that they decided that Strange should be sent to the front lines in Portugal to help out Wellington. Now, if you’ve read as much Regency romance as I have, you picture Wellington as sort of austere and dignified, but this is probably more accurate to an acting general. He is cranky and autocratic, and rejects all of Strange’s suggestions to help until Strange finally suggests building a road for the soldiers to march on. After that, he tasks Strange with building roads everywhere they go, and moving rivers and forests when they get in the way. Strange’s servant Jeremy is mentioned very briefly as accompanying him, but Rebecca will be comforted to know that he is not killed in battle in the book.
The stories of Strange in Portugal are my favorite of the book so far, and culminate in him reanimated (though not resurrecting) some dead Italian soldiers so that Wellington can question them. The show tidied this scene up a bit, since the corpses weren’t naked and missing teeth and fingers. It also disposed of the corpses immediately afterwards, whereas the book has them hanging around for several days like the sand horses.
Just like in the show, though, the war ends suddenly and then Strange is back home. Rebecca and I were very suspicious of the sudden appearance of Strange on the show, and thought he might be the fairy in disguise at first, in order to trick Arabella, though he doesn’t seem all that taken with her in the book.
I do think that recapping this book is doing it a disservice, actually. I’m now fully sold on all the random asides and silly details and even the footnotes, and I’m having to strip all that out, in order to keep these recaps even moderately sized. I’m sort of tempted to quit doing recaps, but can’t quite bring myself to do that, either.