By Susanna Clarke
So, I reached the halfway point (Chapters 32-44, roughly translating to Episode 4 in the show) and things are going downhill fast. (Plot-wise, things are going downhill; the pacing is actually quite speedy which is a relief after the slow start.)
I believe I have found my purpose for these recaps, however! Out of a poll of three (Kinsey, my dad, and someone that Rebecca follows on LiveJournal), all three said that they had read this years ago but barely remember it. I also struggle to remember exactly what happened in the tv show from week to week, though I thought that might be due to reading the book at the same time. So since this book doesn’t seem to have much sticking power, so this can stand as a rudimentary refresher (with spoilers, of course).
First, though, Norrell and Strange are granted their highest honor, a request from the royal princes to attend to their father, King George, who has gone mad. Norrell declines, saying that magic cannot cure madness, but Strange goes ahead to give it a shot. I saw the movie “The Madness of King George” years ago and was shocked by the treatments of the time, and Strange is appalled as well. He tries a several spells unsuccessfully, until the man with the thistle-down hair gets curious and appears only to the king. He is also appalled by the king’s treatment, and lures him through a mirror and into Faery, but Strange fights off the spell and brings the king back, though he still doesn’t know where it came from. I have to say that I was sort of sad that Strange succeeded because even though Lady Pole and Stephen are not enjoying the fairy ball, it must have been an improvement for the king.
The man with the thistle-down hair then visits Stephen in order to plot making him king. I had a thought about Stephen: he is very adept at staying conciliatory toward the fairy while also doing his best to mitigate his plans at significant personal risk, and it occurred to me that this very careful verbal deflection might be something he’s had to get a lot of practice at in his life as one of the more prominent servants while facing racism from both the aristocracy above him and the rest of the servants below him. It must be exhausting.
Strange is now obsessed with mirrors as a passage into Faery. Since Norrell is only willing to teach him the most rudimentary magic, he wants to summon a fairy servant to teach him more advanced spells. While he is mulling over these possibilities, there is an odd side plot where strangers are announcing that they are being instructed in magic by Strange. Strange soon discovers that Drawlight (one of Norrell’s hangers-on, if you don’t quite remember) has been selling the conversations between the two magicians that he hears in their presence as a correspondence class. Strange promptly dives into a mirror (perhaps inspired by his anger?), tracks down Drawlight in the middle of a meeting with one of the ‘students’, and we last hear of Drawlight being carted off to the debtors’ prison now that his revenue source has been discredited.
Strange is now newly obsessed with traveling the King’s road (the King being John Uskglass, also known as the Raven King) on the other side of the mirrors. He said it is enormous and has images of the Raven King on everything. Arabella is horrified and makes him promise not to travel there any more until he has studied it enough to convince her it is safe. So, instead of traveling, he writes and publishes a denunciation of Norrell’s newly published book on magic for ignoring all historical contributions by the Raven King.
There follows a surprisingly sad scene in which Strange visits Norrell, expecting to be raged at, but Norrell instead apologizes for not being open to Strange and admits that he feels that Uskglass abandoned England and rejected all subsequent magicians. They have tea together, and then Strange goes back to his country estate with Arabella. Before they leave, however, Arabella calls on Lady Pole to say goodbye to both her and the man with the thistle-down hair.
Aaaand, no sooner are they back in the country, then Napoleon has broken free of Elba and Jonathan is back in Europe with Wellington. This was a fraught scene in the tv show, but nonexistent in the book – one chapter ends with them leaving London, and the next chapter starts with Jonathan in Brussels. Arabella had started so strongly when first introduced but has become a bit of a nonentity in the background of the book.
I didn’t like this part of the Napoleonic Wars so much, though. Jonathan is on top of his game, feeling full of himself, and just moving large chunks of Europe around in a very unnerving way. I think if I’d been a European here I would have preferred Napoleon myself. The war is over by the end of the chapter, though, and upon consultation with Wikipedia, Napoleon’s second attempt only lasted a few months in real life.
At this point, so much had happened (though I was still way behind the television show) that I was thinking of concluding this recap, but I was just a few pages away from the end of Volume II, so I pushed on. Unfortunately, A LOT happened in those last few pages.
Segundus (who I am hoping turns out to be a greater magician than either Norrell or Strange, even though he hasn’t done any magic yet, just because I like him far better) has decided to start a school for theoretical magic, with funding from a wealthy patroness, who has a remote estate and extensive library she is trying to unload. Of course, as soon as Norrell hears word of it, he sends Childermass and then his lawyers to put a stop to it.
Stephen meets with the man with the thistle-down hair again, and the man tells Stephen that he wants Arabella to join their ball, both for her own sake and to spite Jonathan. The man magics Stephen into a Scottish bog and makes him dig up an old rotten tree trunk in order to capture Arabella, though the specifics are not explained in the book. I wasn’t sorry to miss reading that creepy scene of the rotten wood peeling away from Arabella’s face in the tv show.
This is also one of the scenes that makes Stephen’s predicament the most clear: he is literally sinking into the bog, and is terrified, but needs to act casual in order to coax the fairy to help him free. In the book, too, it takes all night so it makes more sense when Stephen is utterly drained at the end, whereas the tv show made it look like Stephen collapsed after about half an hour’s work. In both the book and the tv show, it is a little disconcerting as the one time that the gentleman with the thistle-down hair treats him like a servant, ordering him about and making him do all the unpleasant tasks alone.
Back at the Strange household, Strange decides to write a book, seemingly mostly to spite Norrell. He keeps getting interrupted, though, by one of their neighbors who repeatedly reports to Jonathan seeing Arabella roaming the countryside in dangerous weather. Jonathan assures him she is home, which is true until the final time, when the servants have to tell him that she is missing. A search party is collected, but they begin to side-eye Jonathan when he has to confess that he isn’t quite sure when he last saw Arabella, since he’s been so focused on his writing.
Several hours later, ‘Arabella’ shows up again, seeming sort of vague and leaving a trail of bog water in her wake. She sickens over the next couple of days and then dies, closing out Volume II. I felt a little sorry for rotten-tree Arabella, since she only got a long walk and then a few sick days out of her life.
(This now, I believes, catches me up to the tv show – mostly. We are a little ahead of Jonathan and Arabella Strange’s storyline, but way behind Lady Pole’s.)