By Susanna Clarke
So, I’ve finished the book, but will keep to the television schedule. Episode 6 actually manages to catch up to the book a fair amount, reaching roughly Chapter 59, though some plot threads are still moving faster than others. I’ll dive right in, with spoilers.
Jonathan Strange does end up popping over to Venice, purely in order to go mad, I guess. The Greysteels, at least the father and daughter (the aunt is summarily dismissed from the show), also make an abrupt appearance, visiting the mad cat lady, and watch her eat a mouse, which was a scene I was hoping would get skipped over. Sadly, there is no sign of Lord Byron, though he is mentioned in passing in a really disappointing way. Mr. Greysteel reproaches his daughter, Flora Greysteel, for being lured to Italy by Lord Byron and only saved from ruin by her father following her there. In the book, Flora is a smart and sensible young lady who never meets Lord Byron and doesn’t much approve of him anyway.
We then jump ahead to Jonathan Strange turning the mad cat lady into a cat and eating another dead mouse that she had intended to eat, which I was really hoping to avoid seeing. It is all very sudden: Strange in Venice, a father and daughter visiting a mad cat lady, Strange meeting the father and daughter, and then visiting the mad cat lady himself in order to ‘borrow’ her madness.
You know what this show reminds me of? Gormenghast, another extremely odd BBC miniseries that was beautiful to look at but made no sense at all. It was also based off a sizeable book, so I wonder if it had the same editing problem as Strange & Norrell. While I complained somewhat of the length of all the diversions in the book, it does help with characterization and continuum, for sure.
The show did a good job of showing Strange’s overwhelming madness when he puts the entire mouse in his mouth, and then his more subdued madness when he drinks some mouse-infused water instead. It does the trick, too, and he is able to perceive the fairy for the first time. The first conversation between the affronted gentleman with the thistledown hair and a mad Jonathan Strange is even more delightful than in the book!
They are certainly making Jonathan Strange quite the sympathetic hero, distraught over the loss over his wife, and driven to madness and magic in order to find a way to bring her back, as opposed to book Strange, who fully accepted his fake wife’s death and simply stumbles upon her in the fairy ball in pursuit of increased magical power. By making Strange a better person, though, they’ve taken pretty much all character away from Arabella Strange. Strange forces the fairy to bring him ‘an item from the last English magician he worked with,’ which of course ends up being Lady Pole’s finger, taken by the fairy in exchange for returning her to life. He then uses the finger to power a spell directing him toward the fairy’s domain.
There, he first sees Lady Pole, who in the show assumes he is there to rescue her, and directs him toward his wife. Arabella, however, is completely enchanted by the fairy ball, and doesn’t recognize him. Whereas the book has a decided misandrist bent to it that I kind of liked and miss here. Arabella recognizes Jonathan immediately and is happy to see him, but has no delusion that he is there to save her or that he even has the ability to do so. Lady Pole, on the other hand, openly despises him, and is just completely over all men trying to help in general.
When the gentleman with the thistledown hair discovers him at the ball, he expels him with a curse of ‘everlasting night.’ The gentleman is much more sinister in the show, and less flat-out bat-shit crazy, so it is a sort of a toss-up on which is a better villian. The tower of night, now permanently attached to Strange, is very impressive in the show, though I thought the tornado effect actually took away some impact, since the stillness and apparent solid-ness of it made it so frightening in the book.
There is just a ton of stuff with Jonathan Strange and the Greysteel family, which got cut out of the show and which I won’t get into here. The funny thing, though, is that I miss all the lengthy nonsense around Jonathan Strange from the book because I didn’t feel particularly emotionally invested in his plotline, but I was glad for a condensed version of Stephen Black’s plot because it was agonizing in the book, watching him desperately dance attendance on the fairy, trying to placate him enough to avoid harm to the people around him.
In the show, Stephen is mostly traveling the countryside with Vinculus, who reveals his body printed with the text of the only magic book written by the Raven King himself. He briefly tells a story about his father being hired to deliver the paper book to a scholar but getting drunk and eating the book on a dare. It makes almost no sense at all in the show, and only a little more sense when spread over several chapters in the book. Vinculus directs Stephen toward a tree, where the gentleman with the thistledown hair appears and, still in a temper over Strange and immediately offended by Vinculus, hangs him on the tree. Vinculus is much more overtly accepting of his death in the show than the book, so the scene is less upsetting (and much shorter).
And back in London, Drawlight is back! I had thought they might drop this plot thread, too, but I’m very impressed at how the screenwriters are cramming in most of the salient points. After a fairly touching scene of Norrell reverently reading a copy of Strange’s published book (also not in the book; if a scene shows either magician in a positive light, it is a good guess that it isn’t from the book), he causes all the copies to disappear from London, explaining to the indignant ministers that it is for the country’s good. They remain somewhat unconvinced, but beg Norrell to protect England from Strange, whom they have heard is mad and now cursed. Norrell is unable to track Strange by magical means, so he and his remaining hanger-on get Drawlight out of debtors’ prison and send him off to Italy to spy on Strange and report back.
Drawlight stumbles around Venice for a fair while in the book, but is magically summoned by Strange pretty promptly in the show. Strange gives him Lady Pole’s finger to give to Childermass, a message to deliver to ‘all the magicians in England’ (which Strange clarifies will be just about everyone once he has returned magic to England), and a message to Norrell that he is coming. On this dramatic note, the episode ends. The book, of course, goes into Drawlight’s subsequent onset of the flu, his recovery, and his boat trip back to London.