Chapter 1: The library at Hurtfew
Autumn 1806 – January 1807
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.
This may not be “once upon a time”, but it’s not far off it at all, and the third-person omniscient narration continues throughout. On the first page, we also see something else that sets the tone for the rest of the book: the first footnote! It tells us that Jonathan Strange published (is to publish? Tenses are strange with past-tense narration) his History and Practice of English Magic in 1816.
What we learn about the York society of magicians is immediate, and important: the crucial point is that they don’t do magic. They are theoretical rather than practical magicians, but no less magicians for all that. As Dr Foxcastle, President of the York society, asks: You would not, I imagine, suggest that it is the task of botanists to devise more flowers? Or that astronomers should labour to rearrange the stars? We also learn that the story opens in York for a reason. Northern magicians had always been better respected than southern ones, and historically most powerful magics have been done in the North or in the wildernesses – it seems that magic enters England from the Celtic fringe. There’s always been an element of “from the wilderness” in English and British legend, a continuing theme of magical lands just across the border. This novel’s use of “English” throughout, rather than British, is a little problematic; it doesn’t seem to include Wales or Scotland except as a Celtic fringe. We shall have to see how that continues!
Mr Segundus and his friend, Mr Honeyfoot, disagree with the York society’s contention that magic is “much fallen off” and not something a gentleman should attempt, and resolve to consult the one other magician they know to live in Yorkshire: a Mr Norrell. On their way there, we’re treated to some beautifully atmospheric descriptions: wet roofs “like cold stone mirrors” and “a fine park full of ghostly-looking wet trees”. The weather is going to be important throughout this book, and especially the rain. After all: this is English magic!
To occupy the drive, Mr Honeyfoot explains to us about the Learned Society of Magicians of Manchester, and their fate. Being “half-gentlemen” (clergymen, lawyers, apothecaries, tradesmen, retired mill-owners who had got up a little Latin…) they wished to set magic on a rational footing, but when they became discouraged and disillusioned they went totally Susan and stopped believing in any such thing as magic, positing that the Raven King was only an invention of the northern English to save themselves from the tyranny of the South. Now, is this the kind of book where we can confidently say they were wrong? Or the kind where we can confidently say it doesn’t matter if they were right?
Mr Norrell. He really is not a very nice person at all, is he? He’s obviously very jealous of both his position and of his learning, making sure that Mr Segundus and Mr Honeyfoot understand that his library far, far outstrips any other, but at the same time denigrating all the books (“I have no great opinion of it. Its author was a liar, a drunkard, an adulterer, and a rogue. I am glad he has been so completely forgot.”) and really not being forthcoming with the enthusiastic pair at all. His house is “very ordinary” and “entirely unremarkable”, but it seems odd – Mr Segundus’s sense of direction deserts him once inside. “It seemed to him as if Mr Norrell had discovered some fifth point of the compass – not east, nor south, nor west, nor north, but somewhere quite different and this was the direction in which he led them.” Inside the library, we have our first introductions to two characters who will become quite important: Childermass, Mr Norrell’s man of business, and Mr Norrell’s bookshelves.
Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus, being magicians themselves, had not needed to be told that the library of Hurtfew Abbey was dearer to its possessor than all his other riches; and they were not surprized to discover that Mr Norrell had constructed a beautiful jewel box to house his heart’s treasure. The bookcases which lined the walls of the room were built of English woods and resembled Gothic arches laden with carvings. There were carvings of leaves (dried and twisted leaves, as if the season the artist had intended to represent were autumn), carvings of intertwining roots and branches, carvings of berries and ivy – all wonderfully done. But the wonder of the bookcases was nothing to the wonder of the books.
I am so utterly envious of those bookshelves. If I could afford to have a set made for me, that is what I would have.
We learn about the distinction between books of magic and books about magic, and some of the timescales become clear. Dr Martin Pale – the last of the Aureate, or Golden Age, magicians, and the last English magician to venture into Faerie – lived from 1485 to 1567, and those who flourished after him were “scholars first and magicians second”, and wrote books about magic – the Aureate magicians (Thomas Godbless, Ralph Stokesey, Catherine of Winchester, the Raven King) wrote little, or perhaps could not write.
As regards Childermass (who does not get the distinction of a “Mr.” in the text, and accordingly we shall not accord him one here), we are treated to another wonderful description. “With his long hair as ragged as rain and as black as thunder, he would have looked quite at home upon a windswept moor, or lurking in some pitch-black alleyway, or perhaps in a novel by Mrs Radcliffe.”
At the end of the chapter, we see another first: a footnote longer than the body text on the same page, telling a story of Martin Pale, the fairy Cold Henry, and a pair of boots. The story sheds some interesting light on just how much fairies differ from mortals (or “Englishmen” as they’re usually referred to in the history of magic… which is rather unfair to both those who aren’t English and those who aren’t men, but I rather suspect Clarke knows that!) but it’s also important because the whole book is like this, gently rambling and discursive, occasionally diverting from the main strand of the story into equally diverting snickelways.
The chapter ends on a dramatic note, or rather on what would be a dramatic note if we hadn’t already been confidently expecting it. Magic is not ended in England; Mr Norrell is himself quite a tolerable practical magician.
Chapter 2 – The Old Starre Inn
January – February 1807
Let me say that the Old Starre Inn is an extremely good pub, and remains so to this day! If you’re ever in York, do go along Stonegate and drop in.
This chapter can be summarized quite simply: Mr Segundus and Mr Honeyfoot present their findings to the York Society, who proceed to argue about them, and eventually decide that Mr Norrell’s claims must be challenged and tested. There’s nothing that could possibly go wrong with that, is there? Especially since Mr Segundus and Mr Honeyfoot cannot remember anything of Mr Norrell’s library, or anything they read therein.
In the event, he responds by sending a lawyer, with a contract drawn up “in accordance with England’s long-forgotten codes of magical law”. If Mr Norrell fails at the test, he will withdraw all claim to be any sort of magician at all, and give his oath never to make such claims again; however, if he proves himself, then the York Society must disband, and none of its members claim the title “magician” again.
The test is to be conducted at York Minster, and the morning breaks very white and clear; an unexpected snowfall casts a clean fairy light over the city, and all the magicians seem very much alone. Mr Norrell, it turns out, will do magic in Hurtfew Abbey and the results will be seen in York; Childermass is there at the Minster to observe and to inform the gentlemen of the Society. “Several looked about them before going inside, as if taking a last fond farewell of a world they were not quite sure of seeing again.”
Chapter 3 – The stones of York
Inside the Minster, the statues speak. The ranks of stone kings quarrel and scold one another; a copy of a statue by Michael Angel (as the narrator refers to him) describes in Italian what its parent statue can see; one statue clamours for vengeance on a murderer buried for hundreds of years, and another on soldiers who defiled the church; and “when the spell had broken, strands of stone ivy and stone rose briars would be discovered wound around chairs and lecterns and prayer-books where no stone ivy or briars had been before.”
This is such an amazing set of images, and so wonderfully described; it’s like magic in no other book. And this is only the beginning, too.
Magic has returned to England, there’s no doubt about that; and Mr Segundus (who has kindly written a letter to the editor of the Times, informing that gentleman of Mr Norrell’s feat) is the last magician in Yorkshire, for Mr Norrell is to remove to London.
Chapter 4 – The Friends of English Magic
Early spring, 1807
Mr Norrell is, it seems, “considered the dullest man in Yorkshire”. We’ve been learning quite a bit more about Childermass over these last two chapters, and he’s a really interesting character. Dr Foxworthy considered him “very insolent”, and the narrator describes him as “one of that uncomfortable class of men whose birth is lowly and who are destined all their lives to serve their betters, but whose clever brains and quick abilities make them wish for recognition and rewards far beyond their reach” and “who “become insolent, lose their places, and end badly.” Here, we’re told that “Childermass knew the world”, and many things about all classes of people, and “all that Childermass knew made him smile; and some of what he knew made him laugh out loud; and none of what he knew wrung from him so much as ha’pennyworth of pity.”
A large proportion of this chapter is taken up by a London party, heralded by an entirely unexpected letter from one Mrs Godesdone. Our narrator knows such parties well, and takes rather a joy in explaining just how unpleasant Mr Norrell found it; if not for Childermass’s counsel (which can be boiled down to “You came here to show people what a modern magician is like, so show them!”) he would not have gone.
And now, we are introduced to Drawlight, another character who will figure largely in the rest of the book. He really is an utterly repellent little fop, handsome and sparklingly groomed, with the wardrobe of a dandy and the moral conscience of, say, a cobblestone such as one might find in Regent-street. He has been going about pretending that he knows Mr Norrell well, and shamelessly using that supposed acquaintance to lever himself into the upper echelons of London society; or, as he himself puts it, “I have been your John the Baptist, preparing the way for you.”
Chapter 5 – Drawlight
Spring to autumn, 1807
“Even his dearest friends would have admitted that he possessed not a single good quality.” Childermass, nevertheless, counsels Mr Norrell – who had been wondering whether Drawlight were a rival magician (though he “wore no rings of power or allegiance”) – to cultivate him. Both Childermass and the narrator refer very matter-of-factly to Mr Norrell’s destruction of the careers of his fellow-magicians, so we’re left in no doubt as to his jealous and rather paranoid character… if we were in any doubt before, of course.
Much of the rest of this chapter consists of home improvements, complete with historically accurate details. If you’re interested in just what the rooms would have looked like, I recommend the Geffrye Museum’s online panorama facility. This episode is significant not just for the sheer amount of history pr0n, but because it represents Mr Norrell’s efforts to accustom himself to London society, to gild and buff himself in order to appeal to the elite. We may not be treated to the archetype of the bluff, plain-spoken Yorkshireman here – and to be frank, applying such a phrase to Mr Norrell would be absurd – but it’s nevertheless always present.
In this chapter, we meet Lascelles, the second young-man-about-town who cultivates Mr Norrell: second only to Drawlight in his affection for the magician, his motives are less shallow but more cynical, deriving great amusement from the idea that such a deluded old gentleman actually believes he can do magic. We don’t quite meet any of the political elite, but it seems that we shall soon, for Mr Norrell wishes to offer his services in the Peninsular War against the French – and, whilst neither Drawlight nor Lascelles would ever dream of such a connexion, a chain of favours connects Mr Norrell to Sir Walter Pole, a Minister of State.
There are three others – two dead magicians, and one live one – whom we don’t yet meet, too: the Raven King, historical-mythical legend of the North, the greatest of all English wizards; Francis Sutton-Grove, legendarily tedious and dreary author of vast and restrictedly exhaustive books about magic; and Vinculus, a mud-splashed yellow-curtain “sort of king” of the London street-magicians. Dr Foxworthy mentioned these yellow curtains too, talking about low magic in a very denigrating sort of way; I wonder what their significance is? It’s been a long time since I last read the book, so I really don’t know.