Chapters 6 to 10 – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Chapter 6—”Magic is not respectable, sir.”

The Government is “universally detested”, and the war is going extremely badly. The only way to get any business done at all, it seems, is to send out the Foreign Secretary, whose masterful oratory will bedazzle all the opposition. Verbal brilliance, and ability at rhetoric and persuasion generally, is always a major theme in books about wizardry, so it’s interesting to see it showing up here in some very non-magical characters. Indeed, the Government—and Sir Walter Pole in particular, who’s also described rather thoroughly as a clever orator, who can twist words and “give me meanings I never intended”—gently and patronizingly reject all Mr Norrell’s suggestions.

Cleverness, we’re told by the narrator (who’s showing rather personally now—”To my mind, [Sir Walter Pole] was not so plain”, “I think”, “I do not mean”) is not something popular. “The country gentlemen had a strong suspicion that cleverness was somehow unBritish. That sort of restless, unpredictable brilliance belonged most of all to Britain’s arch-enemy, the Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte; the country gentlemen could not approve it.”

This is really interesting—we’re being asked to think about the locus of Britishness (and it’s interesting that Clarke uses British rather than English here) and whether it’s vested in the stolid gentlemen of the country, or in the clever, verbally adept, classically educated politicians of Town. And it’s also clear by now that the nature of Britishness is somehow related to the nature of magic.

The descriptions of the house in Brunswick-Square where Mr Norrell is summoned to meet Sir Walter deliberately echo the journey of Mr Segundus and Mr Honeyfoot when they first meet Mr Norrell—the day is overcast, grey, gloomy, and raining, and the polished furniture “had all become black mirrors”. Mirrors are something else that’s traditionally associated with magic and wizardry, especially black ones like this obsidian scrying glass belonging to Dr Dee. The house, it turns out, belongs to Mrs Wintertowne, whose daughter Emma is to marry Sir Walter soon.

Miss Wintertowne (clearly a significant name) is suffering from Victorian Novel Disease; Mrs Wintertowne, on the other hand, is rather a Lady Catherine de Burgh, and disapproves intensely of magicians. Her family, she tells us, was taken in by a charlatan named Dreamditch. Miss Wintertowne, however, approves of Mr Norrell’s appearance in town:

“[W]e must have magicians. Who else can interpret England’s history to us and in particular her northern history, her black northern king? Our common historians cannot.”

There are two things to note about that quotation: first, that “black” was commonly used in Victorian times not in the way we use it today, for people of African descent, but for dark-haired and -complected people, perhaps Mediterranean or Black Irish, or the old Pictish blood of northern England. Secondly, the emphasis on history is entirely characteristic – the Victorians were all about narrativising their own superiority, telling themselves stories to explain how they got to where they were. This is one of the ways in which Susanna Clarke is a great deal like George Eliot, foregrounding and problematizing the conflict between town & country England, the past and the future.

Chapter 7—”An opportunity unlikely to occur again.”

Drawlight was pleased at the rejection, since he wished to keep Mr Norrell as much to himself as possible; but now Miss Wintertowne is dead. Clearly, she was suffering from an unusually virulent strain of VND! Drawlight and Lascelles quibble and gossip, in a page and a half’s worth of “I told you so” – “no, that was the other one, I told you so” – “no, everyone knew it” – “but her mother could not admit it” and give us quite an economical backstory to a surprising death.

Mr Norrell agonizes over the ethics and appropriateness of bringing her back from the dead; he knows how, “of course”, but it is “the kind of magic that has not been done in three hundred years” and it relies upon something he neglects to explain to us just yet. He argues himself into it in the end, with the able assistance of Drawlight, who conjures visions of gratitude, influence, and a whole system of ranked and ordered magicians regulated by the State. “Upon my word, there is nothing in the world so easy to explain as failure – it is, after all, what every body does all the time.”

Chapter 8 – “A gentleman with thistle-down hair.”

The two fops, Drawlight and Lascelles (presumably from a cadet branch of this house) bookend this chapter, lamenting how pretty Miss Wintertowne used to be. “I shall advise all the good-looking women of my acquaintance not to die.” They’re really rather keen to witness Mr Norrell’s magic-working, but he is firm, and sends them away. It seems he doesn’t need any props or powders, no diagrams or symbols drawn upon the floor; he has a book with him, but only to consult if necessary, and the spell he recites takes effect almost immediately. “[S]uddenly there was something green where nothing green had been before and a fresh, sweet smell as of woods and fields.”

“Someone was standing in the middle of the room: a tall, handsome person with pale, perfect skin and an immense amount of hair, as pale and shining as thistle-down. His cold, blue eyes glittered and he had long, dark eye-brows, which terminated in an upward flourish. He was dressed like any other gentleman, except that his coat was of the brightest green imaginable – the colour of leaves in early summer.”

Mr Norrell speaks to him in Latin, beginning with “O Lar”, which a footnote translates as “O Fairy”. That’s a reference to the Roman guardian-spirits or mini-deities, and equating these with fairies is interesting, to say the least. Latin is one of the traditional languages of hermetic magic (well, along with classical Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, and Enochian, given that successive societies and indeed gangs used more and more obscure languages in an effort at occult one-upmanship) but it’s much more usual to invoke angels, demons, pagan deities, or abstract concepts.

“You elected to summon me because my genius for magic exceeds that of all the rest of my race. Because I have been the servant and confidential friend of Thomas Godbless, Ralph Stokesey, Martin Pale and of the Raven King. Because I am valorous, chivalrous, generous and as handsome as the day is long! That is all quite understood! It would have been madness to summon anyone else! We both know who I am. The question is: who in the world are you?”

Mr Norrell is one of the two magicians destined to restore magic to England, whom Mr Honeyfoot mentioned in Chapter 1; the gentleman with the thistle-down hair asks about “the other magician – red hair, long nose, conceited like all Englishmen?” As intelligent and perceptive readers, of course, we know who this is going to be – but where is he, and why does the gentleman with the thistle-down hair know so much about him?

As always, there’s a price for fairy aid, and in this case the gentleman with the thistle-down hair wants something “much more to your advantage than mine” – to be allowed to aid, guide, and effectively control Mr Norrell in all his magical endeavours. Say one thing for Mr Norrell, say he’s really, really bad at accepting help. In this case, it’s entirely justified, for he really, really isn’t stupid either. After some very civilised discussion, they portion out the remainder of the lady’s life, fixing it at another seventy-five years, half of which goes to the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, who takes “something of the lady’s to signify my claim on her”. This seems like a very good, and perfectly reasonable, bargain to Mr Norrell. I suppose it would, wouldn’t it? Tsk.

Surprisingly, we don’t get a chapter break at this point. Lascelles talks about the theatricality of the night’s proceedings; he’s contemplating writing a play entitled Tis Pity She’s A Corpse. (This is a rather dreadful pun on his part, but to be honest I can’t entirely blame him.)

Miss Wintertowne, of course, wakes and “is asking for her mama”; she is extremely nice to the visitors, especially Drawlight. “That I am here at all is in a large part due to your energy and insistence.” The thing is, she’s entirely right. Drawlight, the useless fop with no redeeming qualities, did persuade Mr Norrell to help, and then persuade Mrs Wintertowne to allow the help.

When the chapter does end, it’s Drawlight who finds out what the gentleman with the thistle-down hair took: the little finger on Miss Wintertowne’s left hand.

Chapter 9—”Lady Pole”

Miss Wintertowne is not only alive once more, but has been utterly cured of VND, and is now possessed of boundless energy—enough so to walk twenty times around Brunswick-square, in fact. Sir Walter wonders whether they should put off the wedding for a week or two, but Mrs Wintertowne points out—very sensibly—that so much of the wedding-dinner has already been cooked that it would be absurd. (This reminds me of the only fantasy novel to have wedding catering as a major plot point – Barbara Hambly’s Sorcerer’s Ward, published in the US as Stranger at the Wedding. Highly recommended.)

The wedding itself merits only half a paragraph of description, less than a description of the dissonance between Sir Walter’s and the imminent Lady Pole’s respective approaches to communication within their future marriage. The main highlight of the day, apparently, was Mr Norrell—clearly the Pippa Middleton of Regency England.

Chapter 10—”The difficulty of finding employment for a magician.”

His Majesty’s Government—very much not under the able leadership of the Duke of Portland, in this year of 1807—is now really rather eager to make use of Mr Norrell’s services, but are having some little difficulty deciding how. Perhaps, Lord Castlereagh suggests, a spell could be worked to convince many young men in Lincolnshire to join the Army? What a novel idea! says Mr Norrell. The difficulty lies in ensuring that the spell confines itself to Lincolnshire, and to young men alone, and thus avoiding denuding England entirely. Let us not do this, says Sir Walter Pole. So then they begin to suggest that England’s heroes be resurrected. Nelson, of course!—forget Nelson, he was just a sailor. The late Mr Pitt was everything. Besides, the present cabinet were all helped to their positions by Mr Pitt, so they owe him that little favour…

Mr Norrell is clearly rather taken aback and disconcerted by the notion of attempting more resurrections, but the condition of Mr Pitt’s body presents a handy excuse (dead for a year and a half now). Though it isn’t mentioned in the text, Admiral Nelson would have presented an even trickier problem—two years ago almost to the day, a French bullet wreaked havoc on his torso, and then he spent a few weeks pickled in strong alcohol. Of course, that’s not exactly unusual for a sailor in that era!

In the end, Lord Castlereagh suggests sending Mr Norrell to the Netherlands, or to Portugal, to perform magic under the direction of the Army or the Navy. Representatives from those two institutions, Admiral Paycocke (“a bluff old gentleman”, who I imagine as Admiral Croft from Persuasion) and Captain Harcourt-Bruce (“not only dashing, handsome, and brave, he was also rather a romantic”) go to take Mr Norrell’s measure, and aren’t really impressed. “[I]t was absolutely out of the question to send Mr Norrell anywhere; the Army and the Navy would never forgive the Government if they did it.”


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Mark S. Deniz
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 03:53:09

    Thanks again, Sam, it’s extremely cool to have these blog posts whilst reading along with the book!

    Now we’ve got the hint of Jonathan Strange, I’m eager to see his appearance in the novel.

    And VND, love it (though not literally of course)!


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