Before we begin: a couple of questions to my regular readers!
Imprimis, how do you feel about the amount of ground we’re covering in each one? Are those of you who are reading along having any difficulty keeping up?
Secundus, are these posts getting uncomfortably long? Conversely, am I leaving too much out?
Tertius, how do you feel about the Englishness of magic here? Does it chime with some notion of primal Englishness elsewhere in your experience?
Chapter 11 – “Brest.”
All the ports of the French Empire have been blockaded by fleets of English ships of the line – altogether, far more ships of that type than exist in the world, strangely unmoving—even in response to changes in the weather—and showing no inclination to bombard the town. This queer situation is eventually solved by Perroquet:
“a very small man no bigger than an eight-year-old child, and as dark as a European can be. He looked as if he had been put into the oven and baked for too long and was now rather overdone. His skin was the colour of a coffee-bean and the texture of a dried-up rice pudding. His hair was black, twisted and greasy like the spines and quills you may observe on the less succulent parts of roasted chickens. Admiral Desmoulins was very proud of Perroquet; proud of his size, proud of his cleverness, proud of his agility, and, most of all, proud of his colour. Admiral Desmoulins often boasted that he had seen blacks who would appear fair next to Perroquet.”
This is the second time we’ve seen a very clever servant introduced like this (the first being Childermass) and whilst I have no idea whether Perroquet will return, I rather like his character in this chapter. I also like that he’s described entirely in terms of food, which is of course an utterly clichéd thing to do with POC characters, but he’s explicitly a “European”. That covers a huge range of ethnicities, even at the beginning of the 19th century, but it’s also something sadly easy to be excluded from by idiots on the basis of skin colour and nothing else. (I’m not the only white man I know who’s been mistaken for non-white by parochial idiots.)
The fleet, it turns out, is shaped from the rain. “As the rain fell from the heavens the drops were made to flow together to form solid masses—pillars and beams and sheets, which someone had shaped into the likeness of a hundred ships.” It seems clear to us that Mr Norrell has worked this spell (and again we see the association of English magic with the rain) but we aren’t told that, or shown his working. Clearly, the Government had a good idea in the end!
Chapter 12 – “The Spirit of English Magic urges Mr Norrell to the Aid of Britannia.”
This chapter is mostly devoted to the foundation of a new periodical, The Friends of English Magic. The brainchild of a Scots bookseller named Mr Murray (booksellers acted as publishers too in this period), it’s edited by Lord Portishead—a former theoretical magician, who had given up the study on learning that Mr Norrell disapproved of theoretical magicians—well, more or less edited. I quote from a very informative footnote:
From 1808 until 1810 the editor was nominally Lord Portishead but there is little doubt that both Mr Norrell and Lascelles interfered a great deal. There was a certain amount of disagreement between Norrell and Lascelles as to the general aims of the periodical. Mr Norrell wished The Friends of English Magic first to impress upon the British Public the great importance of English modern magic, secondly to correct erroneous views of magical history and thirdly to vilify those magicians and classes of magicians whom he hated. He did not desire to explain the procedures of English magic within its pages—in other words he had no intention of making it in the least informative.
We’re seeing Mr Norrell’s move from the society sphere into the heart of the commoner on the street here, towards “real England”. It might be significant that he utterly rejects a suggestion that he publish in the (very well-regarded) Edinburgh Review in favour of doing it in London himself, with the aid of a London Scot.
The chapter ends with a short list of all the people whom “Portishead attacks on Mr Norrell’s behalf: gentleman-magicians; lady-magicians; street-magicians; vagabond-magicians; child-prodigy-magicians; the Learned Society of York Magicians; the Learned Society of Manchester Magicians; learned societies of magicians in general; any other magicians whatsoever.” Hm, all these other magicians… so far we’ve seen numerous theoretical magicians, and heard of one apparent charlatan and one genuine prophet. I wonder how many more practical magicians there are out there? Or is the “two magicians destined to restore English magic” principle entirely accurate?
Chapter 13 – “The magician of Threadneedle-street.”
And now we hear about one of those street-magicians, the aforementioned Vinculus (Latin for a bond or a tie, something that restricts movement), a proven charlatan with a booth opposite the Bank of England. He’s utterly a Londoner, pretending to commune with the Spirit of the River Thames, and described like this: “a thin, shabby, ragged hawk of a man. His face was the colour of three-day-old milk; his hair was the colour of a coal-smoke-and-ashes London sky; and his clothes were the colour of the Thames at dirty Wapping.” He has, it seems, been expecting Mr Norrell “these past twenty years” and he says: “I have come to explain your destiny to you, as I was born to do.” He does this in the form of a rather poetic prophecy of the Raven King, following a cryptic conversation about the importance of books to magic. It seems that again we’re seeing an opposition set up, between “learned” and “intuitive” magic, between Town and Country, but two things happen to blur the lines and show us an interrelation between them.
First, Vinculus’s scarf slips, showing “a curious curving mark of a vivid blue, not unlike the upward stroke of a pen”. However important this may prove to be later, it’s obviously relevant now; the street-magician is being described partly in terms of text & writing, and that fits in precisely with the themes of this chapter.
Secondly, the chapter ends with Mr Norrell’s disgusted reaction to a former favourite, Thomas Lanchester’s The Language of Birds, on discovering the following passage:“There is nothing else in magic but the wild thought of the bird as it casts itself into the void. There is no creature upon the earth with such potential for magic. Even the least of them may fly straight out of this world and come by chance to the Other Lands. Where does the wind come from that blows upon your face, that fans the pages of your book? Where the harum-scarum magic of small wild creatures meets the magic of Man, where the language of the wind and the rain and the trees can be understood, there we will find the Raven King…”
“He is mystical, my lord! He is mystical!”
Chapter 14 – Heart-break Farm
We finally meet Jonathan Strange, at his family home on the Welsh borders, and the chapter begins with a sketch of his recent family history. It’s rather unpleasant, and rather archetypal; Shropshire country gentry marries Edinburgh heiress, makes her extremely unhappy, a son is born, the mother dies, the son grows up “a little spoilt, a little fond of his own way, and a little inclined to think well of himself”. I shall skim over the story of Laurence Strange and the new manservant, observing only that yet again, we see a clever, competent servant playing an important if tangential role, and we see how an interesting episode becomes expanded and mythologised, becoming the stuff of fairy-tale.
We don’t see Jonathan Strange for long at all, and this reminds me of another literary influence: The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It’s rather earlier than this is set, but there are certainly some similarities. (I’d also recommend that heartily to all fans of family stories, bawdy humour, and extended digressions.)