Chapters 15-20, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Chapter 15 – “How is Lady Pole?”

“Lady Pole united in one person all the different fascinations of Beauty, Politics, Wealth, and Magic.”

This chapter begins with a brief sketch of Lady Pole’s post-resurrection state (very well, thank you) and then segues into talking about servants. The house in Harley-street has a mixture of servants from Northamptonshire and native Londoners, who persecute them unmercifully for their country manners and dialect. (The phrase “betty-cat and battle-twigs” is wonderfully euphonious, isn’t it?) Lady Pole worries for her old friends (for in the country, unlike the town, the gentry actually know and talk to their servants) but Sir Walter is confident that the situation will be ably remedied by… Stephen Black. I feel as though there should be some sort of sound effect for emphasis at this point, for Stephen Black is very much a central character, and we’re about to get into the real fairy core of the book. It behooves me, then, to give a brief sketch of his person.

Before his marriage Sir Walter had had only one servant, Stephen Black, and Sir Walter’s confidence in this person knew scarcely any bounds. At Harley-street he was called “butler”, but his duties and responsibilities extended far beyond the range of any ordinary butler: he dealt with bankers and lawyers on Sir Walter’s behalf; he studied the accounts of Lady Pole’s estates and reported to Sir Walter upon what he found there; he hired servants and workmen without reference to anyone else; he directed their work and paid bills and wages.
Of course in many households there is a servant who by virtue of his exceptional intelligence and abilities is given authority beyond what is customary. But in Stephen’s case it was all the more extraordinary because Stephen was a negro. I say “extraordinary”, for is it not generally the case that a negro servant is the least-regarded person in a household? No matter how hardworking he or she may be? No matter how clever? Yet somehow Stephen Black has found a way to thwart this universal principle. He had, it is true, certain natural advantages: a handsome face and a tall, well-made figure. It certainly did him no harm that his master was a politician who was pleased to advertise his liberal principles to the world by entrusting the management of his house and business to a black servant.

The other servants, of course, whisper behind his back, fomenting rebellion, and telling each other that “if he dared to give them an order they would return him a very rude answer”; naturally, however, they do no such thing. One persistent London rumour claims him to be an “African prince, the heir to a vast kingdom, and it was well known that as soon as he grew tired of being a butler he would return there and marry a princess as black as himself.”

Of course this rumour must be correct—why else would free-born Englishmen submit themselves to the authority of a black man, “had they not instinctively felt that respect and reverence which a commoner feels for a king”?

We hear somewhat of the dinner-party conversation, but the major focus, again, is on the servants. Alfred thought he saw a “queer figure standing behind her ladyship’s chair” – clearly, the gentleman with the thistledown hair, from his description. Geoffrey was haunted throughout the meal by a pipe and fiddle, the saddest music that he ever heard, but that nobody else could hear; and Robert thought that a wood had grown up around the house.

Chapter 16 – “Lost-hope”

All of the servants, now, are convinced that the house is haunted, and their spirits are low. Stephen Black is much less affected by this, but an extra bell has appeared in the downstairs passageway: The Venetian Drawing-room; The Yellow Drawing-room; The Dining-room; Lady Pole’s Sitting-room; Lady Pole’s Bed-chamber; Lady Pole’s Dressing-room; Sir Walter’s Study; Sir Walter’s Bed-chamber; Sir Walter’s Dressing-room; Lost-hope.

A door which Stephen has never seen before leads to a mysterious room, old and plain grey stone, with one small glass-less window looking onto a starlit sky. The gentleman with the thistle-down hair requires assistance to prepare himself, for “Lady Pole is to attend a ball tonight at my house”, and his own servant has “run off and hidden himself somewhere”. Stephen brushes the gentleman’s hair, and shaves him with a delicate silver razor, and we note that all his accoutrements are extremely modern and fashionable, including “a great treasure of mine that I wish Lady Pole to wear at my ball tonight!” – her finger. Stephen sees nothing odd about this—indeed, “if any one had questioned him about it just then, he would have replied that gentlemen often carried fingers about with them in little boxes and that this was just one of many examples he had seen.”—and frankly, who would know better than he?

At this point, we must pause for a spot of enthusiastic squee, because this chapter is bringing the slash. Oh ye little snails and acorns, so much slash!

Together, he and Stephen admired his reflection in the mirror. Stephen could not help but notice how they perfectly complimented each other: gleaming black skin next to opalescent white skin, each a perfect example of a particular type of masculine beauty.

The gentleman refuses to consider that Stephen is really a servant, as beautiful as he is; surely his enemies must have cast him down! But tonight, he is to attend the gentleman’s ball. They debate momentarily, but there is no use arguing; they are already there!

The hall is lit by “an insufficient number of tallow candles”, and the dancing music is but a single viol and fife, the same melancholy music that Geoffrey heard. A dark, tangled wood grows around the house. The guests are utterly beautiful, and Stephen does not at all lack for dancing partners; the first is a lady wearing “a gown the colour of storms, shadows and rain and a necklace of broken promises and regrets”. And to crown the evening: “Whenever Stephen chanced to catch his eye, the gentleman with the thistle-down hair smiled and bowed his head and gave every sign of wishing to convey that, of all the delightful circumstances of the ball, what pleased him most was to see Stephen Black there.”

Chapter 17 – “The unaccountable appearance of twenty-five guineas”

Mrs Brandy, the proprietor of Brandy’s grocer in St James’s-street, and a particular friend of Stephen Black’s, has discovered twenty-five perfect golden guineas in her cashbox, and calls Stephen to ask his advice.

The effect of fairy gold is quite singular: the light shining from it makes people look quite unlike themselves, proud and haughty or sly and deceitful, and appears to change the labels on all of the stock-drawers. Mercy (Deserved), Mercy (Undeserved), Nightmares, Good Fortune, Bad Fortune, Persecution by Families, Ingratitude of Children, Confusion, Perspicacity, and Veracity. Stephen, on the other hand, appears yet more beautiful, and as though he were crowned with a diadem. This is rather in contrast to his state, grey-faced and tired to death, as though he had “all the pains of dancing, without having had any of the pleasure”. (Incidentally, “grey-faced” here looks rather odd; it’s what I’d expect from a white man in his state. Perhaps this is privilege on my part, though, and it’s an accurate description.)

Leaving St James’s-street, Stephen finds himself walking along Piccadilly, and through a magical wood to Lost-hope. The transformation of Stephen’s world around him is beautifully done, and this is one of my favourite things about the way Clarke handles the interface between the everyday and the faerie worlds. There are no jolting transitions or ritual-laden quests, no herbal ointments or dancing skyclad around bonfires; it just happens, as though it’s always been that way. As though any street or staircase might at any time lead somewhere quite different, and the path you walked were not the same path as everyone around you.

Chapter 18 – “Sir Water consults gentlemen in several professions”

Lady Pole suffers from consistent melancholy and languor, less physically affected than before her resurrection, but emotionally and conversationally very distant, utterly sick of dancing and finding music “the most detestable thing in the world”. Neither Dr Baillie nor Mr Norrell can do anything for her malady; Mr Norrell, on the other hand, goes immediately to summon the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, and complains bitterly about the latter’s implementation of their agreement. Really… has the man learned nothing from his scholarship? When you make a bargain with a fairy, this is the sort of thing that always happens.

The gentleman with the thistle-down hair responds, of course, by offering extravagant help. Perhaps he should make Sir Walter Prime Minister? Or Emperor of Great Britain, perhaps? Or teach Mr Norrell to raise up mountains and crush his enemies beneath them? He could make the clouds sing at Mr Norrell’s approach, or make it spring when Mr Norrell arrives and winter when he leaves.

“Oh, yes! And all you want in return is to shackle English magic to your whims! You will steal English men and women away from their homes and make England a place fit only for your degenerate race! The price of your help is too high for me!”

Degenerate race? That’s… so utterly nineteenth-century. And interesting, given that all other references to Victorian race theory have been quite comprehensively debunked since then, and that (as a handy footnote tells us) William Pantler, in 1735, states that the three perfectible beings are angels, men, and fairies.

Chapter 19 – “The Peep-O’-Day-Boys”

The same malady afflicting Lady Pole afflicts Stephen Black, but of course no one notices this, given the difference in their estates. Stephen felt as though he did not live any more, he only dreamed; sometimes, it seems to him as though the house in Harley-street “had accidentally got lodged inside a much larger and more ancient edifice”, somehow quite familiar to him, which we as readers can presume to be Lost-hope. And every time he encounters something of Faerie, it feels as though he wakes up a little, becomes a little more lively, a little more like his old self. As for the rest of life… “All was shadows, emptiness, echoes and dust.”

The chapter title refers to Stephen’s club, for the grander sort of male servants in London’s grand houses. The gentleman with the thistle-down hair finds him there, brags about his abilities and his feats (“indeed it must be said that his natural manner seemed to be one of extreme self-congratulation”) and explains to Stephen that he is “merely under an enchantment which brings you each night to Lost-hope to join our fairy revels!” I shall not attempt to summarize the sheer depth of slashiness this chapter holds, and will merely note that the gentleman rants against the wicked iniquity of Sir Walter Pole—clearly the person who stole away Stephen’s estate and forced him into galling servitude—and muses over which fairy kingdom would suit Stephen best. “Untold-Blessings is a fine place […] Oh, but I could not bear to see any friend of mine ruler of such a miserable little place as Pity-Me!”

Chapter 20 – “The unlikely milliner”

Mr Norrell attempts to avoid the establishment of a school—or perhaps a Royal Society—to train more magicians, and tries instead to establish a regulatory board to forbid them. This is rather too ambitious, in the middle of the war, but the City of London are rather more amenable to the idea, and shortly all of London’s street-sorcerors have left, or stopped practicing, save for Vinculus, “so popular among London’s citizens that the Committee feared a riot if he was removed by force.”

Vinculus receives a customer, supposedly a milliner, but clearly nothing of the sort, and picks his pocket whilst inquiring after his business. He wishes, it seems, to make a princess fall in love with him. Childermass—for, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, it is he—has three spells in his pocket, transcribed by Mr Norrell; Two Spells to Make an Obstinate Man leave London and One Spell to Discover what My Enemy is doing Presently. (Mr Norrell’s approach to capitalization is… interesting, even by normal eighteenth-century standards.)

Vinculus sneered. “You may tell the Mayfair magician that his spells have no effect upon me!”
“Indeed?” said Childermass sarcastically. “Well, that is probably because I have not cast them.”

Childermass, like Vinculus, does not care to be told how to conduct his business; he intends to make sure that Vinculus leaves London, but not in the way Mr Norrell has told him to.

Vinculus tucks away the spells—I strongly suspect we’ll be seeing those again—and Childermass begins his plan by taking Vinculus to the pub.

On which note—till next time!

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