Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Chapters 23-27

Chapter 23 – “The Shadow House”
July 1809

Oh my goodness, the wonderful descriptions in this chapter. The eponymous Shadow House is in ruins, but perhaps that was deliberate; perhaps its second famous resident, the magician Maria Absalom, allowed it to fall into disrepair to increase its magical character. To quote from Strange 1816, as presented in a footnote: [H]ouses where the stones are mortared with moonlight, windowed with starlight and furnished with the dusty wind. It is said that in that day, in that hour, our houses become the possessions of the Raven King. Though we bewail the end of English magic […] let us not forget that it also waits for us at England’s end and one day we will no more be able to escape the Raven King than, in this present age, we can bring him back.

The other famous resident, incidentally, was Gregory Absalom, who had the singular and rather surprising honour to be court magician to Henry VIII, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth. In the incredibly politically volatile atmosphere of the Tudor age, that’s an amazing accomplishment, and it’s probably significant that he was away from court during the ferociously (and fierily) Protestant reign of Edward VI. There’s a strand running through English literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that equates fairies with Catholicism, evident to an extent in Kipling’s work (Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies) but mostly in one particular poem I’m remembering, but can’t get hold of until I’m at home again.

We learn this history before coming to the Shadow House itself, but that’s not the start of the chapter; it begins like this. On a summer’s day in 1809 two riders were travelling along a dusty country lane in Wiltshire. The sky was of a deep, brilliant blue, and beneath it England lay sketched in deep shadows and in hazy reflections of the sky’s fierce light. A great horse-chestnut leant over the road and made a pool of black shadow, and when the two riders reached the shadow it swallowed them up so that nothing remained of them except their voices.

They are our old friends, Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus, come to pursue a lead in the case of a girl long-dead, a girl who wore ivy leaves in her hair (and English magicians were always honoured with ivy), a girl murdered on the stones of York Minster, whom a statue bewailed in Chapter 3. The Shadow House, of course, has nothing to do with their object in Wiltshire; they’re merely indulging in some magical tourism whilst in the area.

The gates to the house are an immediate introduction to the otherworldliness of place at the Shadow House: wrought-iron turned by time to dust-of-roses, fine rust painting the wicked laughing faces of fairies as sinners in a too-hot Infernal furnace.

Beyond the gate were a thousand pale pink roses and high, nodding cliffs of sunlit elm and ash and chestnut and the blue, blue sky. (The breathless speed of this sentence, as we peer through the gate with Mr Segundus, taking in masses of colour and species at a glance is masterful.) There were four tall gables and a multitude of high grey chimneys and stone-latticed windows. But the Shadow House had been a ruined house for well over a century and was built as much of elder-trees and dog roses as of silvery limestone and had in its composition as much of summer-scented breezes as of iron and timber.

Our companions are forced by the summer heat and the strange effect of the place (There is no word in the English language for a magician’s garden two hundred years after the magician is dead.) to sit and rest; Mr Segundus falls asleep; and, as must inevitably happen under such circumstances, Mr Segundus dreams.

To be precise, he dreams Jonathan Strange’s dream; a peculiar sort of dream, which Strange has caused in order to summon up the dead Miss Absalom for magical advice. The dream, and thus the spell, is interrupted; the four gentleman (for Strange’s brother Mr Woodhope has accompanied him there) return to the George in Avebury for a slap-up meal and some enthusiastic magical discussion, culimating in the suggestion that Strange approach Mr Norrell for an apprenticeship. What could possibly go wrong?

Chapter 24 – “Another magician.”
September 1809

The first meeting between Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The two (and Mrs Arabella Strange, who accompanies her husband, and who seems so far to be an extremely sensible and level-headed young lady) quickly determine that they agree on almost nothing at all, and in particular about the importance of fairies—and of the Raven King—to English magic.

At the next fashionable dinner-party, Lascelles quickly dismisses Strange as a Casaubon par excellence, delving into his obsessive researches and entirely disregarding the most important modern approaches—Mr Norrell’s, of course. Strange’s friends, on the other hand, enjoy themselves comparing a magician who hopes the Raven King would soon be forgot to a fishmonger who denies the existence of the sea, or an Archbishop of Canterbury suppressing all knowledge of the Trinity.

Mr Norrell decides that he does wish to see Strange again, as Arabella predicted, and finds a goodwill-present for him. A book, of course, but not one of his own. Instead, he chooses what may well be the single most tedious work of scholarship in the entire history of writing: Jeremy Tott’s biography of his brother Horace, who died at seventy-four without having begun writing the book on English magic that he had always intended.

Strange, asked to perform some magic (first by Drawlight and then, surprisingly, by Mr Norrell) exchanges the Tott with its reflection in Mr Norrell’s library mirror.

“That is remarkable! That is truly… My dear Mr Strange! I never even heard of such magic before! It is not listed in Sutton-Grove. I assure you, my dear sir, it is not in Sutton-Grove!”
“To own the truth,” Strange said at last, “I have only the haziest notion of what I did. I dare say it is just the same with you, sir, one has a sensation like music playing at the back of one’s head—one simply knows what the next note will be.”
“Quite remarkable,” said Mr Norrell.
What was perhaps more remarkable was that Mr Norrell, who had lived all his life in fear of one day discovering a rival, had finally seen another man’s magic, and far from being crushed by the sight, found himself elated by it.

The chapter ends, not with Mr Norrell’s offer to take Mr Strange as a pupil, but with his apparently unimportant fretting. “Magicians have no business marrying.” I’m sure that’s going to be relevant somewhere…

Chapter 25 “The education of a magician”
September – December 1809

Mr Norrell’s library in Hanover-square, in contrast to the one at Hurtfew, is done in a spring theme – The walls were covered with a light green paper, with a pattern of green oak leaves and knobbly oak twigs, and there was a little dome set into the ceiling which was painted to represent the leafy canopy of a glade in spring. Say one thing for Mr Norrell, say he knows how to decorate a library.

Many of the books have been removed – sent back to Hurtfew, in fact – before Strange’s pupillary visits, but Mr Norrell does finally manage to persuade himself that Strange should actually be allowed to touch, even to read, the books that remain. The two discuss the role of fairies in English magic; to nobody’s surprise, Mr Norrell is strongly against it, but he does have a plausible theory about why they’ve always been considered central. The Raven King ruled three kingdoms, one in the North of England and two in the Other Lands, and what better way to bring his English and fairy subjects closer together than through magic? Mind you, we learn in a footnote that Richard Chaston (1620-95) “wrote that men and fairies both contain within them a faculty of reason and a faculty of magic. In men reason is strong and magic is weak. With fairies it is the other way round: magic comes very naturally to them, but by human standards they are barely sane.” Now, what does that tell us about humans to whom magic comes naturally…

Later, they discuss “magical powers that are got by some means into rings, stones, amulets—things of that sort”. Mr Norrell had told Strange last week that such things were a fable, but this week he says that he had often been tempted to do such things himself, because “his own skills can be quite overturned by a heavy cold or a bad sore throat”, but research proves it a Bad Idea; “there is scarcely a magician in history who, having once committed some of his skill and power to a magic ring, did not somehow lose that ring and was put to a world of trouble to get it back again.” Clearly, there is a copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ magnificent Tough Guide to Fantasyland in Mr Norrell’s wonderful library.

Four pages’ worth of extremely long footnote are given over to the story of the Master of Nottingham’s magic ring, and a paragraph at the end of that to a different, much less fairytale-ish, more woman-centric story which Strange considered to be the true version. (Strange, passim)

The chapter concludes with more on the Peninsular War; apparently, Mr Norrell has been sending bad dreams by magic to the Emperor Napoleon, but being such a fearful person himself he really has no talent for horrors. Strange, on the other hand, sends complex and terrible dreams to Alexander, the Emperor of Russia, and that hampers his involvement in the war by a great deal.

Chapter 26 – “Orb, crown and sceptre”
September 1809

Stephen Black has been under a fairy enchantment for nearly two years now, and the gentleman with the thistledown hair has been making him continual extravagant gifts. “He was sick of the sight of gold and silver, and his little room at the top of the house in Harley-street was full of treasures he did not want.”

Every time he tries to tell someone about this, he finds himself talking about other subjects instead; the cultivation and magical properties of beans, for instance, or the occasion on which Julius Caesar heard cases in an English fairy court and was rewarded with his heart’s desire. (He wanted to rule the world. We all know how that turned out…)

After turning down the gentleman’s offer to make him Archbishop of Canterbury tomorrow, the titular royal treasures appear in three different implausible ways. The orb, notably, is capped not with a cross but with an open hand, one finger broken off.

After a cameo with poor Mrs Brandy (“who had mapped out the world in her stock”) we and Stephen are transported invisibly to Mr Strange’s sitting-room, still not unpacked: jumbled everywhere, in real danger of going up in a conflagration from the packing-straw, and Strange has broken off unpacking to read and make messy notes. That evening, there will be a charming ceremony in the belfry at Lost-hope, commemorating an occasion when the gentleman with the thistledown hair pushed his enemy’s little children out of the belfry to their deaths. “We will dress straw dolls in the children’s blood-stained clothes and fling them down on to the paving stones and then we will sing and dance and rejoice over their destruction!” Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Of course, they don’t use real children these days.

Chapter 27 – “The magician’s wife”
December 1809 – January 1810

As you’d expect, this chapter follows Arabella Strange. We begin with her decorating preoccupations, but then move on to her and Jonathan visiting with Sir Walter Pole. Strange is concerned about the time, and thinks that his watch must be fast, for it shows noon yet there are no bells—Sir Walter explains that the parish church-bells have been silenced, for Lady Pole cannot abide the sound.

Lady Pole is sitting in the drawing-room, amongst the paintings of Venice that Mr Norrell saw in Mrs Wintertowne’s house; she compares the bright, glowing paintings to the dark winding labyrinths of Lost-hope. Of course, like Stephen Black, she can’t talk about the enchantment to Mrs Strange: “I should warn you that I have made many attempts to tell people of my misery and I have never yet succeeded.” As Lady Pole said this something happened which Arabella did not understand. It was as if something in one of the paintings had moved, or someone had passed behind one of the mirrors, and the conviction came over her once again that this room was no room at all, that the walls had no real solidity but instead the room were only a sort of crossroads where strange winds blew upon Lady Pole from faraway places.

When Lady Pole is escorted away, Arabella hears a bell, “very sad and far-away”, and her imagination brings up what we can easily interpret as classic scenes from British history. …bleak, wind-swept fens and moors… a suicide buried at a lonely crossroads… a fire of bones blazing in the twilit snow… an ancient spear plunged into the mud with a strange talisman, like a little leather finger, hanging from it… a scarecrow whose black rags blew about so violently in the wind that he seemed about to leap into the grey air and fly towards you on vast black wings… (Incidentally, if this is the kind of British history you like, I suggest you try Mark Chadbourn’s work.)

The chapter ends at a concert, with Drawlight fishing for gossip about Lady Pole – specifically, whether she’s been taking drugs in order to see horrors. Nobody is allowed to see her on grounds of her ill-health, but they can’t exclude him – after all, he saw her when she was a corpse, and you can’t get much more ill than that. (Spoiler: they do.)

“Odious, odious little man!”


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