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!”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Peter Hall, 1968)

There’s one thing I particularly like about watching old films, and that’s the credits. Complete, slow enough to read, and at the beginning so we know who’s who to start with. And with this cast, there’s a lot of who’s who to remember.

To name only the highlights, we’ve got Judi Dench (M) as Titania; Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth I and II) as Hermia; Diana Rigg (Emma Peel) as Helena; Ian Richardson (Francis Urquhart) as Oberon; David Warner (Lord Downey) as Lysander; and Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins) as Puck.

Adaptations of this play are usually set in some fantastical fairyland studio set, a glittering or louring magical wood, some evocation of the Wild Wood, the Forest Primaeval. This one isn’t; it’s filmed in a forest. An ordinary, un-tarted-up English forest, with an ordinary English village & country house near it. For me, that only increases its power: it’s a real place, like hundreds I’ve walked through, and that makes it a much rawer and less mediated experience. The film has the same undramatic magic as the English woodlands do.

The fairies, too, display a similar sort of wonderful undramatic magic. They appear and disappear without a fuss—did they blink out of existence, or were they moving too fast to see? Just where did they appear from while we glanced away? When Bottom tries to leave the forest (Out of this wood do not desire to go!), he runs every which way, but Titania is always in front of him, and in Act II, Scene 1 (if you want to check the scenes against the text, there’s a good and very usable copy here) Titania’s court stream in through flickers and jump-cuts like a Wild Hunt, or like a bacchanal riot—or like dozens of children in the woods at night, because that’s what they are. It’s often traditional to cast children as the fairies, for whatever allegedly child-like qualities you want to invoke, but it’s rare to see them actually behaving like real children, rather than a director’s child-like fairy ideal. Clare Dench, as the first fairy we see, is utterly enchanting as she stamps in a pond (drenching Puck) and listens to the stories he spins to make her laugh, and when Titania gathers her court around her to sing her to sleep she behaves more like an indulgent and adoring mother than an imperious queen. In fact, this episode reminded me strongly of Neverland, with Titania playing Wendy and the brave but hopelessly incompetent Cobweb standing guard while she sleeps. When Oberon goes to dose Titania with his magical herb, a minion distracts Cobweb with a branch upside the head; it makes a very comedic ‘clunk!’ sound. In fact, Puck seems to induce sound effects and similar cartoon tropes everywhere he goes, dashing off with a ‘whoosh!’ and returning panting like a labrador, and when he leads the four lovers around in the night and fog they become hopelessly infected with cartoonishness. (There’s textual evidence for it, mind you: Those things best please me that befall preposterously.) Holm’s an amazing non-verbal actor, and his bounding, anarchic, good-hearted Puck is a delight to watch. Puck is the sort of character it’s hard not to play to extremes, because he just works so well that way, but Holm shows a lot of restraint both in his mischief—mazing and wearying Lysander and Demetrius, but without bouncing around or showing off any Weird Shit—and his kindness, in telling tales for a fairy child, and putting Helena and Hermia to sleep with a kiss on the cheek.

Ian Richardson makes a good Oberon, clearly very manly in his body language, but not showing any performative masculinity at all. Titania shows an honest, uncomplicated sensuality, but (despite spending the entire film dressed in a half-dozen leaves) comes over as protective and motherly rather than at all sexual. Her wonderful speech in II.1 (ll.450-486) is strongly felt, passionate but not fierce, and for every moment of it she has her eyes fixed either on Oberon or to camera. There’s a lot of fourth-wall-breaking in this film; practically every soliloquy is delivered straight to us. Oberon, in an interesting contrast, spends most of his lines gazing off into the middle distance while green leaves wave behind him. Unlike many versions of this couple, there’s clearly real and genuine affection between them. I’m not sure how that chimes with Oberon slipping her a roofie and getting her screwed by a mortal, and she cries real tears when he shows her that her dream did happen after all, but hey. I’ve seen weirder relationships, and their kink is not my kink. Their subsequent dance is really sweet, a montage of kisses and hands sliding over hands, and they show visible affection in the final scene. When they’re together, there’s nothing courtly going on; this is a family, and it shows.

So much for the fairies; now, the mortals, and lord! what fools these mortals be.

Mirren makes an adorable, lively, giggling, gambolling, bouncing Helena, teasing Lysander when he tries to repudiate his love for her, and only switching to fury when they make fun of her height. Rigg’s Helena is quite a contrast, and not just because this film reverses the usual short-brunette/tall-blonde colour-matching. They play off each other really well, and you can quite believe that they spent their childhoods together. Warner’s Lysander, on the other hand, is simultaneously threatening and sleazy, flirting enough with Helena that his later declaration of love doesn’t surprise her; Demetrius is threatening and gormless. Theseus, on the other hand, is sleek and dark, and incapable of saying anything without making it sound extremely sinister, to the point where I had to double-check that he wasn’t played by Anthony Ainley or Roger Delgado. (He even has the little beard. He wasn’t, of course, but Michael Jayston, who plays Demetrius, was the Valeyard. Just so you know.)

The mechanicals are classic British working class, ranging from nice but thick (Snout) to Quince’s twinkle-eyed grandfatherly wide-boy, who reminds me of several tradesmen I’ve known, and Bottom’s lovable rogue, forever acting out to impress his mates. I can’t find a great deal to say about the mechanicals; they do the job well, and it’s a pleasure to watch, but there are no surprises. I’m always a bit irked by the play’s portrayal of some of the working classes as thick, but that’s 1960s Britain for you. Progressive in patches.

The actors certainly got realistically dishevelled after their time in the woods, with messy hair and huge splotches of real mud; this is not Hollywood dirt! The costuming was fairly eclectic, based on unremarkable 1960s clothing, but with a few touches to make it look Elizabethan (swords, cloaks), Athenian (Theseus’s natty wrinkled-polycotton-sheet and doily ensemble, and Hermia’s sandals) and generically warlike (Hippolyta’s leather minidress and boots). Bottom’s ass’s head is a typical product of fine British television engineering, from the same era that produced Basil Brush. The only other item that’s worth much of a mention is Lysander’s flowered shirt, and that can safely be classed under “eldritch abomination”. Let us never speak of it again.

Overall, this is a wonderful film, and I’m delighted to have had this opportunity to review it for you all! The only thing I’d take issue with is the ending. Holm’s delivery of Puck’s final speech really surprised me; it’s very fast and enthusiastic, as though Hall wanted to end the play on an emotional upbeat. I think I can see his reasoning, but I’m not convinced that was the right way to do it. Any thoughts, O my friends and fellow appreciators?

Jonathan Norrell & Mr Strange – admin note

I have finally given in to reality (cold and stinging as a Yorkshire October as it is) and admitted that I’m not going to get this done within June, and most of those of you who are reading along probably aren’t going to be able to keep up the same pace throughout anyway.

So posts are going to continue to be fairly sporadic, but I’m going to stop feeling guilty over it.

Chapters 21 & 22, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Chapter 21 – “The cards of Marseilles”

Childermass and Vinculus go to the Pineapple, a most unsavoury drinking den built above the Fleet, and they discuss magicians, books, and fortunes over hot spiced ale. Vinculus has such a book – his inheritance, “the greatest glory and the greatest burden that has been given to any man in this Age”. Of course, he won’t tell Childermass any more about it, let alone sell to Mr Norrell.

Childermass produces his set of cards—which we all, as intelligent readers, will recognise as a Tarot deck—and proceeds to tell Vinculus’s fortune. His actions are governed by the Hermit; the Fool appears, and Childermass does not know how to interpret that; Justice says that Vinculus has weighed his choices, and come to a decision; and the Two of Wands says that Vinculus is going wandering. So he’s going to leave London after all, on his own account. The Page of Cups shows that Vinculus has a message to deliver to someone; that someone is the Knight of Wands, a finely dressed man bearing a leafy branch as a club. The Two of Swords, the Hanged Man, and the World show a meeting, leading to an ordeal (perhaps even death) but his purpose will be achieved.

It’s interesting that Childermass’s cards are drawn on the back of used scrap paper, and that the text shows through in reverse – the Page of Cups “had been drawn upon the back of a letter and the writing shewed through the paper. The man’s clothes were a mass of scribble and even his face and hands bore parts of letters.” Text is always important, and since the writing is reversed, that brings in mirrors: in this novel, a sure sign that something important and magical is coming up.

So, let’s look at the spread Vinculus deals for Childermass, that he can’t interpret. First is the Moon (doubt, deception, romanticism) and then the House of God reversed, which may mean that everything’s going dramatically pear-shaped but he’s going to come out of it well himself. A problem, the Nine of Swords (between life and death, dreams & reality), and its solution, the Page of Wands (drive; walking through fire), are next; the Ten of Wands, reversed, shows he’s bearing up under a massive load, and the High Priestess shows that the load is text & mystery. (It also represents the querent, interestingly enough—in this case, Vinculus.) The Wheel of Fortune, the Two of Coins, and the King of Cups show a sudden change, a devious approach to life, and a powerful water-associated man. Well, that’s certainly Childermass, all right.

Vinculus insists that there is a third fortune to be told: Mr Norrell’s. The Emperor begins the spread, and continues it—every card dealt is the Emperor, growing successively younger and darker, with no eagle but a raven by his side.

His fortune, it seems, is the Raven King.

Chapter 22 – “The Knight of Wands”

So this is whom Vinculus has a message for: Jonathan Strange. He is recently bereaved, and (as is natural in a gentleman of his age and situation) is now considering marriage. His intended, Miss Arabella Woodhope, is in all respects a perfectly normal young Regency lady, in point of fact a clergyman’s sister, and the only real information as to her character that we’re given here is her “curious dissatisfaction” with Strange’s chosen path in life—or rather, with his constant, consistent, and committed lack of a path. She has, it seems, persuaded him to gamble less, drink less, and even think seriously about considering choosing a career.

On the road to visit Miss Woodhope in Gloucestershire, Jonathan Strange and the new manservant (described in Chapter 15; following the text, we shall now refer to him as Jeremy Johns) pass through a typical English village by the name of Monk Gretton. Ice and frost lie on the ground, and a strange silence and desuetude affect the village. The reason for this is that the villagers are clustered around a sleeping magician, curled like an old grey tree root under the hedge. “Did you never hear that if you wake a magician before his time, you risk bringing his dreams out of his head into the world?”

Strange does not stop at first, but as he tells the story to an image of Miss Woodhope in his head, and realises that she will ask what he did to help, he turns back; as a precaution, Jeremy Johns finds them each a stout stick, with the leaves still on. Conveniently, the magician wakes as Strange enquires about him, and we see that it is Vinculus.

Now well aware whom his message is for, he hams it up, and (of course) recites the whole prophecy all over again. Strange had had no notion of being a magician, and protests that he knows no magic; Vinculus counters that objection quite handily, by selling him the three spells with which Mr Norrell provided Childermass for seven shillings and sixpence. It’s all rather neat, isn’t it? Messenger of prophecy and agent of its fulfilment, all in one, like a text writing itself.

Strange paused. He did not want to tell his real reason—which was to impress Arabella with his determination to do something sober and scholarly—and so he fell back on the only other explanation he could think of. “I met a man under a hedge at Monk Gretton who told me that I was a magician.”

Anyone can simply decide to be a magician, but the test of things is in doing magic, and—partly in the spirit of scientific enquiry, and partly in the spirit of a frivolous parlour game—Strange tries out the spell to discover what his enemy is doing presently. He has no enemies that he knows, but the mirror shows someone in any case: an unremarkable sort of man in an old-fashioned wig, perhaps fifty and dressed very plainly in a grey coat, surrounded entirely by books. I think we, as readers, are justified in concluding that this is Mr Norrell?

That’s where we close today, because these two chapters finish Volume I. Volume II is entitled “Jonathan Strange”, and shows a portrait of a long-faced, finely dressed gentleman, with a simultaneously sad and merry aspect to him. The quotation below it is a delightful one: “Could a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”

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!

Chapters 11 – 14, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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.”
December 1807

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.)

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.”

A short delay

My commentary on the next five chapters of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell will show up tomorrow night, rather than tonight, due to a scheduling somethingorother. Wrong kind of leaves on the track… we wanted oak, ash, and thorn, but got oleander, acacia, and thistles instead.

In the meantime, for your reading and listening pleasure: Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, from Project Gutenberg, and Emily Portman‘s beautiful song “Tongue Tied”.

Chapters 1-5 of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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!

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: an Introduction

Cover image: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

This is a book I adore utterly, and cannot easily describe. It is, of course, about faerie, and the people and things of faerie; that’s why I’m writing about it here! It’s a little like Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, a little like Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances (and not just in sharing a time period), and utterly English: an extended meditation on our history, our land, and our often fraught relationship to it.

I’m going to be re-reading the whole book over the course of the month, and blogging it, five chapters at a time. Chapters 1-5 will go live later tonight, and then it’ll be a post every other day. I hope many of you will be able to read along with me, but even if you can’t, please do read on and join in! Your comments help to make these posts work.

NB: Whilst I’ll try to avoid forward spoilers in the posts themselves for the sake of anyone reading for the first time, the comments are completely fair game for speculation, spoilers, silly games, and many other things that don’t even begin with “S”.

And if you want to pass the time till the curtains draw back and our story begins, tell me: why do you love this book? Who’s your favourite character, and why?

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