It is 1806 and all that remains of English magic is a group of “gentleman magicians, […] they had never harmed anyone by magic – nor ever done any one the slightest good”. Enter Mr. Honeyfoot and Mr. Segundus, asking “one of the most commonplace questions in the world [….] why is no more magic done in England?” Luckily they come to ask it of Gilbert Norrell, a man possessed of a vast library of magic books, a sinister servant and an unpleasant, pompous personality. Mr Norrell, it seemed, “had waited a long time for someone to ask this question and had had his answer ready for years. Mr Norrell said 'I cannot help you with your question, sir, for I do not understand it. It is a wrong question, sir. Magic is not ended in England. I myself is [sic] quite a tolerable practical magician’”. The fun then really starts as the self-professed magical practioner sets out to prove his powers by casting a spell on the great cathedral in York. On a cold winter’s day, an ancient art is revived. Stones and statues come alive and start to air hundreds of years of grievances.
From the opening paragraph of her enchanting story, Susannah Clarke casts her spell in a 782-page book which you will wish was twice as long. This magnificent and original book has been described as a fantasy novel and called ‘Harry Potter for adults’ – but it is really more like Tolkien meets Jane Austen, a heady mix of historical research and pure fantasy. Although it is a book about two magicians, it is also a scholarly novel that examines and re-imagines the past. We are brought back to Regency England, and become familiar with both the drawing rooms of London and the battlegrounds of Europe. We are introduced to the facts of early 19th century social and political history – with the added interest that, in this telling of it, magic actually works and is apparently an accepted part of the daily lives of the middle classes. Napoleon, Wellington and Mad King George III are all characters in the book and Clarke’s description of them seems as true as anything you will read in a reliable history book. The use of magic is brilliantly integrated in to known history – just turn to the pages dedicated to the battle of Waterloo.
It all starts then, when Mr Norrell is persuaded to come out of his library where he “scarcely raises his eyes from the pages of his book” and use an almost-forgotten skill to upset the gentlemen of York. “The world had changed while the magicians had been inside the Church. Magic had returned to England whether the magicians wished it to or not”. Norrell, aided by the ever-present, omnipotent Childermass, then decides that it is time to move to London. Here he wants to offer his magical services to help defeat Napoleon – and gain the glory and fame he feels is rightly his. To convince the government of his powers he proposes to revive an influential politician’s wife-to-be, who has inconveniently died just before her wedding day. But the task proves difficult, and in the end Mr Norrell has to call on the assistance of darker forces. And, as in most good stories about an other-world, once you meddle with the natural order of things, you are tempted to go too far – and so matters escape your control and bad things happen. But at first, all seems well. Having achieved the miracle, Mr Norrell begins to conquer London and is also joined by another magician who becomes his pupil. Jonathan Strange has however a very different attitude to magic. His is a natural talent with an innate capacity for magic and little reliance on ancient texts. While Norrell prefers to work alone in his library and hoard his magic, Strange wants to share his knowledge and bring his art in to the field – including the battlefields of Portugal and France. As the relationship between the two magicians develops and becomes central to the book, friendship turns to rivalry and the text also becomes darker and more sinister. The consequences of Mr Norrell’s dabbling in black magic has summoned back the vain, vindictive king of Faerie – “the gentleman with the thistledown hair” – a man who it is very dangerous to cross. The actions and conduct of both men lead them “upon the King’s Roads” where they battle both their own shortcomings and the Raven King’s powers.
Clarke’s storytelling is absolutely wonderful – the plot twists and turns and the characterization is razor-sharp. The book is imaginative, witty and with an eye for the small, fascinating detail that makes a narrative come alive. Norrell’s library, we are told, is a remarkable collection of books of magic. “At Hurtfew all the walls were lined with bookshelves and all the shelves were filled with books. And the books were all, or almost all, old books: books of magic. Oh! To be sure many had clean modern binding, but clearly these were volumes which Mr Norrell had had rebound (he favoured, it seemed, plain calf with the titles stamped in neat silver capitals). But many had bindings that were old, old, old, with crumbling spines and corner.” Perhaps Clarke’s greatest skill is her ability to create a character and make it come alive. “The man of business gave a short laugh […] With his long hair as ragged as rain and as black as thunder, he would have looked quite at home on a wind-swept moor, or lurking in some pitch-black alleyway, or perhaps in a novel by Mrs Radcliffe.” There are no wizards or witches here but plenty of stuffy, self-satisfied magicians, wicked and immoral spongers, status-obsessed bores and nasty, vindictive fairies. Add to that clever dialogue, great wordplay and an innate regard for language and you get a book where every page is a joy to read, and can be enjoyed by scholars and schoolchildren alike.