Once upon a time England was divided in two: the southern half ruled by mortal kings and queens, the northern by the magician-king John Uskglass. But by the early nineteenth century the Raven King has long since vanished and the study of magic has become purely theoretical - until an old prophecy foretelling the rise of two magicians, Fearfulness and Arrogance, comes true. Fearfulness is Gilbert Norrell, a recluse who has studied for decades in secrecy on his Yorkshire estate. With the aid of his servant John Childermass, he has bought up books of magic in order that no-one else might read them and destroyed the magical careers of potential rivals. When his talents finally come to public attention, he moves to London and embarks upon the restoration of English magic. Arrogance is Jonathan Strange, who decides that magician is as good a career as any and soon arrives in the capital with his fortune and his wife. As much as Norrell hates the thought of a rival, the opportunity to discuss magic with a fellow magician - and to instil in them his own views on what constitutes Good English Magic - proves irresistible. Together master and pupil rise to fame.
After Buonaparte’s escape from Elba the relationship begins to fall apart. Norrell stays in London, firmly under the influence of his disreputable patrons Drawlight and Lascelles. Strange travels to the continent with Wellington where he acquires a reputation for spectacular magic, including blithely rearranging Spain and neglecting to arrange it back. On his return to England the two become rivals, each vying to be the first magician of the age. This is only one of Norrell’s problems; he is surrounded by arguments and troubled by thoughts of Lady Pole. To capture the attention of the political elite, he once brought the young woman back from the dead - with the aid of a fairy, a type of being he would normally avoid. The gentleman with the thistle-down hair has taken a rather different interpretation of the terms of their contract than Norrell had intended; and, unable to see things from anyone’s perspective but his own, he has continued drawing people into his enchantments. As magic floods back into England, Norrell’s dreams of establishing his own brand of magic fade. Meanwhile Strange discovers that his obsession with books and with his search for the Raven King could have cost him what he values most. And the only person who can help him is Norrell.
This seems to be my year for reading doorstoppers and this was, if not the longest, definitely the biggest. I was restricted to reading it at home because it was too large to carry on the train. It’s large in scope as well as in size, spanning some 11 years and including a vast array of characters; the above paragraphs contain only the barest bones of the plot. Inevitably some characters got lost in the crowd; my curiosity as to what became of Mrs Brandy, for instance, was never satisfied. I also experienced intermittent frustration as plot threads disappeared for chapters at a time before resurfacing, and early on there were moments where I had to pause to recall just who a particular person was.
The writing style was what you might expect if, say, Thackeray had written a history of Regency magic. The text was littered with period spellings and place names (such as Soho-square and Bond-street) and well-supplied with footnotes (some of which even referred to other footnotes). I thought these were a lovely way of providing all the background information relevant to the alternate history Clarke has created; much better than dumping it awkwardly into the story. The amount of information thus revealed was amazing; everything from old legends to fictitious biographical and bibliographical data. The book even starts with background: the events leading up to Mr Norrell’s first public display of magic. I have to admit to getting a touch impatient waiting for the arrival of Jonathan Strange, which was finally heralded by the entertaining tale of how he came into his inheritance (karma really caught up with Strange senior). Once I got used to the pace and was familiar with the cast, I got over the frustration and happily dived into the book every night. From the mythology to the characters to the period style infused with humour, I found it all thoroughly enchanting (sorry) and it will be with reluctance that I hand it back to the library.
At first I rather liked Mr Norrell, and even after it became clear what sort of person he really was I had a hard time disliking him; I actually felt somewhat sorry for him, with his dried-up life and hopeless dreams. He certainly wasn’t a villain in the class of Drawlight, Lascelles and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, all of whom met fitting fates. The latter even managed inadvertently to fulfill one of his own predictions, which came true in a perfectly logical manner that was not at all what he had planned. (Justice, really, for his tricking of Norrell). I’m a little ambivalent about the ending of the book; on the one hand it wrapped up in a sensible place (of course a book about the reintroduction of magic to England will end once that’s been accomplished), and it provided me with plenty of food for thought. But it was also frustrating because there was obviously so much more that could have been told. Did Childermass find a new Reader? Did Strange and Norrell break the enchantment or find the Raven King? You can imagine what you like. I choose to think the Mr Norrell found a bit of happiness at last, wandering the King’s Roads and seeing magic in action.