Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a fantasy novel masquerading as a Victorian novel of manners. Or, maybe a Dickensian novel with magic. Either way, it is an excellent, if sprawling book, with some delightfully quirky characters.
The story centers around two magicians: the titular Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange. Norrell, the only practical magician England has seen for the last few hundred years, is an odd man: though he obsesses over magic and magic texts, he rarely performs any spells, and has made it his personal goal to stamp out the – in his mind – deleterious influence of “the Raven King,” a medieval magician who ruled northern England (as well as a kingdom in Faerie, and another somewhere in Hell). Norrell despises the use of Faerie magic, and hopes to bring back a renaissance of a peculiarly English brand of enchantment. So, of course, one of his first blunders involves the invocation of a powerful Faerie prince, referred to only as “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.” This gentleman, insame as all Fairies are alleged to be, is one of the highlights of the novel, and often speeds up the narrative with his madman banter and ability to flit from place to place regardless of physical boundaries.
The other titular character is Jonathan Strange, an equally odd Englishman who becomes the only other magician in England – after being apprenticed to Norrell. Of course, he’s not really the only other magician, just the only other official magician. As in, he’s the only other one who gets government and military assignments. There are at least four or five other magicians in England at the time, and that’s even before Strange starts taking on pupils of his own.
This novel is just over one thousand pages, and has something like two hundred footnotes. The novel pays a number of homages to Romantic and Victorian novelists and poets, so in that sense it is metatextual. Being a sort of alternate history of the Industrial Age in Europe, the novel also makes reference to historical figures, both real and imagined. For example, Lord Byron takes an interest in Jonathan Strange, and Clarke takes every opportunity to mock the infamous rake. On the other hand, John Uskglass’ fabricated history is both compelling and believable, with just the proper amount of in-text skepticism. The mythology that surrounds him is one part folklore, one part prophecy, and one part Messianic tale. This last becomes particularly prevalent as the novel progresses, but always with just a hint of the self-mockery present in the best folk tales.
If there is one criticism of the text, it is that in typical Victorian fashion, it elevates the actions of the aristocratic over the members of lower social strata. Arguably, the three most interesting characters are Vinculus, the prophet-magician, and a charlatan beggar; Childermass, Norrell’s long-suffering servant; and Stephen Black, a black butler (clever) in whom the gentleman with the thistle-down hair takes a personal, almost obsessive interest.
Alright, there is another criticism of the novel. Or, a few. Those looking for strong female characters should look elsewhere. Long-suffering female characters, yes. But they, like the lower-class, are in the background of the novel. Race only enters into the novel peripherally through the gentleman with the thistle-down hair’s interactions with Stephen Black. This last is especially unfortunate, as the faeries are explicitly Other, and the gentleman expends no little effort on convincing Stephen Black that as a black man, so is he.
Some might argue that addressing these issues would have made the novel even longer. This is true. Which is where the final issue arises. The first quarter of the novel stretches out interminably, and it would not surprise me to discover that most people never manage to read an otherwise excellent novel. Certain parts of the novel drag, hurting the pacing of the novel as a whole. But overall, the novel is excellent. If you are a fan of Victorian authors, fantasy novels, or some of the best scenes involving faeries and Faerie, this is the book for you.