Reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, at last
We have a print copy of Susanna Clarke’s lauded novel on our bookshelves. It’s been there for a decade. TheHusband read it soon after it came out, but I tried and failed at least a couple of times (probably more), mostly recently a year ago. My failure nagged at me; I wanted to read, enjoy, and finish it. It’s set in Regency England and is chock-full of all those characters and settings I love in Austen and Heyer. I’ve read Maria Edgeworth and Thomas Love Peacock! I’ve read detailed histories of Wellington and the Spanish Campaign. Why was this book such a slog for me?
An immediate, obvious reason is the faeries. I’m fine with magic, but I hate faeries. I know they’re important to British literary and historical culture, but I don’t understand or like them and I tend to run away from books where they play a major role.
However, this time with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell seems to be the charm. Keishon had been talking about reading it and then took the plunge, and we converged on a readalong, just to help each other keep going. It’s been slow; I’ve been reading it for at least a month, but I’m making progress, and more importantly, I’m actually enjoying it this time. It’s still awfully twee in places, but I appreciate the less tweet parts more than I did in the past.
But. Nevertheless. I still don’t entirely get this book. I’m now more than halfway through (nearly 500 pages into an edition that clocks in at 836 pages). This afternoon I asked TheHusband if there were underlying themes and meanings in the novel that I was just missing. I think my exact words were, “Is it about anything? Besides magic and the storyline, I mean? Is the whole magic thing a metaphor for something?”
He thought for a minute and said, “No, I don’t think so. Not that I remember. I think the story is just the story.” I believed him (he reads a lot and quite widely), but I remained dissatisfied. So I got online and started reading reviews. There are, of course, a ton of rave reviews. Although, I did not realize this book had been described as an adult Harry Potter. Hey, I’m an adult and I read Harry Potter. Harry Potter is the adult Harry Potter. But anyway.
The reviews that resonated with me were the ones in the New York Times and the Guardian. Gregory Macguire, in the NYT, is mostly complimentary, but he finds the characters lacking in depth and notes that “In this fantasy, the master that magic serves is reverence for writing.” Michael Faber is more critical in his Guardian review:
Yes, the Austen imitation is deftly maintained and the other obvious influences – Ursula le Guin, Mervyn Peake, Dickens, Chesterton – are well-synthesised. But overall this large, loquacious book has nothing much to say, the plot creaks frightfully in many places and the pace dawdles.
And that’s my problem. I’ve seen this novel described as “literary fantasy,” and without getting too deeply what comprises genre v. literary fiction, I find “literary” to be an odd appellation. Unless by the word you mean erudition, in which case any number of genre books meet that definition. Romance, mystery, and SFF authors can be terrifyingly well read, educated, and insightful, and those qualities come through in their books. But I do expect literary fiction, whether genre-friendly or not, to operate on more than one level, and to do so in a subtle, complex way. There are plenty of genre novels that hit you over the head with their messages (and plenty of “litfic” novels that do too), but they generally aren’t successful in a literary sense.
But Clarke’s book has been so widely praised (the best English fantasy of the 20th century!) that I expected more than I’m getting. Don’t get me wrong. I’m having a fun ride, and I will definitely read to the end. Now that the gauntlet has been thrown down about the true role of the Raven King in English magic, now that the conflicts between Strange and Norrell have been made manifest, things are getting really interesting on the magic and character fronts.
It’s a highly enjoyable and very skillfully executed fantasy novel. I wish I hadn’t been under the impression for so many years that it was more than that. That’s quite enough, really, to make it worth the time and energy.
I couldn’t get into this book when I tried it. Part of it was the length, but I think that’s far from all. I didn’t think of it as literary fiction but rather as mainstream fiction with a strong element of fantasy. But I think that was my other stumbling block. The characters, both Norrell and the fairy, struck me as unpleasant people. I expect that sometimes from literary fiction, where characters don’t have to be sympathetic, but not so much from mainstream fiction or fantasy fiction.
I caught some of the miniseries when it was on TV and found the characters as unappealing there as they’d been in the book. As with what you say about the book, I didn’t get the sense that the show had anything to say. My husband enjoyed it more than I did, and read the book after the show was over, too.
I agree that it’s not literary fiction, and I should have realized that at the outset. But when it came out it was praised as literary fantasy and I think that stuck with me. It’s pretty straightforward realist/historical fantasy, really, or historical fiction with a strong fantasy element.
I didn’t mind the characters being off-putting, because I do think they’re interesting. It takes about 200 pages, though, especially since you start with characters that then fade away (for the next 450 pages, at least).
I like the setting, but as I told Keishon, it alternates between overly twee and quite engrossing. When Strange went off to the Napoleonic Wars, she definitely caught my attention and held it. But I’m not enough of a connoisseur of fantasy writing to care about the way she’s engaging previous works (what MacGuire talks about in his NYT review).
Great post! I think I’m enjoying it a bit more but you’re right, in that so far, there isn’t any hidden themes or messages. It’s just a story about magic in Regency England. Maybe it could be about rivalry and rejecting the past vs. those who embrace it? Joking, maybe but that’s really reaching. It really does seem to be about only the rivalry between two magicians and their role and goals in making magic respectable. This story is also labeled as alternate historical fantasy and that’s enough for me in that regard in its purpose and expectations. It’s a slog because there really isn’t anything going on, no major revelations or surprises or twists. It’s just has a sometime action-orientated scenes, rivalry, Regency England snobbery and war imbued with malevolent faeries and dark magic. What is there not to like? *g* Not every story has to have a purpose (of course I wouldn’t want to read many of these) so if we finish this, we can say at last that we read it for ourselves. Unlike you, I didn’t read any of the reviews in depth or have preconceived notions about the book to fight against. I was inspired by the BBC America TV series and they did a great job in adapting the novel.
You’re not wrong about rivalry, the past, etc. I think those themes are there. And now that I’ve settled into understanding that what’s on the page is what I’m getting, I’m enjoying it a lot. I love the Wellington sections, and I find the man with the thistledown hair quite interesting. And clearly the women are going to play key roles, even though the men dominate the foreground.
I think coming at it from the TV series is a good way to approach it. Then you have a framework to get you through the sloggy bits, and you can appreciate the plot and language when it’s good (which it frequently is).
I’m really glad you got me reading this, finally! And reading slowly but steadily is working well for me.
I definitely remember this as being something of a slog, although I thought the end was good–finally some things happened, and seemed to matter. But I would have liked more “aboutness”–which genre fiction with fewer literary pretensions can certainly have (I don’t mean that it’s pretentious, but Faber is right about all the allusions and intellect is very much on display). I really liked her book of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, where you get some of the best things about this book without the slog.
I find it a little bit pretentious, because it has pretty regular episodes of “look how smart I am! Here’s another allusion!” Of course Dunnett does that too, and I don’t think of her as pretentious, but I know some readers do. Maybe where you come down on it depends on what your touchstones are. I’ve never read Mirrlees and I’m not a Tolkien fan, so I don’t get those jolts of recognition and pleasure lovers of those authors do. And I’ve already mentioned my issue with Faeries. Now I have to go read Gormenghast at last, though (of course it’s on my bookshelf), and see if this is better as an English fantasy than that.
I will say, though, that I’m liking it more as I go along. It’s way longer than it needs to be, but I’m enjoying sinking into the world.
I’m glad you’re (basically) enjoying it. I’ve read it twice and felt rewarded each time. I do remember when I started I was surprised I got hooked at all, because I found the emotional tenor of the book rather cold. Even with a humor that appealed to me—and _that_ could be quite cutting. (The time when Strange only stops to help someone once he realizes Arabella would ask him if he did—if he ever recounted what he’d seen.)
I remember the “Harry Potter for adults” sales pitch. I think rather than saying it was really that much like HP, it was perhaps trying to make the point that adults can enjoy fantasy, as it was marketed to the mainstream audiences. (Not that I can have any real insight to their line of thinking there, beyond Very Popular Book. But I do know that some of my relatives, who have zero interest in genre, were at least aware of the book.)
Anyway, I’ll admit I have a weakness for AU set in historical times, from all over the map, eg. Jeannie Lin’s steampunk, Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, Elliott’s Cold Magic. But it’s not everyone’s catnip.
And I’m woefully oblivious when it comes to Clarke’s allusions. But then I was that way with Dunnett too, who I loved so hard.
I love AU in historical times too (Lin and Guy Gavriel Kay in particular), but I’m glad I hadn’t read this before I read the Cho. It is even more a two-times-removed pastiche. Not that that’s not totally acceptable in fiction, of course, but given Clarke is a pastiche of Thackeray/Austen and fantasy writers, it makes it feel even more derivative to me. When I got to the scene with Stephen Black and the man with thistledown hair, I felt like I was reading a prior version of Cho’s hero.
That makes sense about how the Harry Potter comparison was received. I read the reviews of the Clarke when it came out, but I also read a rave by someone who reads and recommends a lot of political SF (Banks, Gibson, etc.) and so that reinforced my “literary fantasy” idea. I thought it was the fantasy version of those SF books, and of course it’s not. Which is totally my own misunderstanding but it shaped my approach to it. Now that I’ve shaken that I’m enjoying it on its own terms.
I agree that the tone is a bit cold, or at least not warm. The main characters are devoted to their work, basically, and human interactions are mostly in service to that. I kind of like that part though. 😉
I really had trouble with this one – for all the elements I enjoyed, there was just SO MUCH other stuff to wade through. I thought the pacing was off – glacial for huge chunks, and then racing through important stuff. And I don’t want to be spoilery for you, but… I didn’t find the ending very satisfying, either.
Grrr. Another book where I loved the IDEA much more than the execution.
You’re totally right about the pacing, and it take getting used to, but in some ways it’s like life: long slow stretches punctuated by excitement. I’m almost used to it now. You really have to give yourself up to it, I think, and I understand why people don’t (I didn’t for at least three reads!).
I’m starting to get the hang of what she *is* doing, rather than what I thought she was doing.
I have a copy of this on my bookshelf. I keep trying to read it, but never get past the first 50 pages. I watched the adaptation of the book and enjoyed it…but also kept thinking that the pacing was terribly slow. If the adaptation, which I assume chopped a lot out, was slow, how much slower is the original medium? Maybe I’ll give it another try on my next long road trip, when I’ve denied myself the use of the electronic entertainment.
It’s pretty slow. No difference there.
I’m reading it while I exercise on the treadmill, which means whatever I can get through in 30 minutes. It’s usually 35-40 pages or so (depending on the footnotes, which I skim or skip). It’s working well, because when it’s slow paced it doesn’t last that long, and when it’s exciting the time passes quickly. 🙂
I got the idea from the Bookends column in the NYT, where Leslie Jamieson talked about reading INFINITE JEST that way (50 pages a day, every day). I’d found that intriguing and when I fell into the pattern, I just kept going.
Total aside: Have you read Infinite Jest?
No, I haven’t, although I want to. I avoided it when it came out, and then the LitBros took it over, but I’ve really liked a number of DFW’s essays, so I bought the book in print a couple of years ago and I picked up the ebook in a deal some time before that. I might try it this year, using the 50 pages/day method. I have three or four 700+ page books I want to read this year, and I find that reading one slowly and steadily while reading shorter, less demanding books on the side works pretty well.
I read the first 50 pages of IJ and really liked the voice.
Now I’m feeling vaguely guilty since I finally gave away my copy of JS & MN last year. I bought it when it first came out (so about 10 years ago I think) and it sat on my night table for most of those years. And every year for about 6 years in a row I would start it and then stop. I don’t think I ever went past the first 200 pages. And then I just stopped trying and last year out it went when I made an attempt to edit my massive TBR pile.
It’s in theory a book I should love. I love fantasy, I’ve read and enjoyed lots of older fantasy — MacDonald, Dunsany, Peake and of course Tolkien and lots of newer British fantasy — Pullman, Gaiman, Pratchett, Stroud. I love Austen, Heyer, Thackeray. Heck I even like War & Peace and other nice, long meandering 19th-century novels. And I love, love footnotes (it’s the historian in me, footnotes are often where the fun stuff hides).
But each time I started JS & MN, I struggled with it. I could admire the writing, but for such a heavy tome, the plot and characters felt to me underdeveloped and slight. And yet now I’m wondering if I should try again with a library copy. But perhaps not until I read at least some of the books that I kept on my TBR pile.
Dunsany! I’d forgotten about him. Yes, I’ve read a couple of his books too, and of course Gaiman and Pratchett. And like you, I’m a big fan of 19thC long, meandering novels.
I agree that the characters feel underdeveloped. I think MacGuire got it write: Clarke is writing as much about and to the British fantasy tradition as she is writing a book about particular characters in a particular story. The story really is good, but she is so in love with her setting and her words in Part I that I found it offputting. And Norrell is neither likeable or particularly interesting. He starts out interesting but then he’s pretty predictable. Strange has more life to him, but the characters are written in a way that keeps them at a distance. And that isn’t true for me with 19C novels, at least not all of them.
I think the prime audience for this book comprises readers who are really into the way she engages the relevant literature. The rest of us can also enjoy it, but the shortcomings are more consequential.
Somewhere in this 700+ novel is a decent story. Too bad you have to get through all this stuff, it’s akin to separating the wheat from the chaff. Like you said, characterization is not her strong suit. I’m still in the 400’s but close to breaking through to 500 today and I’m off tomorrow so will be reading my ass off to make my deadline. Hopefully, you’ve passed me. I think we’re also reading different editions b/c mine says total page count is 786.
Yes we are. my edition has 836 pages. I am at 597/836 as of today. There is a lot of description, that’s for sure. More than required to create the atmosphere, but it’s well written.