Done With Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Achievement unlocked. After more than a decade, I have finally read this book, thanks to Keishon. It was an up and down experience, but overall I’m glad I read it. I’m also glad I’m finally done. Reading it steadily (30-40 pages a day) worked for this style of book, with its many descriptive passages and sections that seemed to go nowhere, but it’s not my preferred way of reading.
In the end, I can see that this is an accomplished book, and I understand why so many people loved it. For me, in 2015/2016, it’s ultimately not a satisfying book. When I was looking for reviews that talked about the book the way I was experiencing it (I didn’t find many), I ran across this seminar at Crooked Timber (I must have read it when it came out, because I’ve been reading the site forever, but I don’t remember it). I found Clarke’s response post very illuminating. She seems to have been writing as much to the 19thC novel world as to the 19thC world itself. She wanted to write a book that was in line with the world created by those novels. So of course the main characters were prosperous, privileged men, and the women, servants, and nonwhite characters played subsidiary and reactive roles (I wrote briefly about my discomfort with the Stephen Black character over at Booklikes). That isn’t the whole story of the 19thC, but it is what many novels emphasize.
I also gathered from her post that what interested her most was magic. So it is an idea book in a sense (what would happen if there were magic in England again after a long hiatus and how would it re-emerge). But while the idea drives the storyline and shapes the characters, it doesn’t interact with the other elements of the novel that well. Magic wins the Napoleonic wars, but that’s it for wars. It’s part of the government’s arsenal of policies, but we don’t see details. Magic shapes character behavior, but the characters themselves aren’t that engaging or deep, at least I didn’t find them so. I could see what Strange went through, but it stayed on the page.
Clarke herself says, in her comments about the gender and class elements (no one in the seminar wrote much about the sole non-white character in terms of his race position):
I hoped that the women characters would take up more physical space on the page. (I don’t agree that that they’re not important—Arabella and Emma Pole influence the action, but they are hidden elements, part of the back-to-front story that Henry Farrell points to.) But would I change it? No. It was meant to be a story about English magic and I still think this is best way to tell that story.
So there you have it. It’s a highly readable, often engrossing book about magic, magicians, and the Faerie land beyond in early 19thC England. If you like that sort of thing, you should definitely read this book.