Writing a review for a book like this is always a bit daunting. The book is so successful and has attracted so much attention from the ‘proper’ scholars who know and teach all the theories of writing, as well as book editors and journalists who review books for a profession; so much has been said about it and it has been analysed inside out. Who am I to write another blog post on it and why should people care? But as I said in my review of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, this is just my humble opinion and this is what I’ll say to a friend if we happen to talk about this book.
Summary (no spoiler)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a book about these two English magicians and English magic. The story spans about ten years from 1807 to 1817, telling of the magical works and relationship between Strange and Norrell, and includes the episode of Strange’s involvement in the Napolian War (which surprises and thrills me the most of all the stories in the book).
It’s a huge book, 69 chapters and about 1000 pages. It took me a whole month to finish and I wasn’t reading half-heartedly (I reckon about 30-60mins each day). Do I recommend it? It’s certainly a one-of-a-kind fantasy plus alternative history novel. You’ll see my ‘love’ and ‘disappointed’ below. But it does require a little patience and persistence at the beginning to get going. And I have to say I was slightly disappointed with the ending. But would I advise myself to read it if I could have gone back in time? Yes. Even if just for the privilege of knowing Jonathan Strange.
And I do love the character of Jonathan Strange! In the beginning, he was just one of the typical English gentlemen in any of Jane Austen’s novels. Young, slightly idle (because of his inheritance and no need to actually do any work), slightly too clever to settle on any proper profession and easily bored, slightly lonely and spoilt in his childhood, slightly arrogant as a result in his adulthood, slightly absent-minded, slightly cynical. All in moderation obviously, otherwise it wouldn’t be properly ‘English’.
Then he became a magician. As I mentioned earlier, the chapters that are full of his brilliance are the ones when he was with the Duke of Wellington on the Penisular during the Napolian War and during the Battle of Waterloo. That’s when he became a magician of his own, not under the influence of his teacher, but given permission, encouragement and trust by the Duke, to do whatever he is able and sees fit in any given situation during the war. He was a loyal soldier, marched and slumped as one of them, and grew harder and more confident. He was useful and he was loved by comrades; the Duke even gave him an endearing nickname. He was a soldier who survived the horrific Battle of Waterloo but whose friends didn’t. And that short scene in the dining hall really made me tearful.
On returning to England, another tragedy struck. Strange became a bit wild and mad in a self-destructive way.
Secondly, I love the wild, magical and romantic North in the book. I’ve never read a novel whose heart is so closely tied to Newcastle (the proper North, instead of Leeds, for example). It’s the King’s City, the Capital of the Northern Kingdom. Though I have to say I was very disappointed that no action in the story actually took place in Newcastle. They came as far as Yorkshire, Cumbria and Northumbria.
I love the familiar landscape of the bare Yorkshire moorland, the dramatic mountains and glens of Scotland, the miserable rain, the grey sky, the misty and cold air of London. All so atmospheric for a fairy story.
And linked to that, I love some of the descriptions of things:
“For, though the room was silent, the silence of half a hundred cats is a peculiar thing, like fifty individual silences all piled one on top of another.”
“It was a beautiful shade of blue, but then again not exactly blue, it was more like lilac. But then again, not exactly lilac either, since it had a tinge of grey in it. To be more precise, it was the colour of heartache. But fortunately neither Miss Greysteel nor Aunt Greysteel had ever been much troubled by heartache and so they did not recognise it.”
“The very shapes of the trees were like frozen screams.”
“Woods were tinged with a colour so soft, so subtle that it could scarcely be said to be a colour at all. It was more the idea of a colour – as if the trees were dreaming green dreams or thinking green thoughts.”
Disappointed (spoiler alert)
Where is the climax of the story? The two main plotlines were the reviving of the English magic and the rescue of the enchanted Mrs Strange, Lady Pole and Stephan Black. But the end of both was a bit underwhelming. Does Strange love his wife? Maybe he loves magic a bit more? When he said “Do not be a widow. Be happy” at their parting, does he mean ‘do not live like an unhappy widow’ or does he mean ‘go marry someone else’? I’d rather believe they do love each other and Jonathan will come back to her one day.
Second thing I’ve mentioned above already. I was so looking forward to the climax happening in Newcastle as it was mentioned so much throughout the book. And I’m disappointed with the shadow of an appearance of John Uskglass, the King of the magic realm, the King of the North. The author gave enough snippets that I’m very interested in meeting him.
Particulars (no spoiler)
There are footnotes at the end of each chapter: backstories, cross-references, references with (fictional) authors, book titles and year of publication. It really felt like an academic paper.
I have watched a few clips from the BBC TV adaptation. The actors for Strange and Norrell are a perfect fit, although I imagine Strange a bit taller and Mrs Strange a bit fairer. I don’t watch TV but if anyone wants to watch it as a social activity, I’m open to the idea!
The profile photo is from bbc.co.uk