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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury paperback £7.99

review by Patrick Hudson

While reading this novel about the revival of English magic, I couldn't help thinking about the parallel story of Susanna Clarke and Mrs Rowling, and the revival of English fantasy. For a long time British writers have been happy to stick in the mid-Atlantic model for the genre established in 1950s and 1960s as a mishmash of elements from Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison challenged the default model, but couldn't escape its influence and it was ossified in the 1970s and 1980s by the fantasy boom that included Dungeons & Dragons, Arnold as Conan and the first doorstep fantasies by the likes of Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist and David Eddings. British writers such as David Gemmell, James Barclay, Tanith Lee, and Gwyneth Jones have grown up within the standard fantasy model and have been happy to work within it. Even Terry Pratchett and China Miéville act as distaff to the mainstream genre rather than outside it, focusing on its inherently absurd and darker undercurrents.

Rowling and Clarke appear to be on to something entirely different. Rowling recently ruffled the feathers of fantasy fans by claiming, Atwood-like, that what she writes is not fantasy. While I was mildly indignant at the time - in solidarity with my brothers and sisters in the SF/F community - I wonder now if she's not, at least partly, correct. While they are undoubtedly 'fantasy', she and Clarke occupy a place at odds with their shelf-mates in the shops.

The biggest distinguishing characteristic of Clarke and Rowling is their setting. Their magical England eschews the intricate made-up worlds of the mainstream genre in favour of one just a short side step away from the world we know. This is not unprecedented in contemporary British fantasy, but unlike the literary offerings of Graham Joyce or Christopher Priest or the hip postmodernism of Neil Gaiman or Martin Millar, the England of Clarke and Rowling is not the sophisticated metropolitan England of London or Manchester. They aren't speaking to metropolitan hipsters or the judges of literary prizes, but to the commuter-belt middle classes. Theirs is the provincial, suburban England of Hertfordshire and Yorkshire. Theirs is the nostalgia-laced heritage Britain of school dinners and costume dramas, of Greyfriars and William Brown, of Dickens and Austen. Rather than acting as a critique, Rowling and Clarke celebrate the comforting imagery of theme-park Britannia, which has gained both of them enormous popularity here and overseas.

This is not to say that they are cynically pandering or producing insipidly 'safe' comfort fiction. While its true that neither novel has a particularly radical agenda, the perceived conservatism is a reflection of their inspirations rather than active choice; Clarke, in particular, is able to add a few barbs aimed at contemporary morés. Both writers concentrate on intelligently evoking the pleasures of their sources, displaying great care for their inspirations while adding something new.

Clarke's novel begins in the early 19th century, when English magic is virtually dead. It is seemingly the province of a few 'theoretical' magicians who genteelly debate the philosophy and theory of magic without bothering with the messy business of making it work. Into this staid atmosphere comes Mr Norrell, a spiky and somewhat arrogant pedagogue who has surreptitiously managed to drive England's theoretical magicians out of business while buying up all the extant copies of the ancient books that describe the magic of England's medieval magical heyday.

After a striking demonstration of practical magic at York Minster (one of the novels many set-piece highlights) Norrell comes to the attention of London society. He is quickly 'adopted' by two roguish London socialites who help him achieve his long-cherished dream of putting his magical abilities at the disposal of the government. His assistance in their ongoing conflict with the French, lead by Napoleon Buonaparte (sic), causes a public sensation, and Norrell is soon joined by the prodigiously talented Jonathon Strange, whom he takes on as an apprentice. What follows is the story of their partnership, their rivalry and their final confrontation.

Clarke's English magic taps into the familiar forms and rhythms of English folklore, suggesting both the day-to-day banality and awesome age of magical learning. She overlays this with a gentle mockery of late Georgian amateur scholarship, portraying theoretical York society of magicians with the sort of waspish eye employed by Dickens and Austen.

The history of magic is stitched into the details of English history without dwelling too much on the ramifications - this isn't a steampunk style industrial magic setting, and the magic, while rational in the post-Enlightenment sense, is not in any way scientific. English magic embodies many of the ideals of the Romantic Movement - an intense relationship with the landscape, and fascination with supernatural folklore, troubled heroes and doomed women. Clarke's use of romanticism is perhaps the highlight of the novel, capped by a wonderful portrayal of Byron while Strange sojourns in Venice.

The story makes sense, and is satisfying in its way, but the discursive structure of the Victorian popular novel - with a large cast, complex subplots and plot twists relying on revelations of concealed relationships and motives - takes a bit of getting used to. The omniscient narrative voice - curiously chatty, never identified - is perhaps too all seeing, as the plots and machinations are laid out very early and explicitly. It's hard to engage much with the drama of Strange's discovery of the fate of his wife and Lady Pole when we have known all about it for several hundred pages.

Even so, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a very enjoyable novel which wears its scholarship lightly and goes down effortlessly. It looks somewhat daunting on the bookshelf, but a combination of generous layout and Clarke's fluid prose passes like a breeze. The pastiche of the 19th century novel will amuse the costume drama fan, the alternative world Napoleonic wars will fascinate the history buff and the idiosyncratic English magic will delight the lover of fairy tales. Suspense fans may want to look elsewhere, but it doesn't take a magician to divine how this clever and engaging book became a hit.
Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell

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