Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
As you may have worked out from the title, the two main characters are named Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. We meet Mr. Norrell early on, when he proves his magical ability by making the statues in a cathedral come to life and tell their stories. He is not a particularly likeable man, being crotchety, rude, and arrogant. He does not want to share his knowledge, since he is currently the only real magician in England.
Jonathan Strange shows up later, and is much friendlier. He has a lovely wife, he is young, energetic, and innovative. He immediately intimidates and antagonizes Norrell with his wild ideas about magic. Unfortunately for Norrell, his wild ideas work remarkably well, and his more social nature secures him royal commissions. One of his jobs is to help with the war effort against Napoleon, and some of the most entertaining magic in the book happens when he starts moving bits of the countryside around under the instructions of Lord Wellington.
These two main magicians are the characters with whom we spend the most time, but they are in no way the only interesting people in the novel. The cast is huge and diverse; it includes portly English gentlemen and sneaky servants, delightful young ladies with annoying mothers, soldiers who have been brought back from the dead, and faeries. The portrayal of faeries was Morgan’s favorite part of the book because they are the closest things to villains in the novel, and their world is truly horrifying.
The Gentleman With The Thistle-Down hair, of the Kingdom of Lost-Hope, appears in chapter eight and the sense of evil that such a jaunty fellow carries around with him is astounding and awesome. A good villain is hard to come by in a book which involves so many themes and characters, but my lord is he good at being diabolical. The most frightening characteristic of The Gentleman With The Thistle-Down Hair is his own belief that everything he does is right, that he his helping his human friends, and that everyone should appreciate the utter disasters he causes. The Kingdom Of Lost-Hope itself, where kidnapped Englishmen and women must dance forever and ever, is creepy as hell, just as a faery-land should be. After reading the chapters in which it is introduced you will lie awake in bed for hours, hoping and praying that the music you hear is coming from your brain and not your walls.
The opposite of this evil faery-man, our personal favorite character, is Childermass. He is Mr. Norrell’s manservant, but as the book progresses he begins to show some serious “Strange-ite” tendencies. Childermass is mysterious and all around pretty badass, a sort of fighting manservant with tarot cards and sarcasm. We do not know his backstory, because Mr. Norrell does not know it either. He is mostly loyal to Mr. Norrell, but appears to serve him only because he wants to. Rosie has speculated that he remains in Norrell’s service so that he can have access to the magician’s extensive magical library. He certainly seems to possess magical abilities of his own, though Norrell seems to be unaware of this. By the end of the book his character is much more important to the story, and also more established in his role.
Childermass also gives us a glimpse of the elusive Raven King, who was the King of Northern England in ancient times, and was the most powerful magician in English history. Childermass’ connection to the Raven King remains unclear throughout most of the book and turns out to be fairly important, so we won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say that Childermass is mysterious in every way; he tricks other characters and deceives the reader without ever shedding his aura of (really rather attractive) mystery. His motives are nearly always unclear. He is fascinating because he is unknown.
Another secretly-important-servant character is Lord Pole’s valet Stephen Black, a trusted butler with African origins who – like Lord Pole’s wife – gets caught up in the Gentleman With The Thistle-Down Hair’s misdeeds. Stephen Black is a likable character, he is a loyal friend to his employer and tries to be fair to everyone. It is because of these rather admirable traits that the faery’s deranged manipulations take such a toll on his psyche. Stephen Black is, arguably, the character to whom readers can most easily relate. This meant that Morgan was riddled with anxiety during the sections where Stephen tries to deal with the Man With The Thistle-Down Hair diplomatically, when that illustrious figure is trying to help Stephen by destroying the lives of Englishmen. Stephen spends some time in The Kingdom of Lost-Hope and he gives a unique and creepy view of Clarke’s London. Although he is not one of the more major characters in the book his actions have an impact similar to Childermass’; his place in the world is powerful and important even though, in day to day life, he is just a butler.
We will look at two final characters very briefly, as our love for those in the paragraphs above has clearly overstepped the normal boundaries of the blog. Two gentlemen of high society named Drawlight and Lascelles force themselves upon the awkward Mr. Norrell when he first enters London as a famous magician, and although they are conniving and annoying they are certainly useful to the book’s non-magical motifs. In the introductory post we said that the book was like a mix of Dickens, Gaiman, and Jane Austen, among other things. While we found the most interesting parts of the book to be the innovative magic, the story is also full of dry and witty social commentary which is similar to the style of Jane Austen, if she enjoyed putting her most criticized characters through dreadful supernatural ordeals. Most of this is portrayed through Drawlight and Lascelles; they put too much stock in their advantageous friendships while remaining terrible friends themselves, and eventually each experiences a miserable downfall which is entertaining and satisfying to behold.
Neither of these two gentlemen understand magic very well; they pretend to know what they are doing but in fact they just live off of Norrell’s success. When, after they’ve split off from one another, they are both destroyed by the society they manipulated and then by the magic they didn’t understand, it feels like quite a victory for the reader. Clarke manages to make these smug, obnoxious bastards important to the story in a way that can, sometimes, be a nice break from the heavy and deep magical goings-on.
We haven’t talked about the women in the story very much, but this does not mean that the fairer sex is entirely ignored. Quite on the contrary, Lady Pole and Jonathan Strange’s wife Arabella are delightful ladies with very important – and sometimes distressing – roles in the story. The same goes for Flora Greysteel, who we meet near the end of the book while Strange is in Italy and who can be seen as a true heroine in some situations. Interestingly, Lord Byron is also a minor character during Strange’s travels, and his involvements are always entertaining. However, the two main magicians do have most of their adventures in the company of men, and while these two young woman are sprightly and intelligent, their roles in the book tend to be plot-driven rather than personality-based.
The illustrations in our edition of the book, which are drawn by Portia Rosenberg, are smudgy and muddled in a good way. They give you a picture of the characters – how they stand, how they dress, how they look when they are reading – without infringing upon your own imagined version of them. Each one of them is unique and memorable, even the people who only grace a few pages. We don’t know every character’s back-story, but if she were to compose a book of their biographies we would probably run to the store and buy it without a second thought.