It seems like I’m starting this year’s reading with books about magic. The first one I read, The Night Circus, was a nice introduction to the subject of magic, complete with amazing spells and a love story worthy of Shakespeare. This time, romance gets a back seat and instead of Romeo and Juliet, we get Mr Norrell and Mr Strange, two magicians who couldn’t be more different.
He hardly ever spoke of magic, and when he did it was like a history lesson and no one could bear to listen to him.
So begins Susanna Clarke’s tale of magic, but even though the words above would perfectly describe one of the two magicians in the book, he does not appear in the story right away.
The story begins with an introduction of some respectable gentlemen who got together once a month, in the city of York in the year 1808. These gentlemen would talk about magic, without ever actually attempting any magical spell. Indeed the slightly ironical tone of the narrator indicates that discussing this subject is a gentlemanly endeavor, while actually putting the knowledge into practice would be out of the question. Into this gathering comes John Segundus, who is of a different opinion. He causes quite a stir when he asks the others why nobody is attempting to bring magic back to Britain, and this very pertinent question brings discord among the men present. Most of the gentlemen do not approve of the question but one Mr Honeyfoot befriends Segundus and together they decide to look for a magician. Segundus talks about a “street magician, a vagabonding, yellow curtain sort of fellow with a strange disfiguration” who, in exchange for a considerable amount of money, told him that magic would be restored in Britain by two magicians. Alas, he was told he was not one of them.
Their quest for a magician prove to be fruitful in the end, as they follow up a rumor that an old magician was living secluded on his estate, spending his time studying magic in his amazing library stocked with wonderful and quite ancient books on magic. Segundus writes a letter inviting him to join their society, and after he and Mr Honeyfoot travel to meet the reclusive magician, who is of a not so friendly nature, they ask him the same question that Segundus asked the gentlemen-magicians: Why is no more magic done in England? Mr Norrell, the old magician, replies that he is in fact “quite a tolerable practical magician”, which astounds the two visiting gentlemen, who bring back the news to the other magicians. In the end, Mr Norrell receives a letter in which his claim to practical magic is doubted and this would bring about a most interesting challenge. He is willing to prove the Learned Society of York Magicians his magical abilities in exchange for the said society to disband and give up any claim to the title of magician. All agree except Segundus, and Mr Norrell accepts the challenge. On the day decided for the experiment to take place, the gentlemen magicians convene at the appointed place, a cathedral, where Mr Norrell proves his claim to the status of magician was well founded.
This is but a first step into bringing Mr Norrell out of his secluded estate and into the world, and he decides to move to London and use his magic powers to aid Britain in the war with Napoleon’s troupes. In spite of his willingness to use his powers in the war against the French, nobody is quite prepared to believe him but with the help of Mr Drawlight and Mr Lascelles he gradually finds his way into the English nobility and after innumerable dinner parties an occasion presents itself for Mr Norrell to show his magical powers.
By bringing back to life the young future wife of a prominent member of Parliament, Mr Norrell finds the opportunity he was looking for. Mr Walter Pole shows his gratitude by introducing the magician to the other politicians and he finally has the chance to prove himself by performing an ingenious piece of magic that helps his country considerably.
Mr Norrell’s second act of magic has unexpected repercussions, as the spell he cast to bring back the future Mrs Pole could not be done without a Fairy, a being of an unusual appearance who causes all kinds of disturbances among the servants of the young lady. He goes so far as to insinuate himself in the life of Stephen Black, butler of Mr Pole, who begins to see things he shouldn’t see and to hear things he shouldn’t hear. Not only him, but the other servants as well. The melancholy sound of a bell plague some, while others actually meet the Fairy (a gentleman with silver hair) while in the house, and begin to talk of spirits and ghost-like apparitions. Mrs Pole, who was the very picture of health after her revival, lapses into a comatose state, to the despair of her husband.
Meanwhile, Mr Norrell is anxious that no other magicians exist to dispute his claim of being the only magician in Britain and by a series of actions contrives to drive away any who boast magical powers. Vinculus is one of them, and with the help of his valet, Childermass, Mr Norrell is able to drive the vagabond magician out of London. While in the countryside, Vinculus meets Jonathan Strange, a gentleman who had just lost his father and who was on his way to see a young lady he hoped to convince of being his wife. Vinculus claims that Strange is a magician, and a famous one, to the amusement of the said gentleman, who, in an attempt to impress Miss Arabella Woodhope, his love interest, tells her that very evening that he intends to study magic. He proves his intentions by casting a spell which Vinculus had given him written on a piece of paper, and conjures up the image of none other than Mr Norrell at work in his study.
It took me a while to get immersed into the nineteen century England, and the story was slow going at first. The omniscient narrator adds a lot of detail, and a somewhat annoying amount of lengthy fictitious footnotes which I read because I did not want to miss any detail that may come up in the story later on (I do like the explanations but preferred they were somehow integrated into the story itself). One can feel immersed in the time period, the language does a very good job of conveying the atmosphere, down to the Dickensian cast of characters very aptly named: Vinculus (from Latin vinculum – bond, link), Honeyfoot – a very amiable gentleman; Drawlight – a gentleman of low means but quick wit, an opportunist; Stephen Black – a black valet, tall, handsome, and well-educated; Jonathan Strange who is, well, strange, and the list goes on.
Mr Norrell is not an agreeable person. He rather brings to mind Scrooge, by his attitude to people in general and his selfish, morose, and utterly boring ways. His library is extensive and he had made sure no other man could claim the title of magician but him. If we are to believe the hints dropped here and there, Mr Norrell is actually responsible for the demise of a number of magicians. His hope is that he is the only magician in Britain, and the glory is his alone. His conversations are more like lectures on the subject of magic, and he doesn’t bother to hide his low opinion of other people. Fortunately for him and his reputation as a great magician, Drawlight and Lascelles more than make up for the magician’s rigid views and somber disposition. They become Norrell’s eyes and ears in the English society, as they know the proper etiquette (and the right flattering words) so much better than the old magician. To read about them was quite entertaining – their intentions are based on nothing but self interest and they are determined to profit from their connection with the magician.
Women play a decisive role in reviving the magic in Britain. First Mrs Pole, whose resurrection causes quite a commotion and establishes Mr Norrell’s reputation as a practicing magician, and Miss Woodhope, the woman whom Jonathan Strange tries to impress by declaring he will study magic.
The distinction between social classes is also portrayed, and we find out the difference between a country servant and a London servant, and the tricks they played on each other. So far, the story mixes actual events and fiction in an ingenious matter, down to the glum winter days and the embellished speech of the characters.
The pace of the novel felt quite slow at times but on a story of this size and with so many details woven in, I guess it is to be expected. Towards the end of Volume I, an account of Jonathan Strange’s life is given, which serves to pave the way for the next volume, named after this gentleman.
Looking forward to see what happens next. I’m not a big fan of Norrell, whom I think a rather dull and not so nice character but perhaps there will be something in the next volumes that will change my opinion. I find him and Vinculus to be the most intriguing characters so far.
If you are taking part in this read-along, feel free to comment and leave a link to your review of the first volume. I am curious to see what you think about the story up to this point and if there’s something you liked or disliked in particular.
Update: Links to the blogs of the other participants and their opinions about Volume I: