This is the second week of the read-along in which we discuss Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Vishy and I are co-hosting this event, and we are joined by several bloggers who decided to share this experience with us. I will add the links to their reviews as soon as I get them.
The second volume of the story begins with Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus going on a trip, three years later from when the events in volume one started. It is now 1809 and the two magicians (one of them now only a theoretical magician) make plans to visit a haunted place called Shadow House. There they meet Mr Strange and being told that he was looking for books of magic, they encourage him to become Norrell’s pupil.
This is the start of a partnership between the two magicians. Under Mr Norrell’s tutelage, Strange begins to learn more about magic, even though the best books on the subject are still kept away from him by his tutor. It was quite funny to read about the first time Mr Norrell actually gave his pupil a book.
Humor laced with irony is one of the best things about reading this book and it intensifies in this volume. From descriptions of magic, which apparently has its side effects, like moving whole cities and not putting them back or changing the course of a river, or making a bridge that disappears faster than it should, to the Fairy which had helped bring Mrs Pole back to life and who is now an important part of the story.
The Fairy has told Stephen Black (Mr Pole’s butler) that he will be the king of England and offered his help in achieving what he calls “his destiny”. Stephen is under the influence of the Fairy even though he does not want it, and he finds himself repeatedly taken from his master’s house to strange lands where he has no choice but to keep his abductor company.
Little did Norrell know that the deal he made for saving Mrs Pole’s life would have such unimaginable consequences for the young lady. Like Stephen, she is also abducted at night and taken to a strange mansion where beautiful ladies and handsome gentlemen dance until dawn, whether they wish it or not. This brought to mind the name of a Brothers Grimm fairy-tale, The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes, in which twelve princesses go away to a magic castle and dance until dawn. I wonder who’s going to break the spell.
Both Stephen and Mrs Pole have tried to tell other people what is happening to them, in an attempt to free themselves from the magic that forced them away from their home. Neither succeeded, because as soon as they started talking, some bizarre tales came from their lips, while the words they truly wanted to say never made it out.
The Fairy goes as far as to abduct the king of England who is mad, and even to make plans to add Mrs Strange to his nightly gatherings by taking her away from her husband.
The partnership of the two magicians goes well at first, and together they are able to render their services to the British government. Norrell is still the insufferable selfish old man but this carefully built appearance cracks when Strange decides to go his own way. Drawlight also disappears from the story, and I could not help but feel pity for him, in spite of the trouble he got himself into.
The pace has picked up in this volume and I am enjoying the book a lot more. Also, small changes in the language like sopha and headach give the story a certain aura, like reading something that was written long ago. It is obvious that the author had gone to great lengths and probably a lot of research to write a book in which the language feels in accordance with the times.
As for the characters, there is a lot more about Mr Strange and his adventures in this volume, and even if he is constantly with his head in a book, I could not help but smile at his absentmindedness.
There are also many references to The Raven King, or John Uskglass, the first and most important of English magicians, and while Norrell does everything in his power to banish the memory of him from England, Strange is fascinated with the man and begins writing a book which includes the magician’s name.
This volume ends quite unexpectedly, with a death.
I hope the last volume will bring the answers to some questions, like what happened to Vinculus, and if Stephen Black does become the king of England and if Mrs Pole will ever be free from the Fairy’s influence. And most of all, what part does The Raven King play in the story.
I leave you with some of my favorite passages:
His lordship was in really excellent spirits that summer and he greeted Strange almost affectionately. “Ah, Merlin! There you are! Here is our problem! We are on this side of the river and the French are on the other side, and it would suit me much better if the positions were reversed.”
When he awoke it was dawn. Or something like dawn. The light was watery, dim and incomparably sad. Vast, grey, gloomy hills rose up all around them and in between the hills there was a wide expanse of black bog. Stephen had never seen a landscape so calculated to reduce the onlooker to utter despair in an instant.
“This is one of your kingdoms, I suppose, sir?” he said.
“My kingdoms?” exclaimed the gentleman in surprise. “Oh, no! This is Scotland!”
Henry tried again. “Well, surely, you will agree that a great improvement could be made simply by cutting down those trees that crowd about the house so much and darken every room? They grow just as they please – just where the acorn or seed fell, I suppose.”
“What?” asked Strange, whose eyes had wandered back to his book during the latter part of the conversation.
“The trees,” said Henry.
“Those,” said Henry, pointing out of the window to a whole host of ancient and magnificent oaks, ashes and beech trees.
“As far as neighbours go, those trees are quite exemplary. They mind their own affairs and have never troubled me. I rather think that I will return the compliment.”
“But they are blocking the light.”
“So are you, Henry, but I have not yet taken an axe to you.”
“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”
Here are the links to the other participants’ reviews of Volume II: