Spoiler free | Rating: 3 out of 5 stars | Read: 31 May – 9 June, 2018
I’ve had Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell sitting on my shelf for a few years now, and I kept putting it off due to its size. I used to be a timid reader, and 1,005 pages was too much for me. Now, for some reason, I don’t mind large novels anymore. I devour them, just like I did with this one. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is set during the Napoleonic Wars, and details the rebirth of English magic. Strange and Norrell are said to be England’s greatest, and only ‘true’, magicians. The novel follows them on their adventure, investigating the nature of “Englishness”, the boundaries between reason and unreason, and Northern and Southern English cultural stereotypes.
For the most part, I did really enjoy this novel. I only had one real issue with it. For a novel that is already a thousand pages long, the surplus footnotes were a little unnecessary. I understand that they added greater context to the narrative, but it would have read the exact same without them. They didn’t add anything to the actual story, just background information. If they were important, then there wouldn’t have been footnotes at all. Eventually, I gave up reading them altogether. It started to feel like I was reading a history book. This was both a good and bad thing. I question if I had, would I have enjoyed the story more? I don’t know. I would have made the effort if the novel wasn’t already massive.
Despite this, there was a lot to like about this book. Firstly, the host of characters. The narrative didn’t just centre on Strange or Norrell, but also examined the role of women and servants. I really liked Childermass as he exceeded the boundaries of an ordinary 19th century servant. I also help but like Norrell’s character. He isn’t the nicest of the bunch, and is a little outdated in his views, but I see a lot of myself in him. Mostly with his reading habits. He is obsessed with books – he has an extensive collection, won’t let anyone near them, and would much rather be reading. Arabella was another well written character; she was strong-willed, patient, and understanding. I definitely think there is a character to suit everyone’s preferences.
As a lover of 19th century literature, I loved the pastiche of the century. Clarke mimicked a lot of writers, such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, which I thought added an extra layer to the novel. When researching this novel online, Clarke states that an Austenesque narrative can be found in the domestic scenes, whereas a Dickensian narrative can be found through the detail and descriptions. I didn’t notice it at first, but I couldn’t help but find it on every page after reading that. I thought this was definitely a defining quality of the novel – it made the story feel authentic. It really didn’t feel like a novel that was written in the early 2000s, but a novel was that written during the time it was set.
Clarke explored a lot of themes in this novel, hence the size of it. My favourite was definitely the relationship between rationality and irrationality or, for a want of better phrasing, normality vs. madness. Although discussed in relation to a lot of characters, it was best highlighted through Lady Pole. Clarke abided by Gubar and Gilbert’s reading that a ‘madwoman’ is never in the public sphere, but is locked away somewhere. Lady Pole was taken away to Lost-Hope every night, a place where she was amongst fairies and other beings. She was murderous and vengeful in this place, but was totally ‘normal’ in reality. Clarke definitely played with 19th century tropes, and the length of the novel really allowed you to unpick them in full detail.
Overall, I really enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It could have been shortened to allow a better narrative flow, but I can see why Clarke went down this route. I know that she is currently working on a sequel novel that I’m dying to read, and she has a collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, that is connected to the world of this novel. I would definitely recommend it if it sounds like something you’d enjoy!
Have you read this novel? What did you think of it? If not, is it something you’d read?
Thanks for reading, Lauren X