Saturday 4 July 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)

Next up in my very modern series is a book that isn’t Neo-Victorian at all, but rather neo-nineteenth-century. Susanna Clarke’s magical odyssey spans the years 1806-1817, as her unlikely pair of magicians help defeat Napoleon, squabble via rival periodicals, and accidentally inflict perpetual night on swathes on Austrian-ruled Venice.

Despite its early setting, I wanted to include the novel in my Neo-Victorian round-up not only due to its high quality and current popularity (given the 2015 BBC adaptation), but because, in tone, plot and structure, it stands apart from many other historical novels (and novels more generally), making it an interesting counterpoint to some of the novels I’ve previously blogged about.

Rather than trading on plot devices familiar to lovers of nineteenth-century novels (as we saw in Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night, or even more directly, due to its intertextual interests, in John Harding’s Florence and Giles), Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell continually defies readerly expectations. Clarke’s English magicians are capable of transporting whole cities to different continents and disappearing through mirrors, and at times it feels as if she herself is achieving something similar, as the novel lurches madly but masterfully between locations, subplots and consciences.

Susanna Clarke (1959-)
If some of the Neo-Victorian writers I’ve looked at so far can seem to go a bit heavy on proving the historical verisimilitude of their texts, their literary antecedents, and their academic leanings, Clarke’s novel reads as something of a witty rebuke. Here too there are footnotes, and a deep consciousness of the novel as text, but their content is an extended joke. Clarke has created an entire academic discipline of Theoretical Magic, complete with a cast of nineteenth-century, and earlier, scholars, canonical texts with which the reader becomes increasingly familiar, and vicious intellectual debates. What’s most clever is how this ‘history’ intersects with a history of England (and particularly the North of England) made more magical. The longer you read (there are more than 1000 pages in all) the harder it becomes to distinguish between history and fantasy, as if you were trying to traverse one of Norrell’s labyrinths.

Footnote: In this speech Mr Lascelles has managed to combine all Lord Portishead’s books into one. By the time Lord Portishead gave up the study of magic in early 1808 he had published three books: The Life of Jacques Belais, pub. Longman, London, 1801, The Life of Nicholas Goubert, pub. Longman, London, 1805, and A Child’s History of the Raven King, pub. Longman, London, 1807, engravings by Thomas Bewick.’

One of Portia Rosenberg's illustrations
If in some ways Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a very different kind of novel, in others, however, it bears all the hallmarks of its literary antecedents. In style, Clarke attempts a blend of Dickensian characterisation and caricature with a rye social humour most comparable with Jane Austen. The execution is a little uneven (and works better in passages exempt from references to magic), but means that there are points at which the novel fills less like a fantasy tome and more like a social comedy.

‘Lovers are rarely the most rational beings in creation and so it will come as no surprize to my readers to discover that Strange’s musings concerning Miss Woodhope had produced a most inexact portrait of her.’

Overall, the novel is a light, but long, entertainment, designed to delight academics and the well-read, complete with cameos from the likes of Byron and Lord Wellington, and using the past as a foreign country where even the magical becomes strangely plausible. Don’t expect emotional depths, a literary response to the literary canon, or a Victorian preoccupation with the human condition and morality. Neo-nineteenth-centuryism is, for Clarke, a device for creating her very own breed of magic realism.

What novel should the Secret Victorianist read next in her Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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