Imagine that Shakespeare’s fairies and potions are as real and accurately represented as his monarchs and wars—no more, no less. Now, run that enchantment forward to Charles Dickens’ time, and imagine a book written by one of his worthy competitors about the events of Jane Austen’s era, a generation earlier. What you get is the marvelous Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, surely a bestseller in its day in its own fantasy world, and even more a joy in our real world now.
Just before England rises to rule an empire on which the sun never sets, when the seeds of her industrial and scientific might are beginning to germinate, the crotchety, secretive scholar Mr. Norrell establishes himself in London, sacrificing his quiet country life to the cause of restoring English magic. He and his pupil, the sociable, candid Jonathan Strange, place practical magic at England’s service for the first time in centuries, from posh drawing rooms to muddy battlefields. But magic, so long neglected, brings more with it out of the dark past than its civilized revivers at first understand, and exacts a greater price than they’d ever wish to pay.
Though this is the first printing of Susanna Clarke’s first novel, the book nearly persuades me that it has waited quietly for 100 years for us to rediscover it. Structure, characterization, vocabulary, spelling—even heft (782 pages)—recall 19th-century norms. And yet the narrative sustains a 21st-century crispness, moving in ways modern readers expect without coddling our notoriously short attention spans.
Some have compared this novel to Harry Potter; how narrow their acquaintance with fantasy must be! Though both are highly readable, astute and set in an England abounding with magic, they share these traits with many books, and nothing else with each other. No, I cannot say that if you enjoy J.K. Rowling’s work, you will enjoy Clarke’s. However, I can triangulate: If you look forward to the next Harry Potter and also regret that you’ve long since run out of George Eliot, then, yes, you will love Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.