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Sir Walter Pole likens England in the novel to ?an orphaned young lady left in the care of a pack of lecherous, avaricious old men? who ?stole her inheritance and plundered her house? (p65). What is the narrator?s view of the government ministers, aristocrats and military figures who hold the reigns of power in Regency England? Do you think satire plays an important part in the novel?
Centuries ago, when magic still existed in England, the greatest magician of them all was the Raven King. A human child brought up by fairies, the Raven King blended fairy wisdom and human reason to create English magic. Now, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he is barely more than a legend, and England, with its mad King and its dashing poets, no longer believes in practical magic.
Then the reclusive Mr Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey appears and causes the statues of York Cathedral to speak and move. News spreads of the return of magic to England and, persuaded that he must help the government in the war against Napoleon, Mr Norrell goes to London. There he meets a brilliant young magician and takes him as a pupil. Jonathan Strange is charming, rich and arrogant. Together, they dazzle the country with their feats.
But the partnership soon turns to rivalry. Mr Norrell has never conquered his lifelong habits of secrecy, while Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous magic. He becomes fascinated by the shadowy figure of the Raven King, and his heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens, not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell began with a kind of waking dream. As Susanna Clarke puts it: 'I could picture a tall, charming, rather Byronic Englishman in nineteenth-century clothes standing in a campo in Venice, talking to a well-to-do English family. But I knew nothing whatsoever about him apart from the fact that he was more dangerous and wild than he appeared, and that he was something to do with magic'. This enigmatic, charismatic Englishman was to become Jonathan Strange, and when Clarke encountered on a jigsaw a dusty-looking gentleman wearing an eighteenth-century wig and sitting in a library, the rivalry between Strange and the bookish, secretive Mr Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey was born. During an illness that required her to rest a great deal, Clarke re-read Tolkien?s Lord of the Rings, and when she finished she decided to try writing a novel of magic and fantasy. She had long admired the fantasy writing of Ursula Le Guin and Alan Garner, but also loved the historical fiction of Rosemary Sutcliff and novels of Jane Austen. These various influences were to come together in a novel which is part magical fantasy, part scrupulously researched historical novel, with teasing faux-academic footnotes referencing a bibliography of magical books entirely of her own invention.
Clarke?s story is set in an alternative version of nineteenth-century England during the Napoleonic wars. She spent a great deal of time reading military history to get the details of the battles just right, since she felt that the more accurate these details were, the more real the magic would seem. In this alternative world magic is a dying art, practised by only two people our eponymous heroes and otherwise solely an academic rather than a practical enterprise. Although most of the tradition of English magic to which the novel refers is invention, one of the magicians, Valentine Greatrakes (or Greatorex) actually existed: a celebrity Irish healer who toured England in 1666 curing people by the laying on of hands. Clarke tried to include details of fairy behaviour taken from Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English folklore for example their habitation of hollow hills, and their habit of stealing Christians (and dancing with them all night). As the story develops, and especially under the influence of the mysterious Raven King, the very landscape becomes suffused with magic. As Clarke says, 'England can still seem a pretty magical place to me. Sometimes a feature of a landscape a line of trees in a field; a perfectly ordinary house on a hill can have the eeriest effect upon you that you can?t quite explain.'
Susanna Clarke is contemplating writing a second book set in the same world as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. As she said in a recent interview: 'I have a bit of a problem now that the fairy roads are all open ... what do I do with them?'.
About the Author
Susanna Clarke was born in Nottingham in 1959, the eldest daughter of a Methodist Minister. A nomadic childhood was spent in towns in Northern England and Scotland. She was educated at St Hilda?s College, Oxford, and has worked in various areas of non-fiction publishing, including Gordon Fraser and Quarto. In 1990 she left London and went to Turin to teach English to stressed-out executives of the Fiat motor company. The following year she taught English in Bilbao.
She returned to England in 1992 and spent the rest of that year in County Durham, in a house that looked out over the North Sea. There she began working on her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, published by Bloomsbury in October 2004.
From 1993 to 2003 Susanna Clarke was an editor at Simon and Schuster's Cambridge office, where she worked on their cookery list. She has published seven short stories and novellas in US anthologies. One, ?The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse?, first appeared in a limited-edition, illustrated chapbook from Green Man Press. Another, ?Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower?, was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award in 2001.
Susanna lives in Cambridge with her partner, the novelist and reviewer Colin Greenland.
Jonathan Strange & Norrell interweaves fictional characters with real figures from nineteenth-century England including, among others, King George III, the publisher John Murray, the Duke of Wellington and the poet Byron. What is the effect of mixing fact and fiction in this way? Does the author use any other techniques to convince us of the ?truth? of her narrative? Is this kind of writing ?fantasy? or ?historical fiction??
?Magicians have no business marrying? says Mr Norrell, of Strange?s relationship with Arabella. Why does Norrell take such a dim view of Strange?s marriage to Arabella? What does the novel have to say about marriage in general and the nature of relationships between men and women in the society it depicts?
How does Susanna Clarke?s use of the language and idiom of the nineteenth century add to the atmosphere of the book? Does the tone of her narrator or her choice of words remind you of any other writers?
A recent interview with Susanna Clarke in the Time Magazine suggested that, if it had not already been taken, ?Sense and Sensibility? would have been a good alternative title for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. How do Strange and Norrell differ in their motivations for reviving English magic, and in their temperaments? Arabella Strange observes that ?a great disparity of views and temper existed between the two magicians?. Do they have any similarities? Why do you think the author created two contrasting central characters?
What part does madness play in the novel?
Clarke?s narrative is heavily footnoted with references to books, stories, and historical documents both real and imagined. These extensive notes man