A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Review

Parts of this post are taken from my Goodreads review:

At a point midway through Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Jonathan Strange, an accomplished English magician, is offering his services to the Duke of Wellington to aid the British Army with magic. Wellington quickly grows impatient with proposal, and begins quizzing Norrell: “What I chiefly need is men. Can you make more?…Can you make the bullets fly any quicker to strike the French? They fly very quickly as it is. Can you perhaps upturn the earth and move the stones to build my Lunettes, Redoubts, and other Defensive Works?”

This outburst gives a good idea of the central conflict in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which above all else is concerned with the tension between imagination and practicality, or, as one of author Susanna Clarke’s influences put it, between sense and sensibility. Wellington, being an eminently practical man, concerned almost entirely with matters of logistics and discipline, can conceive of no way that magic might be able to help his army defeat Napoleon’s. And Strange, at least at this point in the story, has so little practical experience with military life that he cannot think of any improvements to suggest.

The most consistently charming part of this novel is the way that chaotic magic keeps bumping up against the social mores of Georgian England, with its desire for stability and order above all else. The novel imagines an alternate history of England in which magic exists, and had it existed in this time period, it would hardly be the only thing thwarting this general desire of the English: they had just lost their American colonies, Napoleon was terrorizing Europe, the King had gone mad, and their arts were tending toward Romanticism, with utterly unaccountable figures such as Byron and Shelley indulging in every excess imaginable—and some that were not. Thackeray would eventually take stock of this period in Vanity Fair: a century of hard toil and ruthless colonialism exploding into foppishness and decadence, creating an empire that was large and powerful, but also naked and drunk.

In Clarke’s alternative history, magic is another outgrowth of this societal conflict between the orderly and the wild, with the title characters each trying to drag it in a separate direction. Mr. Norrell, who studies and works on his magic for decades before ever publicly performing a single spell, wants to create a neat, orderly, practical form of magic that will improve the lives of everyday Englishmen and give magic the stolid, middle-class respectability of a guild profession. Jonathan Strange, a young man who seems to be granted the gift of magic by dint of a fortuitous meeting, is more interested its mythical, mysterious origins, and wishes to recover this lost and ancient knowledge, which seems to operate more on immediate sensory perception than any logical structure. (If you can see the tension between the neoclassical and romantic movements in literature from these descriptions, then you might as well apply to that graduate English program and get it over with.)

The way that each magician sets out to accomplish his goals leads us to the conclusion that these two impulses need each other, that Norrell’s antiseptic and astringent approach to magic threatens to sterilize it altogether, while Strange’s wild plunge into the deep end of Faerie threatens the natural order and life as we know it. Clarke’s novel seems to argue that the two forces together, sense with sensibility, imagination with practicality, is the only way to create a magical culture that is both fertile and cultivated. In reaching this conclusion, she has created a fantasy novel that feels like it would fit right into the time period in which it is set.

As ably as Clarke interlaces fictional magic with real English cultural history, I wish that her novel had proved a slightly more convincing example of it. There are individual chapters and moments where the book takes on aspects of a 19th-century novel, with chapters that consist entirely of documents written within the world of a novel, and footnotes that seem to suggest we are reading a history text that has compiled a narrative from multiple sources…until this device threatens to keep us from seeing some exciting or important event, at which point Clarke reverts back to a regular old novel. It’s a good regular old novel (except for the final revelation, which deserves a blog post all its own and which seems leftover from an earlier conception of the material that Clarke had outgrown by the final draft), but it’s hard to shake the sense that it could have been something weirder and more ambitious.

This is the biggest disappointment of Clarke’s novel—the feeling that there should be more, somehow, that the hundreds of faux-citations should come from more than a handful of fictional books that exist in this world, that there should be some explanation for faux-scholarly “citations” in what appears to be a traditional free-indirect-discourse narration, that the presentation of the narrative as a variety of “found” documents should be more on the scale of Cloud Atlas or The Sot-Weed Factor or Pale Fire, rather than a straightforward fantasy novel that gestures in the directions of those postmodern works. And yes, all of which are high bars to clear, but which nevertheless are bars that people have cleared before, and which Clarke seems to be capable of clearing herself. Alas, that’s not this novel, and it would be unfair to ask it to be something it’s not.

And I should point out that I very much like what Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is, and the way Clarke does some sleight-of-hand work, like how she plays with audience sympathies toward each of the two characters throughout the book, so we can understand both characters’ perspectives while maintaining a critical distance towards it. The way that she works in the perspective of people you would not typically expect to see in an early-19th-century book, like the black servant of a minor character, is a brilliant way to subtly point out the limitations of those older books in a way that doesn’t feel the need to deconstruct them. And the world she creates is amazing, even though she does sort of make the venial sin of ending the book in a world that is, in many ways, more interesting and ripe with story potential than the one with which she began. But there’s a generosity in this action, and such generosity in Clarke’s writing, that I feel the need to extend some back to her. It is, after all, what any gentleman would do.

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July 2021

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