Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Clarke chooses to set her novel during a pivotal moment in English
history: The king is mad; the government is weak, disorganized, and lacking
leadership. All of Europe is at war, and in England there is widespread fear
of a French invasion. It is the eve of the Industrial Revolution the moment
in history when the world turned away from the old ways and embraced a new era
of science. In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, instead of turning to
engineering marvels to solve the problems of a new age, England seeks a
magical renaissance. Does this preclude an Industrial Revolution, or do
science and magic coexist in Clarke's universe? Do they develop on separate
tracks, or is magic perhaps just another branch of science, like physics and
chemistry? Would the story have been as plausible if it had been set under the
reign of a stronger ruler, such as Queen Victoria?
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell superimposes characters, storylines,
and an invented universe of legend and lore the Raven King, the feats of the
Aureate magicians on figures, events, and mythology (well-known tales
of trickster fairies, Arthurian legends) drawn from real English history. As
such, is it a historical novel? How is it different from other historical
novels, such as Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White? At what
point does historical fiction cross into the realm of outright fantasy, as
exemplified by the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, or J. K. Rowling?
The narrative is heavily footnoted with references to books, tales, and
historical documents both real and imagined. These extensive notes many of
them transfixing short stories in their own right hint at a much broader
historical canvas against which the events in the novel take place. Is this
construction successful? Does it create contextual richness for the main
story? Does it add credibility to the fictional universe Clarke has created?
Does it detract from the main narrative in any way?
The narrator of the novel is never named yet relates events with a great
deal of intimacy and detailed knowledge. Who do you believe the narrator is?
Is it one of the characters in the story or an objective outside observer? Is
it a man or a woman? Is it a contemporary of the characters and events
depicted, or is it someone who lived later? Is it possibly two people one a
firsthand witness, recounting the deeds of Strange & Norrell; and a second,
perhaps a historian or magician, who has later added scholarly annotations to
the main story line?
Questions of sanity figure greatly in Clarke's novel, which ties madness
closely to magic. Why can Gilbert Norrell summon a fairy servant (who will
come to be known as the "gentleman with the thistle-down hair") with ease in
the earliest part of the novel (pp. 82-87), while Jonathan Strange a much
more talented and intuitive magician struggles for hundreds of pages to
accomplish the same feat? Is it merely because Norrell has access to powerful
books that Strange does not?
Ultimately Strange realizes that he must become mad to perceive fairies
and the land of Faerie. Does Norrell's earlier success in this area imply
something about his own sanity? Does his rather sober personality and
impassioned yet reasonable belief that magic must not be practiced by amateurs
belie a madman's quest to control the destiny of English magic? What opinion
of Norrell's and Strange's characters are we left with at the novel's end?
What is the significance of the friendship between Jonathan Strange and
the historical figure of Lord Byron? Byron, forced into exile in his own day,
was reviled by "respectable society" and was considered by some to be mad for
radically rebelling against traditional morality and public opinion. How is
Clarke's outcast Byron character different from other outcasts in the novel,
such as Strange himself (later in the novel), King George, or Mrs. Delgado,
the half-Jewish resident of the Venice ghetto who longs to become a cat?
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell clearly belongs to the literary genre
of epic fantasy, but it also has much to say about English society, the folly
of war, the fickleness of public opinion, and historical inequalities of
class, race, and gender. Clarke lampoons a number of classic stereotypes,
including pompous government ministers, self-entitled aristocrats, amoral
dandies, quack doctors, pedantic clergymen, and no-nonsense, can-do military
generals. Is this novel also in some respects a comedy of manners and English
social commentary in the tradition of Jane Austen? What kind of portrait does
it paint of Regency England?
What does the novel have to say about relationships between men and women
in general and about marriage specifically? Is it shocking when the
possibility of marriage is raised between Stephen Black, the son of an African
slave, and Mrs. Brandy, the widowed London merchant (Chapter 17)? Do you find
it plausible that such a marriage could happen at this moment in English
history? Why does Norrell take such a dim view of Strange's marriage to
Arabella? What of the arranged marriage between Sir Walter Pole and Miss
Wintertowne, or the fate of Mrs. Bullworth (Chapter 36), who has been exiled
from society due to her adulterous relationship with Lascelles?
According to the narrator, Jonathan Strange is a gentleman; Gilbert
Norrell is a gentleman; The York magicians are gentlemen; Lascelles and Lord
Byron are gentleman; Stephen Black and John Childermass are not. Even the
murderous, mercurial fairy king who drives much of the plot is known as the
"gentleman with the thistle-down hair." What defines a gentleman in this
novel? Is it the same definition accorded by the social codes of the time, or
is it somehow different? Is it a birthright, a quality of character, or a sign
of a man's social significance? By showing that not all gentlemen are good
people, what is Clarke saying about race and class in her novel?
The events of the novel take place almost entirely in the households and
in the society of English upper classes. Yet servants, the working classes,
farmers, and merchants also play important even heroic roles. Who is the
ultimate hero of the novel? How did your opinion of characters like John
Childermass, Stephen Black, and the street magician Vinculus change over the
course of the story?
Almost every scene of the novel takes place in winter, yet the final
chapter is set in spring. Is this merely a coincidence, or does it say
something about the birth of a new social order one in which magic is
available to all, a black man can become a king, women are entitled to a
voice, and sneering libertines like Lascelles and Drawlight are no longer
Can you envision a sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell? Have
we seen the last of the Raven King? What is his mysterious agenda for English
magic? For the world?
While most of the plot concerns the actions of men,
Susanna Clarke populates her novel with robust female characters as well,
including the history-obsessed, magically-resurrected Ms. Wintertowne (who
eventually becomes Lady Pole) and her arch-conservative mother who would
rather see her stricken daughter die than allow a doctor to attend her, and
Arabella Strange who seems the definition of a strong and sacrificing wifeto
everyone but her own husband. And though this story is about magic, witches
are considered evil. Indeed, the women of the novel serve as foils for a great
deal of its plot, yet are given short shrift, or are seen as one-dimensional,
by the male characters at every turn. What is Clarke saying about the role of
women in her novel's society, and what does this say about the role of men?
For Further Reading:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; Year of Wonders
by Geraldine Brooks; The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber,
American Gods by Neil Gaiman; The Chess Garden by Brooks Hanson;
The EarthSea Trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin; The Chronicles of Narnia by
C.S. Lewis; Perdido Street Station by China Miéville; The Harry Potter
series by J.K. Rowling; Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson; The Lord of
the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Bloomsbury USA.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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