Summary and book reviews of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

By Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2004,
    800 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2005,
    800 pages.

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Book Summary

English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory.

But at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire, the rich, reclusive Mr Norrell has assembled a wonderful library of lost and forgotten books from England's magical past and regained some of the powers of England's magicians. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and alarm the French.

All goes well until a rival magician appears. Jonathan Strange is handsome, charming, and talkative-the very opposite of Mr Norrell. Strange thinks nothing of enduring the rigors of campaigning with Wellington's army and doing magic on battlefields. Astonished to find another practicing magician, Mr Norrell accepts Strange as a pupil. But it soon becomes clear that their ideas of what English magic ought to be are very different. For Mr Norrell, their power is something to be cautiously controlled, while Jonathan Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic. He becomes fascinated by the ancient, shadowy figure of the Raven King, a child taken by fairies who became king of both England and Faerie, and the most legendary magician of all. Eventually Strange's heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens to destroy not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear.


Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna Clarke's magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of historical England. She has created a world so thoroughly enchanting that eight hundred pages leave readers longing for more.



Chapter 1
The library at Hurtfew
Autumn 1806-January 1807

SOME YEARS AGO there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed anyone by magic - nor ever done anyone the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon anyone's head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

A great magician has said of his profession that its practitioners ". . . must pound and rack their brains to make the least learning go in, but quarrelling always comes very naturally to them",l and the York magicians had proved the truth of this ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. 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 ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

What kept me reading was partly an interest in the story itself, but mainly a fascination as to whether Clarke would be able to maintain the credibility of her world through to the end - she can. However, I never quite found myself lost in the book, and always felt like I was looking in from the outside.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The New Yorker

This vast début fantasy novel, cast somewhat in the Harry Potter mold, is set in early-nineteenth-century England, where two men, Gilbert Norrell and his pupil Jonathan Strange, revive the once-thriving practice of the dark arts. After aiding the British against Napoleon, the magicians fall out over interpretations of wizardly philosophy. Meanwhile, a malevolent fairy accidentally set loose by Norrell enchants, among others, Strange’s wife. Clarke’s ability to construct a fully imagined world—much of it explained in long, witty footnotes—is impressive, and there are some suspenseful moments. But her attempt to graft a fantasy narrative onto such historical realities as the Battle of Waterloo is more often awkward than clever, and the period dialogue is simply twee. Worse, the tension between the forces of good and evil—crucial in any magical tale—is surprisingly slack; the arch-villain is a cartoonish fop whose petulant misdeeds lack menace.

The New York Times - Gregory Maguire

A reader more distractible than I am might yawn for 300 pages running and still discover several book-length stretches to enjoy. I never yawned. Clarke's imagination is prodigious, her pacing is masterly and she knows how to employ dry humor in the service of majesty.

The Washington Post -Michael Dirda

So Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell may or may not be the finest English fantasy of the past 70 years. But it is still magnificent and original, and that should be enough for any of us. Right now all we really need to do is open to chapter one and start reading, with mounting excitement Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. . . .

Publishers Weekly

A massive push by Bloomsbury has made this one of the most anticipated novels of the season. It's convenient to pigeonhole it as Harry Potter for grownups - and grown-up readers of J.K. Rowling will enjoy it - but its deep grounding in history gives it gravitas as well as readability.

Brad Hooper - Booklist

*Starred Review* It's surprising that this first novel works at all. Readers have to accept an especially fanciful premise but, as it quickly becomes obvious, acceptance presents no difficulty.

Author Blurb Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods
Susanna Clarke writes like an angel.

Author Blurb Charles Palliser, author of The Quincunx
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is absolutely compelling- I could not stop reading until I finished it. The author captures the period and its literary conventions with complete conviction. I was fascinated by the mixture of historical realism and utterly fantastic events I almost began to believe that there really was a tradition of 'English magic' that I had not heard about. It's an astonishing achievement. I can't think of anything that is remotely like it.

Reader Reviews
S. McDougald

Many footnotes
I borrowed Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell from the library, hoping it would be a lively story of two feuding wizards. Instead, the author spends so much time explaining magic (history, theory and practice) that the characters fail to develop ...   Read More

liannebatcheler

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
I purchased this novel in a charity shop having never heard of them before. I know one should never judge a book by its cover, however it was this that lead to what i now see as one of my most treasured impulse buys!!!! I was gripped throughout ...   Read More

Becka

Excellent Read
I loved this book. I kept forgetting that the footnotes were fiction and not the real magical history of England. I was drawn in from page one and never tired of the detail or the characters. The meandering way that the story progresses was not ...   Read More

Catherine

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
A novel with many rewards for those who are patient! Definitely not for you if you need instant gratification -say you much prefer USA Today to the Times, or you don't find Dan Brown's writing style choppy, or you never read non-fiction books-if ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

It took Susanna Clarke 10 years to write this, her first novel; it's exceptional not just for weighing in at about 800 pages (an extraordinary thing for a first novel) but also for the full realized world that she creates. Many reviewers have described it as Harry Potter for adults. To the extent that it's a book about magic set in a world like, but not quite like, our own, it is; however, like most comparisons, you can only take it so far.

Interesting link: A complete short story: "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse", part of her 2006 collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu.

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