thoughts on re-reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

What a peculiar book this is.

I’ve said before that I kind of feel like it’s alternate genre history: if fantasy had been established as a publishing category on the basis of Lud-in-the-Mist instead of The Lord of the Rings, then books like this would be our giant blockbusters. Which is why it’s so peculiar that it was a giant blockbuster; sure, I can see the appeal of Harry Potter for a broader audience, but how on earth did an eight-hundred-page nineteenth-century fantasy novel, complete with footnotes, get so much mainstream love? Heck, how did it get published? You hear all these stories about editors reading a manuscript and saying, “I love it, but I can’t buy it because our sales people have no idea how to market it” — yet somehow they decided they could market this one. And they were right, but I’m still boggled that it happened in the first place.

It’s such a sprawling narrative that I know I lost track of many details the first time I read it; things were clearer a second time around. I was particularly struck by the resemblance to The King of Elfland’s Daughter — “We want magic!” <they get some> “Aaagh no take it back takeitback!” — the powerful sense of Elfland/Faerie being untamed, untameable, and not everybody’s prepared to deal with it but that’s what’s awesome about it. I think it’s no accident that everything I find myself comparing it to was written in either the 19th century or the 1920s. And it’s possible that’s why I find myself still a bit disappointed by the ending; the lead-up seems to be climbing this epic mountain, but it diverts just shy of the summit, as if the author can’t quite bring herself to do something so vulgar. But I really wanted to see the view from that summit, because it isn’t the same mountain all the so-called epic fantasies are climbing, and I think it could have blown the top of my head off. Instead it stopped about one step short, and started climbing back down.

For all that, though — and various other flaws — it still gives me many things to love. The footnoted commentary on different books and articles is a particularly excellent touch, at least if you’re the sort of geek I am, and of course I adore the humour created by an elegantly-phrased understatement. I just wish it would have climbed that one last step.

0 Responses to “thoughts on re-reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”

  1. calico_reaction

    I’ve yet to read this one, but I’ve got it. One of these days, when the length doesn’t scare me…

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s kind of like curling up with Bleak House, yeah. And Mr. Norrell, who is the protagonist you meet first, is a rather disagreeable man. So it’s definitely a book to read when you’re ready and in the mood, not because you think you ought.

      • calico_reaction

        Thanks for the advice. Some novels you really SHOULDN’T read unless you’re in the mood for them, so I’m glad to know this is one of them. 🙂

      • Anonymous

        Norrell was bizarrely unlikeable for someone the reader thinks (or fears) is going to be the protagonist all the way through… Shame the format was so linear – well, except the footnotes – that it didn’t really let her give Strange a lot more spotlight at a very early point in the book.

  2. catvalente

    I just can’t get over the treatment of women and minorities in it, and how often it goes unremarked on.

    • mindstalk

      Err… considering that it’s set in the Napoleonic Wars period?

      Isn’t Stephen black?

    • Marie Brennan

      Actually, on a re-reading I was struck by how directly the text remarks upon Stephen’s treatment by the English — the way that even the people who treat him “well” do so in a condescending fashion, and how many people don’t even go that far. And when we get his pov, the boundaries on his freedom are explicitly marked: he knows very well how many things he is not free (or safe) to do.

      I won’t claim it’s without flaws in that regard, but I thought the commentary was a lot more up-front than I usually see, especially in novels of this kind (where it’s easy to let the period be one’s excuse for not touching the issue).

      This is one of the ways, though, that I felt the ending fell down: what happens with Stephen, and with Lady Pole and Mrs. Strange, feels like just the start of the resolution, rather than the whole thing. I really like Lady Pole’s anger, but we just get the one scene of it, and I have to fill the rest in for myself. We likewise only get the (appreciated) moment where Arabella points out that Strange obviously cares more about magic than anything else, herself included, and I like the fact that she doesn’t sacrifice everything to go join him in the darkness — but I want the rest, the part where I find out what she does do. We get that denoument for Stephen, at least, but too much of it is the result of other people’s actions; it’s his decision, and his follow-through, to take out the gentleman, but if Stephen’s going to be that important to the story then he really needed a more active role in how it falls out. All three of them do, really. But it’s like the narrative somehow shunts everybody aside at the most exciting moment, Norrell and Strange included; and that could almost be awesome — the moment when Vinculus says they’re the spell John Uskglass is working, I felt right on the verge of it — but then that turns out to pretty much be the end of the line, rather than the door that lets you through at last. So instead of passing through and seeing what these people do about it, not just Strange and Norrell but Arabella and Stephen and Lady Pole, the book just sort of stops.

      In other words, this is the sort of story where I feel like it provides me with the appropriate material to fill in the stuff I want — but I don’t want to have to fill in. I want it to take its comments on the way the women are treated, and the way Stephen is treated, and to do something with those. Just like I want it to take the business with John Uskglass and do something with that, too. There are times when “I leave that as an exercise for the reader” is the right thing to say, but this is not one of them.

  3. intertext

    It _is_ a very strange book. What I found difficult about it was the way it seemed that so many important things happened off-stage! But the writing was so wonderful, and there was so much to love.

  4. therinth

    I believe the author knows someone who knows NG and/or his agent. Which wouldn’t have helped if people didn’t like the text, lalala, but it’s a lot closer to the open door than most people get.

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