Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Seminar: Introduction

by Henry on November 29, 2005

Susanna Clarke’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has been extraordinarily successful, and for good reason. It’s won both the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards, but has also won a vast readership among people who don’t usually care for fantasy. On the one hand, Neil Gaiman describes it as ” unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years” (with the emphasis on the adjective ‘English’; see more below), on the other, Charles Palliser, author of the wonderful historical novel, The Quincunx, describes it as “absolutely compelling” and “an astonishing achievement.” We’ve been fans at Crooked Timber since the book came out – not least because it has funny, voluminous and digressive footnotes which seem near-perfectly calculated to appeal to a certain kind of academic.

In addition to writing JS&MN, Susanna has written three short stories set in the same (or a closely related?) setting, which were originally published in Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s Starlight, Starlight 2 and Starlight 3 collections, as well as a short short available on the book’s website. We’re delighted that Susanna has been kind enough to participate in a Crooked Timber seminar. John Quiggin argues that the book returns to science fiction’s roots in the examination of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. Maria Farrell argues that the book is a collision between the imagined Regency England of Jane Austen and romance novels on the one hand, and the real Regency England on the other. Belle Waring asks who the narrator of the book is, and where the female magicians are (she speculates that the two questions may have converging answers). John Holbo examines magic, irony, and Clarke’s depiction of servants. Henry Farrell argues that the hidden story of JS&MN is a critique of English society. Susanna Clarke responds to all the above.

Like previous CT seminars, this seminar is published under a Creative Commons licence, with no prejudice to any material quoted from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or other texts under fair use principles. Comments are open to all posts; we encourage people with general comments to leave them on Susanna’s post. The seminar is also available in PDF format for those who prefer to read it in cold print.

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{ 26 comments }

1

Dylan 11.29.05 at 9:55 am

The link to the PDF format seminar is broken.

2

Henry 11.29.05 at 10:01 am

Should be fixed now. It takes a few minutes to get a seminar like this published, and all the links in good working order.

3

Keith 11.29.05 at 11:12 am

The Making light link is missing an h in http

4

Henry 11.29.05 at 11:42 am

Thanks – fixed.

5

Kate Nepveu 11.29.05 at 11:57 am

Nitpicks: the PNH collection were called _Starlight_ not _Spectrum_.

I would also be very surprised to hear that the third story is in the same world as _JS&NM_, as it doesn’t seem consistent to me (though similar in tone).

6

Henry 11.29.05 at 12:14 pm

Ouch – embarrassing. Fixed. The Spectrum anthologies were of course the old Amis/Conquest ones – which gave me my first taste of SF when I was growing up, and because of which I have a continuing fondness for the two crusty old rightwingers who edited them. Agreed on the Brightwind story (this was the one that made me say “or closely related” in brackets). I see that someone is trying to flog Starlight 1 for $750 on Amazon.

7

Kate Nepveu 11.29.05 at 12:28 pm

Gosh, $750? I know PNH was selling remainders for a while—Patrick, are you around? (Heck, for that matter we might have a spare.)

I have inquired to the author about the “Brightwind” story, and “Mrs Mabb” too while I was at it.

Thanks for hosting this seminar!

8

jw 11.29.05 at 1:20 pm

How does the book compare to the other recent novels of alternate historical fantasy, like Gregory Keyes’ Newton’s Cannon, which is set in an 18th century in which Newton’s alchemical researches were successful, leading to the Age of Unreason (which is the name of the series), or Vonda McInteyre’s The Moon and the Sun which is historical SF rather than historical fantasy?

9

AB 11.29.05 at 1:30 pm

The seminar looks great! (But I might have to postpone reading all of it until the weekend). Thanks!

10

djw 11.29.05 at 2:23 pm

I love you guys.

11

Cheryl Morgan 11.29.05 at 3:18 pm

Excellent job folks, thanks very much.

The thing that interested me most about these posts was the discussion of how “real” the magic in JS&MN was – or perhaps how much it intruded upon the world of Regency England. There’s an issue here involving the way in which fantasy novels work. In the “English” fantasy to which Neil Gaiman refers, magic is very much on the edge of the world. No one denies it is real, but it is something that ordinary people encounter infrequently, and which goes away again after its role in changing their lives is complete. Clarke is writing very much in this tradition, but at the same time she is writing a very realistic novel set in Regency England and she has to mesh the two ideas. It isn’t easy, but for the most part I think she does it very well. It is this tension between the liminal character of the faerie novel and the need to explain magic’s impact on the world that I think several of you recognised and commented upon.

Since Tolkien, however, we have become used to a very different type of fantasy; a fantasy which is often set entirely within a magical world, and where the author approaches the whole idea of magic and magical creatures with the sensibility of the science fiction writer. Magic is no longer something that exists in the misty edges of reality, it is something that is foregrounded and needs to be explained, often in detail. Tolkien introduced us to the idea of world building, and as so much modern fantasy is written in that vein we have a tendency to look for it, even in the most misty of fantasies.

It is perhaps a little unfair of me to refer you to a book that hasn’t been published yet, but I think you’ll find it an interesting contrast to JS&MN. I’m talking about Naomi Novik’s Temeraire (which will be titled His Majesty’s Dragon in the US). Novik has taken the same Regency setting as Clarke, has concentrated rather more on C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian than Jane Austen (though Austen is not entirely absent) and has dropped McCaffrey-like dragons in the middle of the war against Bonaparte.

The important thing to remember about the Pern novels is that they are, for the most part, straight-up science fiction with dragons. McCaffrey does her best to explain how everything works. Novik brings the same sensibility to her work. Which leads her to ask a whole lot of interesting questions of the type that Clarke tended to sidestep. How do you use dragons in Napoleonic warfare? What would the status of dragon riders be in Regency society? How has the existence of dragons changed not only the world now, but human history?

Novik seems to have put a fair amount of thought into this. For example, in her past history dragons were sufficiently rare to have been monopolized by kings and their entourages, and sufficiently small to have been used in knightly combat. However, the technological advances of the agricultural revolution have allowed for the breeding of more and larger dragons, so that by Napoleon’s time they have more in common with a Lancaster than a Spitfire. Dragon ownership also affects world politics; Novik suggests that the Incan empire still thrives because a) the Incas are good dragon breeders and b) European dragons are not capable of flying across the Atlantic. Finally Novik also introduces one idea that will make Belle very happy and is clearly capable of rocking Regency society to the core.

I’m not suggesting here that one book is better than the other; simply that they are two very different approaches to introducing a fantasy element to Regency England. And, given some of your comments in the papers here, you may find the contrast illuminating.

12

admadm 11.29.05 at 7:07 pm

I bought JS&MN after reading a recommendation on CT. Best book advice I ever got.

13

Henry 11.29.05 at 11:45 pm

Hi Cheryl

That sounds both fun and interesting – is there an even more interesting comparison with Jo Walton’s mock-regency comedy, _Tooth and Claw_? The Novik sounds as if it’s Patrick O’Brian (or maybe better C.S. Forrester or even G.A. Henty) to Walton’s Austen/Heyer. Look forward to reading a copy when it comes out.

14

ben wolfson 11.30.05 at 2:52 am

Cheryl also thinks the Novik sounds like O’Brian or Forrester, and goes so far as to mention both of them in her comment.

15

bad Jim 11.30.05 at 5:57 am

This has been one of the nicest things I’ve ever run into, and I toured a van Gogh exhibit in Golden Gate Park when I was young. Absolutely delightful. I will never remember it without smiling.

16

almostinfamous 11.30.05 at 7:26 am

man oh man. has it been a year since i read JS&MN?

one of the most brilliant books i’ve read, and this seminar is much more fun than it has a right to be :)

17

Henry 11.30.05 at 9:25 am

Indeed – approximately 12 hours passed between me reading the comment and responding to it. My excuse is that I’m about to head off on a flight, and running around trying to get last minute things done between keeping an eye on the seminar.

18

Colin 11.30.05 at 10:11 am

Wow, I thought the book was boring as hell. After seeing recommendations all over the web I picked it up but soon regretted it. The book meandered on endlessly with a weak plot and concluded with an unsatisfying ending. And what is “thistle-down hair” anyhow? Based on some of the illustrations it must be a white afro or something.

PS-A friend of mine who loves Harry Potter also read it and said she struggled to finish it. So I know I’m not the only one out there.

19

Cheryl Morgan 11.30.05 at 11:55 am

Hi Henry – I haven’t read Jo’s book, but as I recall it is more an attempt to impose Jane Austen on dragon society than to impose dragons on Jane Austen. Hopefully Patrick Nielsen Hayden is lurking around here somewhere and can comment (I think he edited it).

20

Henry 11.30.05 at 12:05 pm

Cheryl – you’re quite right. And it’s well worth reading too – enormous fun. Austen meets feeding troughs, cannibalism parental and otherwise, and sundry other topics She’s working on a sequel I think.

21

Kate Nepveu 11.30.05 at 1:47 pm

_Tooth and Claw_ is “if the characters in a Trollope novel were all literally dragons and ate each other” (here’s a review comparing it with _Framley Parsonage_). I really don’t know which way around that counts as imposing one on the other.

Walton is working on a sequel, yes.

22

Lee 11.30.05 at 3:05 pm

I agree Colin. I purchased the book after reading the many glowing recommendations here. After slogging through 2/3rds of the book, I finally gave up. Interesting that others find it so wonderful.

23

Luis Villa 11.30.05 at 5:20 pm

I third the ‘bought it because of raves here, hated it’. You’d think that someone who used to be an editor might see the value of cutting out, dunno, about 300 pages or so, and most of the footnotes. The idea was fun and the plot pretty good, but the style mind-numbingly dull.

24

Will De Vere 11.30.05 at 8:35 pm

Alas. I started reading ‘JS & Mr N’ last week and quickly found it precious, twee, self-conscious, contrived, over-written and amazingly badly illustrated.

Here is an epithet that I rarely use and then only for especially extreme cases: this novel is very very boring.

25

Stephen 12.01.05 at 9:07 am

I fourth the ‘read great reviews and hated it’. Interestingly if you look the at Amazon reader reviews they are split too.
Frankly I got nothing from it and just don’t understand what people see in it. Low middlebrow.

26

bad Jim 12.03.05 at 4:53 am

I enjoyed the book. It was a fun trip. Evidently it’s not not for everyone.

At a gorgeous Greek Orthodox church in southern California I attended a performance of a new work by Arvo Pärt, the Passion according to St. John. I didn’t enjoy it, but I thought it was probably pretty good.

Or I could offer the example of the beautiful pie I bought in a historical quarter of Vancouver, which I bit into, expecting apple, and got beef and gravy instead.

Strange & Norrell is certainly not a novel anyone expected, which makes it all the more delectable.

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