John Crowley’s novel, Aegypt retells the old story of the King of the Cats. A traveler hears one cat say to another, “tell Dildrum that Doldrum is dead.” When he returns home and tells his wife, their family cat jumps from its place beside the fire crying, “Then I’m to be king of the cats!” and shoots up the chimney, never to be seen again. In the words of Crowley’s character, Pierce Moffett:
That story had made him shiver and wonder, and ponder for days; not the story that had been told, but the secret story that had not been told: the story about the cats, the secret story that had been going on all along and that no one knew but they.
There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that Susanna Clarke was thinking of this passage when writing Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (henceforth JSAMN). She’s surely familiar with Crowley – one of Childermass’s prophetic cards seems to have been abstracted from Great Aunt Cloud’s deck in Little, Big – but JSAMN is decidedly its own book with its own themes and quiddities. Yet the passage from Crowley is helpful in identifying what kind of story JSAMN is. It’s a story of the King of the Cats. The point of the tale isn’t what it seems to be. The very title of the book is misleading: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell aren’t nearly as important as they think they are. There’s a hidden story there, which is whispered through the gaps between the actions of the main protagonists. As the vagabond prophet Vinculus tells Childermass, the magicians aren’t so much so much actors as acted through, less the spellcasters than the spell itself; Vinculus himself, as his name suggests, is one of the chains that binds the two magicians to their allotted task. The magicians fail in their task, as they’re supposed to – the future of Clarke’s England belongs to other people than them.
So if the story isn’t really about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, what is it about? As Neil Gaiman says in his blurb for the novel, it’s an English novel of the fantastic, and the main argument of the book, as I read it, is an argument about what it means to be English. Like Hope Mirlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, the novel is structured around a tension between the land of Faerie and the complacent verities of English society. But Clarke goes deeper in her argument, which depicts Faerie not as a separate realm so much as the unacknowledged root of what it is to be English. The history of magic, and by extension the history of England has been deliberately forgotten – “all that was not easily comprehensive to modern ladies and gentlemen – John Uskglass’s three-hundred-year reign, the strange uneasy history of our dealings with fairies – might conveniently be done away with.” The return of magic might upset the settled notions of English society; as a member of the York Society of Learned Magicians notes at the beginning of the book, practical magic is no fit business for gentlemen. When it does return, it returns through the agency of Mr. Norrell, who has consciously chosen to become a desiccated conservative for fear of where wild magic might lead to, and Jonathan Strange, who for all his Byronic sympathies is a product of England’s upper classes and their unconscious prejudices. Magic becomes a means to construct roads for the convenience of Wellington’s armies, and to protect Britain’s shorelines against coastal erosion. It’s put to work protecting eighteenth century English society, with all its hierarchies and conventions.
But forgetting the roots of magic is dangerous. Strange says in his essay on ‘The Extraordinary Revival of English Magic’ for the Edinburgh Review.
English Magic is the strange house we magicians inhabit. It is built upon foundations that JOHN USKGLASS made and we ignore those foundations at our peril. They should be studied and their nature understood so that we can learn what they will support and what they will not. Otherwise cracks will appear, letting in winds from God-knows-where. The corridors will lead us to places we never intended to go.
Yet Strange is only half-right. An understanding of the origins of English magic isn’t sufficient to shore up the weak points in the structure that is England. Far from it. If the foundations of English magic, of Englishness were uncovered, the social order of England, with all its orderings and hierarchies, its distinctions between upper class and lower class, men and women, whites and blacks, Gentiles and Jews, Londoners and provincials will be revealed as the contingent things as they are, would be in danger of being blown away. English magic isn’t as comfortable as it seems. As Sir Walter Pole and Colonel Grant realize when Jonathan Strange recounts his travels in the eerie land behind the mirror. “Magic, which had seemed so familiar just hours before, so English had suddenly become inhuman, unearthly, otherlandish.”
Mirrors and magic go together in JSAMN, for magic is a sort of mirror of Englishness. The Raven King, who is at the heart of English magic, has John Uskglass, or in its original version, d’Uskglass, as one of his names. And indeed, English magic is a kind of dusky glass, a mirror in which we can see darkly what Englishness consists of. Thus, the land of Faerie is a looking-glass version of everything that the English have forgotten or that they prefer not to notice about their country. Battlegrounds still strewn with skeletons in armour; gloomy castles; ceremonies that are “celebrations of dust and nothingness.” It’s a reminder of the brutal origins of English society, the feudal distinctions that still obtain, and the violence or threat of violence that supports these distinctions. The “gentleman with thistledown hair,” a prince of Faerie, is a model of aristocratic contempt for the desires of others (although perhaps he’s more precisely an autocrat than an aristocrat). As he tells the servant Stephen Black, the guests at his nightly balls are his vassals and subjects; there isn’t one whom he would scruple to kill if they dared criticize him. Yet is he so much worse in his callousness than Jonathan Strange’s father, who decides on a cruel whim to expose Jeremy Johns, an ill servant, to the winter air that he might die? Or than the vicious and self-satisfied Lascelles, who ruins women for sport, needlessly murders a man, and cruelly slices open the face of the servant Childermass for having the affrontery to (correctly) accuse him of thievery? Or the foppish parasite Drawlight who subsists in a twilight world between the upper and criminal classes, and supports himself through drawing others into ruinous debt?
If the brugh of the gentleman with thistledown hair is “an ancient prison built of cold enchantments as of stone and earth,” so too is English society. Stephen Black indeed finds that his nightly imprisonment in the brugh are sometimes a welcome refuge from the humiliations of his daily life as a black servant in London. Black, Johns, Childermass and the vast majority of Englishmen are subject to laws and social obligations that expose them to the whims of their social betters – they too labour under a set of dark enchantments. Even Jonathan Strange, who’s more attentive to the unfairness of these norms than most, is a product of his class and station. He ignores the warnings of his country neighbour, Mr. Hyde, in part because he can’t believe that a farmer might have anything important to say to him, and furthermore shows considerable indignation when accosted by provincial businessmen over a billiards table in London. Strange takes the lower-middle class Jewish magician, Tom Levy, under his wing, but still describes him as an “odd little man.” If his condescension to his social inferiors is less marked or obnoxious than that of his peers, it is nonetheless quite real.
Yet even if the norms of English society are oppressive, they are fragile. They’re strong because they’re accepted as verities. To examine them closely is to expose how arbitrary they are; what seems to be rooted in the natural order of things is contingent and can be changed.
This land is all too shallow.
It is painted on the sky.
And trembles like the windshook rain.
When the Raven King passed by.
Hence the disparities of tone in the book, which John Clute (mistakenly in my belief) cites as a defect. Much of the book is a social comedy of sorts, a set of wry observations on the absurdities of English manners, and on what seems to be a petty dispute between two obsessive magicians. But bits and pieces of another, deeper story keep on poking through, as Childermass (perhaps the most interesting and complicated character in the novel) realizes when he is shot.
In his weakened state, Childermass had been thinking aloud. He had meant to say that if what he had seen was true, then everything that Strange and Norrell had ever done was child’s-play, and magic was a much stranger and more terrifying thing than any of them had thought of. Strange and Norrell had been merely throwing paper darts about a parlour, while real magic soared and swooped and twisted on great wings in a limitless sky far, far above them.
The disjuncture of tone between the comedy of manners, and the darker matter of the final parts of the book, where the stage machineries behind the dramatis personae become partly visible, is, I believe, entirely intended. It’s supposed to suggest to the reader that the main characters’ comfortable assumptions about what it is to be English, what it is to be a gentleman, have been built on rotten ice. As the novel draws towards its closing pages, the bones of a stranger, starker England begin to emerge.
After the birds the next thing to haunt Mr Norrell’s imagination were the wide, cold puddles that were thickly strewn across every field. As the carriage passed along the road each puddle became a silver mirror for the blank, winter sky. To a magician there is very little difference between a mirror and a door. England seemed to be wearing thin before his eyes. He felt as if he might pass through any of those mirror-doors and find himself in one of the other worlds which once bordered upon England. Worse still, he was beginning to think that other people might do it. … For the first time in his life Mr Norrell began to feel that perhaps there was too much magic in England.
Not only that, but the traditional hierarchies that make up Englishness have become a trap. Lascelles, outraged by Childermass’ insubordination, and by the “democracy” of servants who presume to consult with him about how to handle an emergency, chooses to enter Faerie in order to demonstrate his superiority to Childermass, accepting a challenge that Childermass had refused. But in so doing, he becomes trapped by his own perverted sense of noblesse oblige into a peculiarly unpleasant fate.
Not all are trapped in this way; as Norrell perceives to his dismay, the return of English magic is as much as anything else a democratization of possibility. As the novel draws towards its conclusion, the North is beginning to rise, a development that receives only cursory attention in the novel, but that is of enormous importance. John Uskglass, the Raven King, is becoming a sort of Ned Ludd or Captain Swing – an inspiration to the dispossessed weavers and those who have lost out in Strange and Norrell’s England. The York society of magicians is reconstituted – but its membership isn’t confined only to gentlemen (or even quasi-gentlemen like John Segundus). The mirrors of England are opening up, but it isn’t Strange or Norrell who will choose among the possible worlds.
Thus, in the end, JSAMN isn’t a story about two English magicians so much as it is a novel about what it means to be English. The real battle of the book isn’t between two magicians (everyone expects them to fight a magical duel after Strange returns to England; they discover instead that they have rather more in common than they were previously prepared to acknowledge). It’s between different versions of Englishness. Beneath the comedy of their meeting, their falling out, and their final reunion is a secret story; the story of the return of the Raven King. But he isn’t so much a king in the everyday sense (although he once was) as a whirlwind of possibilities, an empty white sky with rooks wheeling in it, beneath which the cityscapes of London fade away to reveal brown, flat, endless fields strewn with puddles, each a gate that anyone might open and pass through to a different world. Or, in another sense, it’s the story of how there’s another idea of what England might be than a class-ridden society secure in its own prejudices. An idea of England that appears to be on the verge not of being realized, but at the least revealed at the end of the novel. I look forward to seeing what Susanna Clarke does next with this material (I hope she gives us some hints in her reply). It’s going to be interesting.