As the last to write her piece on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (JSAMN), I have the benefit of reading my fellow Timberites’ pieces and developing on some of their themes. Henry points out that JSAMN, which seems to begin as a comedy of manners ultimately becomes something altogether more serious. I agree. I think JSAMN is about the forgetting and remembering of a history that unleashes the downtrodden of the past, freeing them, in E.P. Thompson’s famous phrase “from the enormous condescension of posterity.” John Holbo notes that Susanna Clarke’s Austen-like voice emerges almost unbidden to channel perfectly her own magical reality. I suspect that Clarke’s choice of Regency England as the time and place for a novel about the tension between political and folk memory is no accident.
Regency England in 1806, when JSAMN begins, was an age riven through by profound contradictions. Much like any other ‘age’, then. But the moment Clarke has chosen to begin her novel of hidden histories is significant because it marks almost precisely the moment we, today, identify as the beginning of modernity, or the emergence of a world we can imagine inhabiting. 1800 is the veil behind which everything before disappears into the truly unknowable. Before 1800 there is impenetrable religious dogma and the war of all against all. After it, there’s Jane Austen and the specialization of labour. It is the moment of the birth of the modern novel, economics, nationalism, industrialization, childhood and the rule of law.
Strange and Norrell’s England enjoyed an economy expanding through trade (the occasional Corn Law or Napoleonic War notwithstanding), though brutally contracting the economic options available to sharecroppers, weavers and artisans. It harnessed technology and labour, creating the working class and paving the way for an accumulation of capital that allowed a larger swathe of the higher orders to enjoy the luxuries of increasing refinement and idleness. This England was described by Continental contemporaries as a lover of liberty and freedom of expression, which was in large part true, as long as you weren’t a servant (including ‘freed’ slaves), a woman or a Catholic. (Emancipation of Catholics wasn’t legally complete till the 1830s, and you might say women are still struggling for theirs). The widely held doctrine of laissez-faire – and an institutionally weak church and state – made it easier for the rich to exercise arbitrary power. But this period also saw the early development of the principles of social justice – with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, the imminent creation of New Lanark by Robert Owen, the foundation of many of London’s greatest hospitals and charitable institutions, and the rise of a self-serving philanthropy that nicely foreshadows today’s rhetoric of corporate social responsibility. England was awash with Luddites, Methodists and coffee shop republicans. Then, as now, cajoling and coercion were required in equal measure to keep the poor in their place.
Curiously, JSAMN is set just after the moment English magic really did die, mourned only by religious conservatives. John Wesley remarked in 1782 that “the giving up of witchcraft is in effect the giving up of the Bible”. The last witch hunts had begun to fade from living memory by the time Mr. Norrell turned up his nose at the idea of a woman practicing magic. But it wasn’t just the supplanting of magic/religion by Reason that makes the England of JSAMN feel as familiar as a Sunday evening costume drama. England – indeed, Britain – was shrinking; traveling times from one point to another were halved in a period of about 15 years. No one was all that far from London, or from the wild and mysterious north either. As John Brewer shows , standardized weights and measures came into wide use in order to promote the ability of the state to extract tax revenues . Time keeping solved the problem of longitude, and finished the idea that time might run slower in some parts of the kingdom. 1800 marked the beginning of the measurable and knowable world, and the last moment it was still possible to believe in English magic.
But although it’s set at the pivotal moment separating the world we know from our magical past, JSAMN – at least in its first three quarters – presents a rather ahistorical picture of political calm. Its world is one of clearly defined and largely uncontested class and gender roles and a political establishment that has banished the previous 150 years of sectarian bloodshed from memory and polite conversation. The titular characters are entirely certain and confident of their elevated places in society, and don’t need to struggle either for material comfort or the regard of others. Strange and Norrell’s lives seem far removed from Roy Porter’s characterization of Regency England as a rough and tumble, devil take the hindmost world where “the margins were fine between thriving and faltering, being reputable and being reprobate”. Later in the novel, Drawlight’s precarious living and downfall expose the serene self-confidence of his benefactors as the exception, not the rule. But Strange & Norrell, and the political and military elite they become part of, share the historical amnesia and blindness to misfortune that is perhaps common to any establishment newly built on a shaky foundation.
Yoked to politics and war, magic is used to tinker genteelly at the edges of the established order by shoring up coastal towns or flood plains and wittily harrying Napoleon’s troops. Magicians might kill with magic, but a gentlemen never could. Magic – perhaps precisely because it is a symbol of the unknowable and unstoppable anger seething just below the smooth surface of Regency England, and boiling over in Revolutionary France – is kept at arm’s length in a manner that almost defies belief. Think about it. Equipped with the tactical equivalent of the atom bomb, would Wellington really keep Strange off to the side of the action, drumming up rain clouds and putting out fires? Wouldn’t he in fact put magic at the centre of his strategy and work everything else around it? Or would Lord Liverpool truly be satisfied with just two magicians, and fill their days with public engineering works? Liverpool was a politician known for his ability to keep the various Tory factions together (a near-impossible task to this day), achieving power and remaining in it by harnessing rather than competing with the brilliance of his colleagues (Pitt and Peel to name two). Wouldn’t he have found something a little more serious and transformative – and self-preserving – for the magicians to do?
Why is magic so unrevolutionary during most of the novel, and why is the reader prepared to swallow this? It’s because we’ve been conditioned to read Regency England in a certain way, not only by Jane Austen, but by Georgette Heyer and a veritable host of other, much less talented writers of romances. Clarke finesses the impossibility of keeping magic under the sway and at the service of an unsuspecting establishment by playing to our expectations of Regency manners. Magic is unrespectable, we are told, the property of fairground performers. Of course political leaders trivialize magic by using it to fix the plumbing. While Clarke gives occasional refracted glimpses of a colourful, smelly and vaguely riotous London, she cleverly plays on our expectations that the main drama will play itself out in the drawing room of a great house. If magic is tempered and respectable enough to be admitted here, it can’t be all that dangerous. Further, readers’ familiarity and affection for Jane Austen’s impeccably self-contained universe lead us to imbue the Regency world with a feeling of historic permanence that it simply didn’t have. The refined manners and ladylike accomplishments so essential to a Regency husband-hunter would have been entirely a novelty to Lizzie Bennett’s grandmother. Magic in JSAMN is apparently civilized by this English society, in that classically English style of droll comedy where the most extraordinary events are treated as business as usual. As the book goes on to show, however, this assimilation doesn’t work. It relies on a kind of wishful thinking that makes about as much sense as believing Monty Python’s Holy Grail tells the real story of the Crusades.
The suspension of disbelief necessary to make this work holds, just, until shortly before the battle of Waterloo. Up to then, there is little to suggest that the major political and military figures suffer anything more than the want of imagination when they assume magic is nothing more than a useful new tool that makes it easier to do the kinds of things that they want to do anyway, and not – as history tells them – a gap through which the enemy of everything they cherish will enter. There are glimpses of what is to come. Sir Walter Pole and Gen. Colquhoun Grant are disturbed by the other-wordly and unEnglish aspects of magic in the final third of the book. And Lascelles hints at how the public may come to have a distaste for the dark side of magic when he threatens to expose Strange’s use of ‘black magic’ in the Peninsular War. But they’re not really able to imagine past the world that they inhabit, a world that we’re familiar with too from our reading of fiction set in this period. They’re limited by the genre of story that they inhabit. Then, in the final part of the book, things change. There’s an unraveling of the comfortable assumptions on which the world of Messrs. Strange and Norrell is built.
In these final sections of the book, the tone darkens, there’s more action, and characters like Stephen Black and Childermass come into their own. Childermass is a liminal character; he moves deftly around the country and up and down the ladder of classes, conversing as easily with kitchen maids as with cabinet ministers. He is also the first to realize that Strange and Norrell have only been dabbling with a raw and mysterious power that threatens to destroy the certainties and comforts of the England they know. We get the sense that Childermass will adapt to the new order in a way that neither Strange nor Norrell will or can. He’s not the kind of character that you find in the foreground of Regency romance novels; he’s far more canny, complicated and self-aware (he has no choice but to be). Perhaps his closest equivalent is Becky Sharp, but he’s more directly opposed to his time than she is to hers. While Sharp wants simply to do as well as she can in a world that wants to keep her down, Childermass is looking forward (and backwards) to a different order, in which the Raven King returns. He doesn’t really fit very well into either Strange or Norrell’s story, and won’t permanently ally himself to either. Instead he wants – and deserves – a story of his own.
What is this power of which Childermass is the herald, and that threatens Strange and Norrell’s England so profoundly? One way of reading the novel is that magic is the return of actual history, with its struggles, complexities and brutalities to the artificial ‘histories’ of our collective imagination. It’s a sort of irruption of reality into the constructed universe of politesse that we imagine Regency England to have been.
Or, to put it another way, the novel is a sort of collision between two kinds of story. On the one hand, we have Austen’s brilliant, sometimes bitter, but fundamentally constrained stories of an England in which women especially are bound by their class and station to play certain roles. Belle expresses beautifully something I’d felt too; a somewhat hurt surprise that the female characters are so much more acted upon than acting, but also a desire to give Clarke the benefit of the doubt. Mrs. Strange and Lady Pole are such perfect models of ideal Regency womanhood that they’re almost parodic; even Fanny Price has more brass balls than the cheerfully supportive Arabella. In this story, our Austenian ideas of what marriage and class meant mesh vaguely together with the vague notions of love and high society in Regency England that we have imbibed from Georgette Heyer and her less talented imitators.
On the other hand, we have the stories of E.P. Thompson, Douglas Hay and other social historians, who write about the people who didn’t really feature in Jane Austen’s novels (the social historians got some stick too from feminist historians for not writing more about women, but at least made a start). As John Holbo writes, we see the rich inner lives of servants in Clarke’s book; we also see dispossessed French refugees, Jews, workers, yeoman farmers and peasants poking out from beneath the fringes of the social tapestry. And towards the end of the book, Clarke forces us to remember that it was their England too. The real England of that period was the England of Ned Ludd, the London Corresponding Society, and what was to become the nucleus of the Chartist movement. It was the story (and E.P. Thompson tells a great story) of the Making of the English Working Class. It’s this story which is the important one towards the end of the novel; we get the sense that the Regency England of our conventional literary imaginations is being displaced by something stranger and more complicated.
Of course, this could be a complete misreading of JSAMN. It may be wishful thinking on my part to read a darkly revolutionary subtext into Clarke’s incongruously reactionary England. And, though I tried hard, I still can’t actually imagine Becky Sharp crossing paths with Jonathan Strange on his bemused walk through Brussels on the eve of the battle of Waterloo. So, for these reasons, I hope Susanna Clarke’s follow-up or responses on CT tell us more of what we don’t already (think we) know.