Here are, more or less, two thoughts on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
§1 The Magic Christians
The setting is England at the turn of the 19th Century. Once upon a time, there was real magic – no more. Hence such comedy as the York Society Of Magicians:
They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done any one 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 on a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.
John Segundus appears, who "wished to know, he said, why modern magicians were unable to work the magic they wrote about. In short, he wished to know why there was no more magic done in England." The society is discomfited.
The President of the York society (whose name was Dr. Foxcastle) turned to John Segundus and explained that the question was a wrong one. "It presupposes that magicians have some sort of duty to do magic – which is clearly nonsense. You would not, I imagine, suggest that it is the task of botanists to devise more flowers? Or that astronomers should labour to rearrange the stars? Magicians, Mr. Segundus, study magic which was done long ago. Why should anyone expect more?"
Magic is socially disagreeable, "the bosom companion of unshaven faces, gypsies, house-breakers ; the frequenter of dingy rooms with dirty yellow curtains. A gentleman might study the history of magic (nothing could be nobler) but he could not do any." A debate breaks out. A few members are roused from historicist slumbers to Secundus’ defense. One such – Honeyfoot – soons explains to Segundus about the Learned Society of Magicians of Manchester, a failed clutch of magical positivist hedge wizards.
It was a society of quite recent foundation … and its members were clergymen of the poorer sort, respectable ex-tradesmen, apothecaries, lawyers, retired mill owners who had got up a little Latin and so forth, such people as might be termed half-gentlemen. I believe Dr. Foxcastle was glad when they disbanded – he does not think that people of that sort have any business becoming magicians. And yet, you know, there were several clever men among them. They began, as you did, with the aim of bringing back practical magic to the world. They were practical men and wished to aply the principles of reason and science to magic as they had done to the manufacturing arts. They called it ‘Rational Thaumaturgy’. when it did not work they became discouraged. Well, they cannot be blamed for that. But they let their disillusionment lead them into all sorts of difficulties. They began to think that there was not now nor ever had been magic in the world. They said that the Aureate magicians were all deceivers or were themselves deceived. And that the Raven King was an invention of the northern English to keep themselves from the tyranny of the South (being north-country men themselves they had some sympathy with that.) Oh, their arguments were very ingenious – I forget how they explained fairies.
If only Max Weber had written "Magic as Vocation" [Zauber als Beruf], on the process through which the activity of enchantment has gradually become disenchanted.
A fond fallacy of fantasy – Tolkien being the classic case – is the illogical felt implication that somehow, were there elves and dwarves and magic rings and wizards and dragons, politics and morality would be so much simpler. Fairies would make feudalism fairer. As Isaiah Berlin writes in "Two Concepts of Magic": "those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming thaumaturgy, like the final triumph of white magic or victory over the Dark One, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into magical ones." Jane Austen would have known that without Sir Isaiah’s help.
And so Norrell, on arrival in London, is helpless to make contact with the powers that be, despite the power inside him, until something magical happens: "Like the hero of a fairy-tale Mr. Norrell had discovered that the power to do what he wished had been his own all along. Even a magician must have relations, and so it happened that there was a distant connexion of Mr. Norrell (on his mother’s side) who had once made himself highly disagreeable to Mr. Norrell by writing him a letter … " Mr. Markworthy makes the necessary introduction to Sir Walter Pole.
There is a tipping point in the novel when magic begins truly to reassert itself as a fundamental force, ceasing to be merely this thing that floats lightly over the surface of the more consequential sphere of manners. But let’s stick with the Austenian opening, before the drawing room atmospherics are somewhat diffused upon exposure to much wider realms.
You could just say Clarke writes ‘magical realism’. But that raises at least one question: is the category of ‘magical realism’ any use? Here someone has compiled a convenient set of definitions and glosses; which, however, omits Gene Wolfe’s suggestion that ‘magical realism is fantasy written in Spanish.’
I’ll quote the first definition, which apparently really is the first (from 1925):
Magical Realism – We recognize the world, although now – not only because we have emerged from a dream – we look on it with new eyes. We are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane. This new world of objects is still alien to the current idea of Realism. It employs various techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things. This [art offers a] calm admiration of the magic of being, of the discovery that things already have their own faces, [this] means that the ground in which the most diverse ideas in the world can take root has been reconquered – albeit in new ways. For the new art it is a question of representing before our eyes, in an intuitive way, the fact, the interior figure, of the exterior world.
Does this sound like Clarke to you? I’m undecided.
Perhaps we can take the ‘written in Spanish’ bull by the horns. Consider the following pair of comments. First, from a Salon interview with Clarke:
Susanna, your book is striking for its use of a kind of voice that is like the signature of the Enlightenment. It’s the voice of reason that you have very common-sensically describing all these dreamlike things. It’s really a voice that belongs to the birth of the novel. It’s the root voice of novels.
S.C.: That’s true, but I can’t say it’s in any way deliberate. It’s funny, because I don’t think of myself as a novelist. I think of myself as a writer. I tell stories. I kind of stumbled on that by trying to combine Jane Austen and magic.
Second, from Gabriel García Márquez (quoted here):
The tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude was based on the way my grandmother used to tell stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness … What was most important was the expression she had on her face. She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories and everyone was surprised. In previous attempts to write, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.
It is tempting to say that the common denominator here is not so much realism as understatement. This fits with a bit from the wikipedia entry on ‘magical realism’. It is suggested that E.T.A. Hoffman qualifies on account of the "down-to-earth tone of confessional journalism" in which his supernatural tales are narrated.
I am reminded of the classic Mark Twain essay, "How To Cast A Spell". No, wait, that’s not the title:
The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the "nub" of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.
I think you can see how a similar contrast might be drawn between ‘magical realism’ and some over the top gothic production or epic swords & sorcery trilogy which can hardly keep itself from shouting out, while grabbing you by both shoulders – ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to meet an elf!’ Anyway, the point is: there are ever so many ways to manage a sort of stable irony of understatement in which nothing about the teller’s tone seems to telegraph sufficient awareness of astonishing content. In the case of Clarke, there is a sort of additional, subtle calibration, in that the renaissance of English practical magic is astonishing to these Christian gentlemen; yet – being magic Christians from the start, merely lapsed ones – they are not astonished in the way we are. Twain might have appreciated it: one way to tell a humorous story is to tell it like a comic story, but make sure to collect applause and glance eagerly from face to face at ever so slightly the wrong moment.
It is tricky to say why this sort of stable irony is so satisfying. I certainly find it to be so. It isn’t because it is ‘realistic’, I think. Because it often isn’t. Discuss.
And now, another point entirely.
§2 If those eyes of yours were bed-winches and I was an English four-poster, they shouldn’t loose a splinter of me
Clarke’s novel reminds me of A Tale of Two Cities. Let me sort of wind my way around this point in what I hope will prove an interesting fashion.
There are two significant loyal servant characters in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The first is Norrell’s agent, the enigmatic and rather autonomous Childermass. The other is Stephen Black, the loyal, mild and competent negro manservant of Lord Pole, whom our sinister fairy villain – the gentleman with the thistledown hair – would raise up from his humble station, restoring his lost true name and placing him on the throne of England.
If you were inclined to read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as a parable of politically conservative wisdom, you might read our thistledown-haired gentleman as a parodic reductio ad absurdum of Jacobinism run to its mad extreme. Ingenious proposals for ideal realms; heartless and insincere, fundamentally self-centered proposals to right wrongs. The proverbially delusive beauty of faeries, who seem so much more perfect than humans. A basically inhuman mind, the faery mind. More on Jacobinism in a moment.
There are also anxieties … about the immigrant problem.
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. The Sussex landscape began to look uncomfortably like the England described in the old ballad:
This land is all too shallow
It is painted on the sky
And trembles like the wind-shook rain
When the Raven King passed by
For the first time in his life Mr. Norrell began to feel that perhaps there was too much magic in England.
Another very central and memorable story element is Mrs. Strange’s escape from captivity in Faeirie, out through a mirror – into the arms of good, solid, reliable English folk.
With a frantic look she surveyed the unknown room, the unknown faces, the unfamiliar look of everything. "Is this Faerie?" she asked.
"No, madam," answered Flora.
"Is it England?"
"No, madam." Tears began to course down flora’s face. She put her hand on her breast to steady herself. "This is Padua. In Italy. My name is Flora Greysteel. It is a name quite unknown to you, but I have waited for you here at your husband’s desire. I promised him I would meet you here."
"Is Jonathan here?"
"You are Arabella Strange," said Dr. Greysteel in amazement.
"Yes," she said.
"Oh, my dear!" exclaimed Aunt Greysteel, one hand flying to cover her mouth and the other to her heart. "Oh, my dear!" Then both hands fluttered around Arabella’s face and shoulders. "Oh, my dear!" she exclaimed for the third time. She burst into tears and embraced Arabella.
Fantastic names – Lancelot Greysteel, father of Flora – combine with tears and fluttering hands of femininity very effectively. All very sentimental, but delightfully staged. (Also, the scene in which their loyal servant, Frank, responds to an insidious offer by properly kicking the "venomous cowardly backguard" Drawlight provides us with another portrait of the virtues of loyal servants.)
Let me, however, share with you a contrary judgment on the Greysteels. John Clute writes:
Around about here, Clarke almost drops the ball. After the apparent death of his wife, Strange has gone to Venice, where on page 568—very late to introduce significant characters—he meets an entire family named Greysteel, who turn out in fact to have absolutely no function in the story that could not have been conveyed otherwise, through other eyes and hands, in a paragraph or two. But Clarke can’t leave them alone, even though her huge prologue of a novel is begging to have to end. I think, once again, it is the trap of the style: It is so much fun to write the Greysteels, to explore their Englishry in Clarke’s unstoppably impeccable Austenese, that nobody cared to tell her to scissor them out completely, nobody seems to have cared that she almost loses her novel right here, because of her virtues. Virtue is not enough. … But finally the Greysteels do traipse offstage, in the end, when there is no way to retain them any longer. The story bales itself of them. They sink into the lagoon. Bye-bye.
I could hardly disagree more. Now the Dickens connection. I am thinking of the roles of the heroic servants in A Tale of Two Cities. Jerry Cruncher but, above all, Miss Pross. My point is going to be that Clarke has renovated certain Dickensian tropes that, to put it kindly, simply cannot, without renovation, be … recalled to life.
But let me first remind you of something you have perhaps forgotten about Dickens’ novel. Two Cities is eerie, with its theme of resurrection. Lost true names. Live burial. ‘Resurrection-men’. The mad revolutionaries. Desperate escape to England from a hostile alien land that borders it. Even a kind of heroic changeling self-sacrifice. (Far, far better thing I do.) I’ll quote a few bits I like. Very atmospheric they are.
All through the cold and restless interval, until dawn, they once more whispered in the ears of Mr. Jarvis Lorry – sitting opposite the buried man who had been dug out, and wondering what subtle powers were for ever lost to him, and what were capable of restoration – the old inquiry:
`I hope you care to be recalled to life?’
And the old answer:
`I can’t say.’
As creepy a call and response as any in a ghost story. And, as our heroes are fleeing a nightmare land:
The wind is rushing after us, and the clouds are flying after us, and the moon is plunging after us, and the whole wild night is in pursuit of us; but, so far we are pursued by nothing else.
The revolutionaries are – to push a point – like child-snatching fairies, malignantly obedient to their own inscrutable imperatives as they wreck human lives:
`See you,’ said madame, `I care nothing for this Doctor, I. He may wear his head or lose it, for any interest I have in him; it is all one to me. But, the Evrémonde people are to be exterminated, and the wife and child must follow the husband and father.’
`She has a fine head for it,’ croaked Jacques Three. `I have seen blue eyes and golden hair there, and they looked charming when Samson held them up.’ Ogre that he was, he spoke like an epicure.
Madame Defarge cast down her eyes, and reflected a little. `The child also,’ observed Jacques Three, with a meditative enjoyment of his words, `has golden hair and blue eyes. And we seldom have a child there. It is a pretty sight!’
Of course, Defarge has her reasons. But, having concocted them, Dickens goes out of his way to dismiss them as non-explanatory. She’s just plain inhuman: "they were her natural enemies and her prey, and as such had no right to live. To appeal to her, was made hopeless by her having no sense of pity, even for herself. If she had been laid low in the streets, in any of the many encounters in which she had been engaged, she would not have pitied herself."
On to the servant question. I couldn’t possibly not quote Orwell from "Charles Dickens":
But what is curious, in a nineteenth-century radical, is that when he wants to draw a sympathetic picture of a servant, he creates what is recognizably a feudal type. Sam Weller, Mark Tapley, Clara Peggotty are all of them feudal figures. They belong to the genre of the ‘old family retainer’; they identify themselves with their master’s family and are at once doggishly faithful and completely familiar. No doubt Mark Tapley and Sam Weller are derived to some extent from Smollett, and hence from Cervantes; but it is interesting that Dickens should have been attracted by such a type. Sam Weller’s attitude is definitely medieval. He gets himself arrested in order to follow Mr. Pickwick into the Fleet, and afterwards refuses to get married because he feels that Mr. Pickwick still needs his services. There is a characteristic scene between them:
‘Vages or no vages, board or no board, lodgin’ or no lodgin’, Sam Veller, as you took from the old inn in the Borough, sticks by you, come what may…’
‘My good fellow’, said Mr. Pickwick, when Mr. Weller had sat down again, rather abashed at his own enthusiasm, ‘you are bound to consider the young woman also.’
‘I do consider the young ‘ooman, sir’, said Sam. ‘I have considered the young ‘ooman. I’ve spoke to her. I’ve told her how I’m sitivated; she’s ready to vait till I’m ready, and I believe she vill. If she don’t, she’s not the young ‘ooman I take her for, and I give up with readiness.’
It is easy to imagine what the young woman would have said to this in real life. But notice the feudal atmosphere. Sam Weller is ready as a matter of course to sacrifice years of his life to his master, and he can also sit down in his master’s presence. A modern manservant would never think of doing either. Dickens’s views on the servant question do not get much beyond wishing that master and servant would love one another. Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend, though a wretched failure as a character, represents the same kind of loyalty as Sam Weller. Such loyalty, of course, is natural, human, and likeable; but so was feudalism.
The Sam problem is, of course, the Sam and Frodo problem – hence, a perennial one for fantasy fiction and its feudal fixations. (Homosociality is not homosexuality. Still.) Let me just remind you about the servant-master pairs in Two Cities. Jarvis Lorry/Jerry Cruncher, Lucie Manette/Miss Pross.
In the first case, there are marvellous visual contrasts worthy of Mervyn Peake. The ancient banker in his dome of glass; his dogsbody wearing a crown of spikes.
Cruncher’s wreath of black hair: "It was so like smith’s work, so much more like the top of a strongly spiked wall than a head of hair, that the best of players at leap-frog might have declined him, as the most dangerous man in the world to go over."
And Lorry: "He wore an odd little sleek crisp flaxen wig, setting very close to his head: which wig, it is to be presumed, was made of hair, but which looked far more as though it were spun from filaments of silk or glass."
There is the requisite loyalty relation. Here Lorry is explaining how Cruncher is the best choice for a bodyguard as he ventures back into France for the sake of recovering Tellson’s precious paperwork: "Nobody will suspect Jerry of being anything but an English bull-dog, or of having any design in his head but to fly at anybody who touches his master." (Yes, Jerry is a part-time resurrection-man, unbeknownst to Lorry. But even a loyal dog may dig up the occasional item on his own time.)
Lorry and Cruncher are an endearing couple. But the really tremendous scene comes when Pross shows her mettle against Defarge. Dickens cannot resist making ridiculous fun of his twin Horatios at the bridge, standing with self-sacrificing nobility – because they are, after all, just servants, covering the retreats of the upper class characters.
`My opinion, miss,’ returned Mr. Cruncher, `is as, you’re right. Likewise wot I’ll stand by you, right or wrong.’
"I am so distracted with fear and hope for our precious creatures," said Miss Pross, wildly crying, "that I am incapable of forming any plan. Are YOU capable of forming any plan, my dear good Mr. Cruncher?"
`Respectin’ a future spear o’ life, miss,’ returned Mr. Cruncher, `I hope so. Respectin’ any present use o’ this here blessed old head o’ mine, I think not. Would you do me the favour, miss, to take notice o’ two promises and wows wot it is my wishes fur to record in this here crisis?’
`Oh, for gracious sake!’ cried Miss Pross, still wildly crying, `record them at once, and get them out of the way, like an excellent man.’
`First,’ said Mr. Cruncher, who was all in a tremble, and who spoke with an ashy and solemn visage,
`them poor things well out o’ this, never no more will I do it, never no more!’
`I am quite sure, Mr. Cruncher,’ returned Miss Pross, `that you never will do it again, whatever it is, and I beg you not to think it necessary to mention more particularly what it is.’
`No, miss,’ returned Jerry, `it shall not be named to you. Second: them poor things well out o’ this, and never no more will I interfere with Mrs. Cruncher’s flopping, never no more!’
`Whatever housekeeping arrangement that may be,’ said Miss Pross, striving to dry her eyes and compose herself, `I have no doubt it is best that Mrs. Cruncher should have it entirely under her own superintendence. – O my poor darlings!’
And finally evil fairy Defarge appears and Pross gives fierce battle. Here I’m just going to do an odd thing and cut and paste most of III, chapter 14, "The Knitting Done". If this appalling lack of focus on Clarke offends, please just scroll, scroll. My reason for quoting the whole thing is that the sheer weirdness of the dialogue – by Dickensian standards, by any standards – has to be appreciated in its entirety. Both characters speak to themselves in bizarre soliloquys. The conceit is that neither can understand the other because of the language barrier. But such strangely unnatural combat loquacity is not equalled again until Stan Lee starts writing tin-horn dialogue to accompany Kirby productions.
Afraid, in her extreme perturbation, of the loneliness of the deserted rooms, and of half-imagined faces peeping from behind every open door in them, Miss Pross got a basin of cold water and began laving her eyes, which were swollen and red. Haunted by her feverish apprehensions, she could not bear to have her sight obscured for a minute at a time by the dripping water, but constantly paused and looked round to see that there was no one watching her. In one of those pauses she recoiled and cried out, for she saw a figure standing in the room.
The basin fell to the ground broken, and the water flowed to the feet of Madame Defarge. By strange stern ways, and through much staining blood, those feet had come to meet that water.
Madame Defarge looked coldly at her, and said, `The wife of Evrémonde; where is she?’
It flashed upon Miss Pross’s mind that the doors were all standing open, and would suggest the flight. Her first act was to shut them. There were four in the room, and she shut them all. She then placed herself before the door of the chamber which Lucie had occupied.
Madame Defarge’s dark eyes followed her through this rapid movement, and rested on her when it was finished. Miss Pross had nothing beautiful about her; years had not tamed the wildness, or softened the grimness, of her appearance; but, she too was a determined woman in her different way, and she measured Madame Defarge with her eyes, every inch.
`You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer,’ said Miss Pross, in her breathing. `Nevertheless, you shall not get the better of me. I am an Englishwoman.
Madame Defarge looked at her scornfully, but still with something of Miss Pross’s own perception that they two were at bay. She saw a tight, hard, wiry woman before her, as Mr. Lorry had seen in the same figure a woman with a strong hand, in the years gone by. She knew full well that Miss Pross was the family’s devoted friend; Miss Pross knew full well that Madame Defarge was the family’s malevolent enemy.
`On my way yonder,’ said Madame Defarge, with a slight movement of her hand towards the fatal spot, `where they reserve my chair and my knitting for me, I am come, to make my compliments to her in passing. I wish to see her.
`I know that your intentions are evil,’ said Miss Pross, `and you may depend upon it, I’ll hold my own against them.’
Each spoke in her own language; neither understood the other’s words; both were very watchful, and intent to deduce from look and manner, what the unintelligible words meant.
`It will do her no good to keep herself concealed from me at this moment,’ said Madame Defarge. `Good patriots will know what that means. Let me see her. Go tell her that I wish to see her. Do you hear?
`If those eyes of yours were bed-winches,’ returned Miss Pross, `and I was an English four-poster, they shouldn’t loose a splinter of me. No, you wicked foreign woman; I am your match.’
Madame Defarge was not likely to follow these idiomatic remarks in detail; but, she so far understood them as to perceive that she was set at naught.
`Woman imbecile and pig-like!’ said Madame Defarge, frowning. `I take no answer from you. I demand to see her. Either tell her that I demand to see her, or stand out of the way of the door and let me go to her!’ This, with an angry explanatory wave of her right arm.
`I little thought,’ said miss Pross, `that I should ever want to understand your nonsensical language; but I would give all I have, except the clothes I wear, to know whether you suspect the truth, or any part of it.’
Neither of them for a single moment released the other’s eyes. Madame Defarge had not moved from the spot where she stood when Miss Pross first became aware of her; but she now advanced one step.
`I am a Briton,’ said Miss Pross, `I am desperate. I don’t care an English Two-pence for myself. I know that the longer I keep you here, the greater hope there is for my Ladybird. I’ll not leave a handful of that dark hair upon your head, if you lay a finger on me!’
Thus Miss Pross, with a shake of her head and a flash of her eyes between every rapid sentence, and every rapid sentence a whole breath. Thus Miss Pross, who had never struck a blow in her life.
But, her courage was of that emotional nature that it brought the irrepressible tears into her eyes. This was a courage that Madame Defarge so little comprehended as to mistake for weakness. `Ha, ha!’ she laughed, `you poor wretch! What are you worth! I address myself to that Doctor.’ Then she raised her voice and called out, `Citizen Doctor! Wife of Evrémonde! Child of Evrémonde! Any person but this miserable fool, answer the Citizeness Defarge!’
Perhaps the following silence, perhaps some latent disclosure in the expression of Miss Pross’s face, perhaps a sudden misgiving apart from either suggestion, whispered to Madame Defarge that they were gone. Three of the doors she opened swiftly, and looked in.
`Those rooms are all in disorder, there has been hurried packing, there are odds and ends upon the ground. There is no one in that room behind you! Let me look.’
`Never!’ said Miss Pross, who understood the request as perfectly as Madame Defarge understood the answer.
`If they are not in that room, they are gone, and can be pursued and brought back,’ said Madame Defarge to herself.
‘As long as you don’t know whether they are in that room or not, you are uncertain what to do,’ said Miss Pross to herself; `and you shall not know that, if I can prevent your knowing it; and know that, or not know that, you shall not leave here while I can hold you.’
‘I have been in the streets from the first, nothing has stopped me, I will tear you to pieces, but I will have you from that door,’ said Madame Defarge.
`We are alone at the top of a high house in a solitary courtyard, we are not likely to be heard, and I pray for bodily strength to keep you here, while every minute you are here is worth a hundred thousand guineas to my darling,’ said Miss Pross.
Madame Defarge made at the door. Miss Pross, on the instinct of the moment, seized her round tile waist in both her arms, and held her tight. It was in vain for Madame Defarge to struggle and to strike; Miss Pross, with the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate, clasped her tight, and even lifted her from the floor in the struggle that they had. The two hands of Madame Defarge buffeted and tore her face; but, Miss Pross, with her head down, held her round the waist, and clung to her with more than the hold of a drowning woman.
Soon, Madame Defarge’s hands ceased to strike, and felt at her encircled waist. `It is under my arm,’ said Miss Pross, in smothered tones, `you shall not draw it. I am stronger than you, I bless Heaven for it. I’ll hold you till one or other of us faints or dies!’
Madame Defarge’s hands were at her bosom. Miss Pross looked up, saw what it was, struck at it, struck out a flash and a crash, and stood alone – blinded with smoke.
All this was in a second. As the smoke cleared, leaving an awful stillness, it passed out on the air, like the soul of the furious woman whose body lay lifeless on the ground.
In the first fright and horror of her situation, Miss Pross passed the body as far from it as she could, and ran down the stairs to call for fruitless help. Happily, she bethought herself of the consequences of what she did, in time to check herself and go back. It was dreadful to go in at the door again; but, she did go in, and even went near it, to get the bonnet and other things that she must wear. These she put on, out on the staircase, first shutting and locking the door and taking away the key. She then sat down on the stairs a few moments to breathe and to cry, and then got up and hurried away.
By good fortune she had a veil on her bonnet, or she could hardly have gone along the streets without being stopped. By good fortune, too, she was naturally so peculiar in appearance as not to show disfigurement like any other woman. She needed both advantages, for the marks of griping fingers were deep in her face, and her hair was torn, and her dress (hastily composed with unsteady hands) was clutched and dragged a hundred ways
In crossing the bridge, she dropped the door key in the river. Arriving at the cathedral some few minutes before her escort, and waiting there, she thought, what if the key were already taken in a net, what if it were identified, what if the door were opened and the remains discovered, what if she were stopped at the gate, sent to prison, and charged with murder! In the midst of these fluttering thoughts, the escort appeared, took her in, and took her away.
`Is there any noise in the streets?’ she asked him.
`The usual noises,’ Mr. Cruncher replied; and looked surprised by the question and by her aspect.
`I don’t hear you,’ said Miss Pross. `What do you say?’
It was in vain for Mr. Cruncher to repeat what he said; Miss Pross could not hear him. `So I’ll nod my head,’ thought Mr. Cruncher, amazed, `at all events she’ll see that.’ And she did.
`Is there any noise in the streets now?’ asked Miss Pross again, presently.
Again Mr. Cruncher nodded his head.
`I don’t hear it.’
`Gone deaf in a hour?’ said Mr. Cruncher, ruminating, with his mind much disturbed; `wot’s come to her?’
`I feel,’ said Miss Pross, `as if there had been a flash and a crash, and that crash was the last thing I should ever hear in this life.’
`Blest if she ain’t in a queer condition!’ said Mr. Cruncher, more and more disturbed. `Wot can she have been a takin’, to keep her courage up? Hark! There’s the roll of them dreadful carts! You can hear that, miss?’
`I can hear,’ said Miss Pross, seeing that he spoke to her,`nothing. O, my good man, there was first a great crash, and then a great stillness, and that stillness seems to be fixed and unchangeable, never to be broken any more as long as my life lasts.’
`If she don’t hear the roll of those dreadful carts, now very nigh their journey’s end,’ said Mr. Cruncher, glancing over his shoulder, `it’s my opinion that indeed she never will hear anything else in this world.’
And indeed she never did.
After all that, back to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
The comparative point I am getting at is that in both cases the climax of the action involves a servant – a humble character – called upon to stand against the terrible malignant force, be it fairy gentleman or Madam Defarge. There is also the precise parallel of servants called upon to sacrificially cover the escape of upper class women. The pathos of these scenes is a function of these humble figures suddenly invested with unanticipated strength – specifically, strength derived from the land itself; Pross as (four-poster) English heart of oak. I won’t tell you what happens to Stephen, except that the spell works. The final battle scars the humble defender. Anyway, that’s how you rig these things. If you like this sort of thing. Which I certainly do. (Cf. Granny Weatherwax, another Pross descendant, in the climactic scene of Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies.)
That said, you just can’t go and write a damn ridiculous fight scene like Dickens did. Not today. Honestly, you’d die of mortification. You certainly can’t treat servants with such comic disrespect as Dickens does. One possible solution is to refuse the whole Sam-Frodo dynamic as intolerable. It would be quite funny to write sort of a cross between The Lord of the Rings and The Remains of the Day, in which the Sam character is dutifully following his Frodo, only to have it emerge that – far from being on some heroic quest – the master is up to something wrong and idiotic, and now the servant has wasted his life in service to moral error. Not only does he not get the girl, who has sensibly refused to wait. Maybe he finds that he has also turned into a Nazgul or something for his pains.
The alternative is to retain something of the original while investing characters like Childermass and Stephen with more dignity and fullness than Cruncher and Pross have. I think Clarke pulls it off. I should add that I can perfectly well see that treating your servant characters with dignity isn’t exactly the toughest trick in the literary book. For one thing, you can have them both safely out of servant harness by the end of the book. I guess I’m just sort of amused to think of Stephen Black as a literary descendent of Miss Pross, which is otherwise highly counter-intuitive.
You might object that Stephen is much more of a central character than Pross, but actually – if you think about it – he doesn’t really do anything much until the end. He has an excuse, of course, being under the gentleman’s spell.
One last point about Stephen. The symbolism of him wearily going about his duties in Lord Pole’s household, while the gentleman is lavishing gifts on him while charming everyone else into not noticing, is quite brilliant. Stephen ends up with all the finest treasure of Europe in his humble bedroom, while remaining the servant he has always been. The idea of the servant with his rich life no one else can see – ordinarily an inner life, as in Remains of the Day – but here a sort of outer life. A cruel sort of rich inner/outer life. As Dickens famously opens chapter 3 of Two Cities:
Wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, if some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this.