I’m going to begin as China Miéville did with a kind of disclaimer. In fact I’m going to pick up on something China said at the beginning of his piece. He says:
One of the usual arguments authors level is the foolishness that ‘I know better than you because I wrote it’. To make my position absolutely clear: authorial intention be damned. I do not necessarily know best.
I’m going to go a bit further than this. For me it’s not so much that authors don’t always know best. It’s more, “Sorry guys, I’m not actually the author.” The author couldn’t come. The author has left the building. She left when the book was finished. I’m just the person who remains now she is gone. I may be able to help you because I seem to have a pile of her memories over here—also lots of her notes and stuff. But, while some of the memories are crystal sharp, others are fuzzy and quite a lot are missing. Ditto the notes and stuff. As for what she intended by writing this or that, in many cases she wouldn’t have been able to answer anyway. She never gave it any thought. I’ll do my best to reconstruct what I can. In fact I shall pretend I’m her, by saying “I” and “me”. The point is that if at any point you feel that I am contradicting her (the author), then believe her and not me. She’s the cleverer of the two of us.
Who is the narrator?
I didn’t consider this question until very late on in the writing process. I came to no conclusion. Then, when the book was published, people started asking me about it and I had to come up with some sort of an answer. By that time several people made guesses as to who he/she was. Some guessed Segundus—which I think is very clever—not least because I was by then toying with the idea of Segundus writing or editing something—which may happen or it may not.
I was fairly sure that the narrator was a woman. The first sentence of Chapter 9 seems to me to imply that.
“It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry…”
It also seems to me that the narrator takes a specifically female view of the male characters. Her irony is a particularly female kind of irony. It’s not just the things the male characters do and their opinions that she finds amusing; she thinks they’re funny simply because they are men.
As Belle points out the events she’s writing about happened relatively recently. So I came to the conclusion that the narrator was a woman writing in the late 1820s or possibly the 1830s.
But I’ve revised that opinion. I think I knew all along who the narrator was. She isn’t anybody. She is a perfectly ordinary, nineteenth-century, all-seeing, all-knowing narrator.
So why do readers think that there must be a specific personality? Why did I? Firstly because the narrator occasionally intrudes with comments, and secondly because of the footnotes.
But omniscient, nineteenth-century narrators did intrude. Both Austen and Dickens had a penchant for suddenly appearing in the narrative and addressing the audience directly. At the beginning of Northanger Abbey, there is this from Austen:
“…for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?”
And from Chapter 2 of Bleak House, discussing the “world of fashion” (by which Dickens means something along the lines of high society):
It is not a large world. Relatively even to this world of ours, which has its limits too (as your Highness shall find when you have made the tour of it, and are come to the brink of the void beyond)…
With this curious parenthesis (quite out of keeping with the rest of the chapter), Dickens’ narrator not only seems to sprout a personality himself, but also to thrust one upon the reader. Why have we suddenly become a Highness?
Of course Belle Waring is perfectly right to suggest that footnotes suggest a scholar. To which I can only respond who says God isn’t a scholar and doesn’t write footnotes? It seems to me, He writes quite a lot of them.
Where did the female magicians go?
There is one peculiarly straightforward answer to this question: they are in the short story “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” (anthologised in Starlight 1 ed. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, pub. Tor, 1996; collected in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Tenth Annual Collection ed. Datlow and Windling). This was the first fragment of John Uskglass’s world to be completed and published, and concerns three female magicians that Jonathan Strange stumbled across one summer. For a long time it was my hope that these three ladies should eventually find a place in JS&MN, but as the novel grew, I decided there was no place for them.
I realise this opens up more questions than it answers. So let’s suppose that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell had been Johanna Strange and Mr Norrell, what would have happened? The hypothetical female magician could have been a Mary Wollstonecraft who tussled against the conventions of the time, or possibly a Joanna Southcott who could terrify Mr Norrell by going into trances. Or perhaps—which is more interesting to me—she would have resisted being set up as a celebrity. She could have been a quiet, rather moral and conventional young woman who profoundly disliked being made a model for social revolutionaries and who would have been drawn very reluctantly into the limelight by her love and talent for magic.
Whichever way this alternate JS&MN played out, some of the narrative would have been skewed away to a story about male-female politics in the Regency. Some of our attention would have diverted from the discussion about English magic and towards a discussion about whether women can be magicians. I can see a problem here—and that is that you and I already know the answer. But be that as it may, the Johanna Strange version certainly seems possible. Intriguing even. I would like to read it. And I can easily see that some readers would have been better pleased with it than with JS&MN.
So why didn’t I write it?
The first answer is simply that the story did not present itself to me in this form. That sounds weak, but the writer-part of me knows how vital this point is. It touches upon some of the ways in which criticising and analysing fiction on the one hand, and, on the other hand, writing it, are at cross-purposes. The needs of the two don’t always align. I’ll begin by quoting Belle:
And I can think of excellent reasons why this book is not about Josephine Strange and Mr. Norrell, the best of which is that some other Mr. Norrell would be required to make the thing work. But then it’s not as though this Mr. Norrell bubbled up out of the ground in his present, unalterable form.
If anyone were interested I could in fact point to the piece of ground Mr Norrell came up out of. I could give you a grid reference. A corner of a muddy field between the villages of Blackhall Rocks and High Hesleden in County Durham. I used to wander the footpaths round there in the summer and autumn of 1992 thinking up ideas for the book I wanted to write. At that particular moment I was trying to conjure up an English magician who had a library, and then there he was. I saw him very clearly—small, nervous, librarian-like, friendless, book-obsessed.
But of course he wasn’t unalterable. I could have changed him. Just as I could have changed Jonathan Strange into a woman. Except that Strange was a character who had been hanging round my imagination for years; I had wanted to write about him for a long time. Unfortunately that’s not true for Johanna Strange.
I don’t imagine the story first and find the characters to fit it. Rather I rely on the characters to help me puzzle out the story. If the characters are completely changeable and unfixed, then where is my thread to find the story? I place a lot of faith in the idea that characters (or story elements) present themselves to me in a particular form for a reason. Strange and Norrell meant something to me. They were bubbling with possibilities (odd, to think of Mr Norrell as bubbly). There were things I could find out about them. Writing often seems more like a process of unearthing detail, of archaeology rather than making stuff up.
My second answer to why there are no female magicians is that I deliberately kept women to domestic sphere in the interests of authenticity. Maria Farrell is absolutely right when she says that in creating JS&MN I was drawing on a world that we think we know from Austen—and, I would add, Dickens. I needed to keep the surface of this world as smooth and unruffled as possible. As John Quiggin rightly divines, it was important that real and alternate history appeared to have converged. This meant that I needed to write the women and the servants, as far as possible, as they would have been written in a nineteenth-century novel. Otherwise the deliberate contrast between “the fields we know” and Faerie becomes much weaker. The fields we know are already somewhat distorted. Suppose the JS&MN world had become one in which the following were true:
- the concerns of the late-twentieth/early twenty-first centuries (social justice and women’s equality) are being voiced/commented upon
- there is magic
At this point the whole thing becomes more obviously an alternate history. It’s too different from any history we’re acquainted with. I’m not denying for a moment that JS&MN is an alternate history, but I wanted the reader to be able to put that out of her mind while she read. Too many of our contemporary concerns would have made that more difficult.
I’ve laboured this question quite a bit because Belle Waring and Maria Farrell’s feeling of dissatisfaction is entirely reasonable. I feel it myself. I hoped that the women characters would take up more physical space on the page. (I don’t agree that that they’re not important—Arabella and Emma Pole influence the action, but they are hidden elements, part of the back-to-front story that Henry Farrell points to.) But would I change it? No. It was meant to be a story about English magic and I still think this is best way to tell that story.
I’m glad Belle likes the lady in the red velvet dress (Miss Redruth) who appears at the end. I don’t believe anyone has yet recognised her and her siblings. They have a model.
The hour has come but not the man
That Henry Farrell should invoke the tale of The King of the Cats is fascinating. I was aware that in JS&MN I was writing a back-to-front story, a story with holes in it through which we can catch glimpses of another, secret story being played out. I even keep a similar story in my head as a sort of touchstone of the kind of stories I like to tell. The hour has come but not the man is a Scottish folktale about a kelpie, a sort of water-spirit, who is observed rising up from a false ford in a river and shrieking, “The hour is come but not the man.” This, though very alarming, means nothing to anybody, until a distraught rider is observed haring along the road towards the river. He attempts to drown himself in the river, but is prevented by kindly bystanders who lock him in a church. Whereupon he drowns himself in the font and the water-spirit is satisfied.
Perhaps JS&MN isn’t seen from the wrong side to quite the same extent as the above, but there are whole elements of which our two magicians remain unaware throughout the book—and beyond. Stephen’s travails on behalf of the two women, for example. And Strange and Norrell never really comprehend how far they are tools of John Uskglass. (They grasp a bit of Uskglass’s intentions but not in the way that Vinculus and Childermass do.)
I suppose a more modern way of writing back-to-front stories is to make them mysteries. Thus Great Expectations looks as if it is a picaresque tale of the rise of a young blacksmith, but the plot has a hidden element, glimpsed from time to time; once that hidden element is revealed, everything we thought we knew about the main story is completely changed. Great stuff, if you can manage it.
On another, small, incidental point of Henry’s, the cards in Little, Big were of course a delight to me. And I’d be interested to know which of the Little, Big cards he thought was identical with one of Childermass’s. Childermass’s cards are, in fact, a perfectly ordinary pack of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Marseilles tarot cards.
A few observations on the English during the Regency period
I am delighted by John Holbo’s discussion of loyal servants. I’m particularly grateful to him for pointing me to George Orwell’s comments about the feudal character of Dickens’ servants. (And for making me want to read Tale of Two Cities again.) Of course the loyalty of Dickens’ loyal servants is overdrawn. For me it’s part of Dickens’ weird ability to give characters one overriding characteristic—as if they were virtues and vices in an allegorical masque—while at the same time he imbues them with more life than the most “realistic” character study. No one else can do it.
I must say that it pleases me no end that in Henry Farrell’s essay Stephen Black and Childermass feature as examples of servants for whom servitude is a dark enchantment, while for John Holbo they are loyal servants. I will say that in my opinion neither Childermass nor Stephen actually found his work as a servant to be humiliating per se. (The gentleman with the thistle-down hair constantly tells Stephen that he is humiliated and cruelly treated by Sir Walter—but Stephen keeps politely denying it.) Both are powerful people within their master’s houses. Being a servant in the Regency period was not necessarily degrading. There were huge differences of status among servants. Which is not to say that a vast number did not suffer all the pains of powerlessness and sexual harassment. There are passages in the letters of Byron’s male friends concerning the sexual exploitation of maids which make your blood run cold.
The way the servants are drawn in JS&MN is in part a conscious reaction to the tendency in films and television to endow all nineteenth-century servants with a mixture of twentieth-century cockiness and resentment at their inferior status. This seems to me a gross failure of imagination. Some servants (of course not all) would have been proud of what they did. They would have supported their employers in the same way a IBM manager nowadays might support IBM, or a football supporter supports his team. The welfare, status and success of “your” family ensured your own welfare, status and success.
Maria Farrell argues that the portrayal of Regency society in JS&MN is ahistoric in its placidity. It certainly wasn’t intended to be. Clearly we’re following rather different threads through Regency history and, yes, there was a more-or-less conscious decision on my part to keep to the drawing-room for much of the book. If Strange and Norrell had presented themselves to me as magicians from much lower down the social scale, obviously the whole feel of the book would have been very different.
There is however one point which I want to make. It’s about historical analysis versus the lived experience of a historical period.
“…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.”
Absolutely. We know that Regency society was a transitory period. But knowing that doesn’t really tell us what it was like to experience life in those years—which, as writers and readers of novels, is what we’re aiming for. The historian can correctly label trends, manners and economic realities as fleeting (she knows when they begin and end). But that’s not to say they are perceived as such by people who live through them. Jane Austen’s heroines (and their real-life equivalents) probably all had grandmothers whose manners would have embarrassed them by their cheerful earthiness. But so what? That wouldn’t have made those young women feel that their codes of behaviour were artificial or ephemeral—any more than a young woman working in Manhattan in 2005 feels that her New Yorkish world, its manners and mores, are somehow contingent or flimsy because her grandmother in Brooklyn still speaks Russian or thinks in a Russian way.
Another question from Maria Farrell:
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? …Why is magic so unrevolutionary during most of the novel, and why is the reader prepared to swallow this?
This points to something about the nature of magic in John Uskglass’s world, (and tells us something of why, in JS&MN, magic resists becoming a neat metaphor for something else). One thing that magic isn’t, is the atom bomb. Once the atom bomb has been invented, it is the property of governments—its use is (more or less) controlled by politicians, generals, possibly terrorists. But magic is in the hands of the magician or fairy—it grants considerable power to the person doing it. Understandably this makes governments nervous.
If Strange and Norrell had not been such perfect examples of their class, both so unquestioning about their duty to uphold the status quo, then it seems to me unlikely that the revival of English magic could have been achieved. The Government and the Army would not have given them anything to do. All the Government’s energies would have been directed to getting rid of them. Only a man as boring as Norrell could have brought magic back.
England and the English
Several Crooked Timberites wonder about a revolutionary subtext in JS&MN. Henry says:
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.
Throughout JS&MN are scattered little pieces of irony at the expense of the arrogant, complacent English upper classes. At the end of the book Strange opens the gates between England and Faerie and in doing so prompts a democratisation of English magic. The assembly of magicians which convenes in York includes tradesmen and a woman, Miss Redruth (plus there are Miss Redruth’s two sisters, also magicians, who are too involved in their studies to turn up). And at the same time, both Stephen and Childermass cease to be servants. Clearly there is something of a revolutionary nature going on, but how far is it a social or political one?
Ironic remarks notwithstanding, there is a limit to how far JS&MN was meant to criticise the social and political setup of the time. For one thing I went to considerable pains to see that world as the characters would have seen it, from the inside as it were. I doubt I succeeded very well—it’s a rather tall order, but still worth attempting. The upper-class characters are meant to have some of the virtues of that class as well as its many faults. Strange, Wellington and Sir Walter all consider themselves to be gentlemen first and foremost; and their concept of what it means to be a gentleman involves much more than a set of rights; there is a corresponding set of obligations (to one’s own class, to one’s social inferiors and to one’s country).
I’m not going to deny for a second that England in the Regency period was class-ridden or that women had few legal rights. Nevertheless I’m wary of how far I project twentieth-/twenty-first-century concerns on to nineteenth-century characters. It seems to me that if we see women, servants, the lower classes largely in terms of how liberated or oppressed they were, we miss catching a glimpse of them as they actually were. They just become another mirror reflecting our own concerns back at us. (I should point out that I’m talking here specifically about white women and servants. It’s not possible to take any view of slavery other than the one we have today. The position of people of African descent during the early nineteenth century was at best impossible, at worst a living nightmare.)
There is of course one political theme in JS&MN which was much more in my thoughts than the class struggle or the struggle between men and women. Few readers remark on it, unless they come from the north of England. It is the division between the north and south of England. John Uskglass’s capital of Newcastle in the far north of England rights the balance between the wild, neglected north and the more mundane, but richer south.
Englishness is, in any case, a set of contradictions. It always has been and I tried to mirror that in JS&MN. Strange, the perfect English magician, is half Scottish and was born a mile or two from Wales. Wellington, the perfect English general, was born in Ireland. (Not that he was the least bit grateful to the land of his birth. “Just because a man is born in a stable, that does not make him a horse.”) Even John Uskglass, the Raven King, who in many ways stands for a lost Englishness and England, claimed to be Norman (Chapter 45, JS&MN), which made his ancestry ultimately Viking by way of France.
So if the revolution of JS&MN is not social or political, what is it? It is, unsurprisingly, magical. English magic now belongs to Englishmen and women and no longer to any particular class or gender. Henry Farrell finds that JS&MN is about what it means to be English. I just want to give that statement a little nudge and say it’s about what England means—the hills and the trees, the rain and the stones. By the end of the book I wanted to give the landscape a voice, rather than the underdogs of society. This is a poetical, romantic idea—not one that lends itself to a great deal of analysis. I’ll try to explain it a little by talking about two ideas I have of what fantasy can do. (Obviously fantasy can do a million things—these are just two.)
Firstly fantasy can be about giving power, strength, importance to the small and weak. Thus the smallest, weakest person—Frodo Baggins to take an example entirely at random—goes off to fulfil the Most Important Task. And turns out to be the only person who could have done it. Ditto Stephen Black.
Secondly Fantasy (and SF) can be the opposite of this. Instead of Giving Importance to People, it can Humble People. It can be about turning our view, however briefly, away from ourselves; it can be about glimpsing that human beings are not always, forever, and irrevocably, the centre of the universe. If you are C.S. Lewis, writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you turn our view away from ourselves to God. (The children become kings and queens —which looks a bit like giving power to the weak, but as they are self-confident, middle-class English children, they never seem that weak or small.) If you are Alan Garner, writing Thursbitch, you turn our view away from ourselves to an actual, historical valley in northern England which stands for all the places in northern England resonating with their own, not-human placeness. I’m with Alan Garner: the landscape of England (particularly Northern England) is the bit of magic we can actually see and touch for ourselves.
I rather like this use of fantasy, partly because is that it’s something we do so much better than the literary fiction people. Literary fiction sticks resolutely to the human. But the world seems to me so much bigger than that.
This was fascinating to think about and to write (it was also very hard work). I’m only sorry to have such insufficient answers to offer in return for such very good questions.