Alex Müller emails to tell me that he’s singlehandedly translated the Susanna Clarke seminar that we ran last year into German (as best as I can tell it’s a very nice translation). When you do something under a Creative Commons license, you hope that people are going take it and play with it and do fun things that you can’t do yourself, and it’s wonderful to see it happening. Apparently the China Mieville seminar is next on his list …
From the category archives:
Susanna Clarke Seminar
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.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.
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.
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One of the most striking features of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are the copious footnotes, which veer between dry citation of imaginary magical histories and truly otherlandish narratives, like a series of charming miniatures. We encounter the first on the very first page: a bare reference to Jonathan Strange’s The History and Practice of English Magic, which is not to be published for another ten years (and since, when published, it is instantly withdrawn from the public eye by Mr. Norrell’s spiteful magic, perhaps not read for longer than ten years). This footnote makes Strange’s the first of the two magicians’ names the reader will encounter in the text proper, even before that of Mr. Norrell, a recapitulation of the order you see on the title page. This is so even though the tale which follows is concerned exclusively with Mr. Norrell for the next 125 pages or so, but is altogether right in view of the relative power and importance of the two magicians.
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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.
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.
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.