Should women work 80 hours a week?

by Harry on November 29, 2005

Laura takes on Linda Hirshman, standing up for those of us who think there is more to life than making loads of money and accumulating power. Laura is really pissed, and on a roll. Comment there.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Seminar: Introduction

by Henry Farrell on November 29, 2005

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.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.


The Magical-Industrial Revolution

by John Q on November 29, 2005

In a sense, science fiction is all about the Industrial Revolution. The genre begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818. Among the layers of meaning that can be read into this work the most obvious, pointed to by the subtitle, is an allegory of the Industrial Revolution, unleashing forces beyond the control of its creators. In one form or another, this has remained the central theme of the genre.

Counterposed to the Promethean theme of science fiction is the frankly reactionary medievalism of Tolkien and most of his successors (‘It is not unlikely that they [orcs] invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions have always delighted them’).

Alternate history, long the topic of five-finger exercises in which, say, Paul Revere’s horse goes lame, has provided a new approach to the problem. The great discovery of recent years, after a period when the whole genre of speculative fiction seemed in danger of exhaustion, has been the fictional potential of the 18th and 19th centuries, the time when modernity, the transformation of life by science and technology, was still new and startling.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell gives the alternate history wheel a new spin, by imagining a starting point at which alternate and real histories have converged. Clarke’s Georgian England is just like the real thing, but has a history in which magician-kings ruled the North until some time in the 14th century.

For reasons that are never entirely clear, magic has faded away until its study has become the domain of gentlemanly antiquarians, ‘theoretical magicians’ who never actually cast a spell. Their comfortable clubs are suddenly disrupted by the emergence of a ‘practical magician’ the enigmatic Gilbert Norrell. He is joined by a student and potential rival Jonathan Strange.

Strange is much the more attractive of the pair, but appearances may deceive. Without anything much in the way of moral qualms, he joins Wellington in wreaking magical havoc on the armies of Napoleon, often finding it difficult to put the world back together afterwards.

The re-emergence of magic in this fictional world (where industry is scarcely mentioned) parallels the emergence of technology in the Industrial Revolution. Norrell is the image of a modern researcher looking for grant funding, emphasises cautious and practical applications of magical technology in agriculture, coastal defence and so on. And he has all the vices of associated with the type, hoarding information, jealous of his intellectual property and so on. Meanwhile Strange is alive to, and welcomes, the revolutionary possibilities of magic.

But it is Norrell, and not Strange, who opens the door to chaos when he makes the classic mistake of accepting an attractive-seeming bargain from the the faery king of Lost Hope, to spare the beautiful young wife Sir Walter Pole, from death in return for ‘half her life’. Rather than taking the second half of three-score years and ten, the king calls her away every night to dance in his endless dismal balls.

Lost Hope is the link to the third main character in the book, the ‘nameless slave’ Stephen Black, a negro servant in the Pole Household. The faery takes a fancy to Stephen Black, and determines that Stephen should become King of England, a goal he pursues with amoral carelessness for the sufferings he inflicts along the way. In the end, however, it is his own kingdom of Lost Hope that Black comes to rule.

The book ends in a cloud of dimly-perceived possibilities, with Norrell and Strange vanished from England, and magic transforming the North, very much like the real situation as Britain emerged from the Napoleonic wars. A sequel (or a trilogy) seems called for, and will be awaited eagerly.

The claims of history

by Maria on November 29, 2005

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.
[click to continue…]

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.
[click to continue…]

Two Thoughts (About Magic Christians and Two Cities)

by John Holbo on November 29, 2005

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. [click to continue…]

Return of the King

by Henry Farrell on November 29, 2005

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:

bq. 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.

[click to continue…]

Women and men; servants and masters; England and the English

by Susanna Clarke on November 29, 2005

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.

[click to continue…]