Who Is The Narrator of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and Where Are The Lady Magicians?

by Belle Waring on November 29, 2005

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on the very first page: a bare reference to Jonathan Strange’s The History and Practice of English Magic, which is not to be published for another ten years (and since, when published, it is instantly withdrawn from the public eye by Mr.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.

At times the footnotes come to dominate the page with a crabbed blackness all down the lower 7/8, leaving the main text to meander above in a thin stream only a few lines wide; the reader must then decide whether she will actually finish any of the sentences in the main text, or will turn aside to learn, say, the fascinating story of the Master of Nottingham’s daughter, and how her wickedness was eventually repaid (pp. 240-243), and risk forgetting what the main text is on about. This required split in attention is familiar to anyone who has read a scholarly book, and it strikes me that, in some ways, we must consider Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell a scholarly book. Not to deny that it is a novel; I only mean to say that the experience of reading it is very like the experience of reading a scholarly book. (The footnotes are also an excellent device for presenting information likely known to the characters but unknown to the reader, avoiding the tedious “why don’t I deliver a long monologue about our own history and culture to you, fellow character for whom the information is otiose” info-dumps which mar much fantasy and (much more) science fiction.)

But then if Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a kind of scholarly book, who is the scholar? From the outside, we may ask, who is narrating this novel? From within its confines, the question is more properly, who has written this imaginative history of the recent revival of English magic? A magical historian, obviously. An English person. Someone not so much younger than Lady Pole, I imagine; consider the following:

In case there are any readers who do not remember the magicians’ booths of our childhood, it ought to be stated that in shape the booth [that is, Vinculus’] rather resembled a Punch and Judy theatre or a shopkeeper’s stall at a fair and that it was built of wood and canvas. A yellow curtain, ornamented to half its height with a thick crust of dirt, served both as a door and as a sign to advertise the services that were offered within. (p 179)

So, this person was a child, or little more than one, in the days before magic returned to England, and specifically before the time when Mr. Norrell hounded all the street magicians out of business. In the present time of the book’s narration, of course, there must be a great many practicing magicians about, and thus no room for the card-palming hucksters of days gone by.

I submit that this person also knows, or has at least seen, Sir Walter Pole: “To my mind[emph. mine] he [Pole] was not so very plain. True, his features were all extremely bad…Yet, taken together, all these ugly parts made a rather pleasing whole. If you had seen that face in repose (proud and not a little melancholy), you must have imagined that it must always look so, that no face in existence could be so ill-adapted to express feeling. But you could not have been more wrong.” (p. 65) This strikes me as a more personal description than that of Childermass, or Mr. Norrell, or the others. It is sympathetic and specifically rests on various mobile aspects of his face which could never be gleaned from an engraving. Now, you may well object that a great many things happen in the course of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell of which no historian of magic or contemporary of Strange and Norrell’s could have known anything: what Stephen thought about things the gentleman with the thistle-down hair said, or what they saw in Africa, or how Mr. Norrell looked as he stood outside the library at Hurtfew and heard Strange inside, and so on. Obviously true. Still, where there are footnotes, there is someone sitting in front of a great pile of books, unable to find the page he wants—-even if only by implication. So, I would explain this partial omniscience as a tribute to the imagination of our magical historian narrator.

Is this person a practicing magician? Almost certainly, since it would appear he must be a poor magical scholar indeed in this future England who cannot do real magic. After all, if 13-year-old Quaker girls can do magic from spells they see written out in pebbles (p. 692), then someone as learned as our narrator surely can too. There is some evidence to the effect as well. Consider these quotes, taken from the macabre episode of the seventeen dead Neapolitans. This sentence, “Unfortunately, Strange was entirely unable to discover the spell for sending the dead Neapolitans back to their bitter sleep,” (p. 333) bears the following footnote: “To end the “lives” of the corpses you cut out their eyes, tongues, and hearts.” No reference to Thomas Lanchester, or other magical authorities; this reads, rather, like a straightforward piece of advice won from experience. One magician talking to another, in fact: “you cut out their eyes…”. It is easy to imagine the magician reader making a note of it, “that’s surely what I will do if the need arises.”

And speaking of Thomas Lanchester’s Treatise concerning the Language of Birds, first referred to by an agitated Mr. Norrell after his encounter with Vinculus, and later used to great effect at the novel’s climax—-where did our narrator get a copy? The library at Hurtfew, like that in Hanover-Square, is being whisked about the realms of the world in a pillar of perpetual darkness at the novel’s close, hardly a recipe for easy access. We know that Mr. Norrell has gone to great lengths to amass every book of magic in England. Can it be that our narrator has only an incredibly detailed list of these works and their contents? No. Discussing the decline of English magic at their parting, Mr. Norrell asks Strange an irritating question:

“You are familiar, I dare say, with Watershippe’s A Faire Wood Withering?”
“No, I do not know it,” said Strange. He gave Mr. Norrell a sharp look that seemed to say he had not read it for the usual reason. “But I cannot help wishing, sir, that you had said some of this before.” (pp 419-420)

The footnote to the mention of Watershippe’s book leaves no doubt that the narrator has read it:

A Faire Wood Withering (1444) by Peter Watershippe. This is a remarkably detailed description by a contemporary magician of how English magic declined after John Uskglass left England. In 1434 (the year of Uskglass’s departure) Watershippe was twenty-five, a young man just beginning to practice magic in Norwich. A Faire Wood Withering contains precise accounts of spells which were perfectly practicable as long as Uskglass and his fairy subjects remained in England, but which no longer had any effect after their departure. Indeed, it is remarkable how much of our knowledge of Aureate English magic comes from Watershippe. A Faire Wood Withering seems an angry book until one compares it with two of Watershippe’s later books: A Defense of my Deeds Written while Wrongly Imprisoned by my Enemies in Newark Castle (1459/60) and Crimes of the False King (written 1461?, published 1697, Penzance) (footnote 4, chap. 39)

So, either more copies of all these works have surfaced, or the narrator has been to Hurtfew, or Strange has convinced Norrell to send copies to England, or…?

Having set myself this puzzle, I began to think it would be more satisfying if the narrator were in fact someone we have already met during the course of the book. Sadly, I cannot think of any compelling candidates. John Segundus is the most likely, in his way. He is a scholar of magic and seems destined always to be more an admirer than a practitioner, his successful use of Pale’s Restoration and Rectification to rejoin Lady Pole’s finger and break her enchantment notwithstanding. (p. 728) But he wrote a life of Jonathan Strange, referred to several times in footnotes, and hardly seems the sort to refer to himself in this way. In any case he lacks the imaginative presumption. Messrs. Strange and Norrell clearly have better things to do; Stephen Black is greatly occupied Elsewhere; Miss Greysteel would probably scruple to describe herself so flatteringly. Lady Pole certainly wishes to make her wrongs known, but is anyone less likely to turn magician? More importantly, she would paint a blacker Mr. Norrell, and a much blacker Mr. Strange, than our narrator. Arabella Strange? Again, she does not strike me as the sort to turn magical scholar. Childermass is impossible. No, it must be some future magician scholar.

Here I must confess to a bit of pointless speculation. I think that perhaps our narrator may be one of those present at the second meeting of the Learned Society of York Magicians, which forms the bookend for the narration. The “magicians” disbanded by Norrell re-group, in the company of many new practicing magicians. Deprived of all the books in Mr. Norrell’s peripatetic libraries, they must begin anew, learning English magic in the old way, from the book the Raven King has newly inscribed on Vinculus’ skin. Much discord clearly awaits them, just as Strange foretold in his comment quoted on the first page: “[magicians] must pound and rack their brains to make the least learning go in, but quarrelling always comes naturally to them.” (Indeed, the comment is much more apt now than at the time of his writing, when there were only two magicians, admittedly quarrelling ones.) The new Society is much more heterogenous, including even “a young, striking-looking female person in a red velvet gown.” This does not sit well with the older members, who seem to be Norrellites in this respect at least; they do not think unsuitable people should learn magic, and “female persons” are of necessity unsuitable.

I am pleased to imagine that this female person in the red velvet dress outgrows her youthful radical Strangeism, becomes a great magician, and late in life pens this only moderately Strangeite work we now read. In truth, there is less than no reason to think so, only a sort of longing brought on by a look at the spine of the novel.

This brings me to touch only briefly on my second question, where are the female magicians? Now, this reaction is in some ways entirely unfair, but I feel a small twinge of disappointment when I read an amazing book like this, written by a female author, in which (male) heroes come to know themselves, restore order, and recapture their lost women from the villain’s bondage. Not to say that this isn’t normally howthings go—-quite the contrary. But it is so thoroughly how things go, particularly in the realm of “fantasy”, that I cannot help feeling a bit chagrined. (Similarly, why isn’t goddamn Harry Potter Hermione Potter? Why not?)

I am aware that this feeling in myself may be too tainted by Mary Sue fantasies to constitute a valid aesthetic reaction. 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.) Also, the meticulously maintained historical tone of the novel, which may be even more genius than the fantastic imaginative elements, militates against having a romance-novel heroine who overturns every social convention without much trying. For even if magic has changed many things in Clarke’s world, it has clearly not made the least alteration to English manners.

And yet, is a black man, a freed slave, not the hero of a novel convincingly set in the social milieu of the Napoleonic wars? Would it be any more unlikely, any stranger, to have a woman who uses magic? A woman who does something other than be beautiful, or amiable and devoted to Jonathan Strange, or beautiful and amiable and devoted to Jonathan Strange? A woman who does not just suffer convincingly under the watery light cast by a Venetian mirror?

I feel a bit shy criticizing Ms. Clarke about this, since literary criticism is not reverse-engineeredfanfic, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a wonderful novel. However, if it should turn out that I am right about the female person in the red velvet dress, I myself would be even more amiably disposed to this fine book.

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riting on the wall » Blog Archive » two totally unrelated items
11.30.05 at 4:50 am



Steve 11.29.05 at 10:41 am

Your final comments (regarding the absence of female magicians) reminds me of a seminar I had over The Plague, by Camus. After exploring the meanings of the book (this was a political science class, thus political issues dominated), the professor went on to criticize the book because it didn’t have any Arabic characters.
And similarly with your complaints. Is it particular to academics, or to the late 20th Century, that books can be criticized for not being the book that a late-20th-century-politically-correct-academic would have written? I thought book X was a good book (say, War and Peace). I find it bizarre to criticize War and Peace because it had no firemen. (or sewer workers. Or orientals. Or women. Or lesbians. or etc etc etc). Naturally, this style of criticism only applies to Dead White Males. Nobody (that I’m aware of) complains that there weren’t enough white characters in The Color Purple.



A.J. 11.29.05 at 11:26 am

Steve —

While I agree that that sort of criticism sometimes goes too far, in this case, it’s a legitimately interesting question. There’s a peculiar tension at work in Strange & Norrell: There are very few strong female characters in the book; indeed the only one I can think of is Stephen Black’s grocer. But on the other hand, the book’s narrator is a strong and opinionated character — and almost certainly female. (Have a look, for instance, at her description of Walter Pole. She’s judging his sexual attractiveness.) What’s going on here? I’m not really certain, but I can’t help but note that the history is being written by a woman.


belle waring 11.29.05 at 11:39 am

steve: you may in fact understand this complaint better as the cri de coeur of a desperate fangirl rather than that of an irritated feminist, though no doubt the latter element is in play too. as a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction I have spent many, many an hour immersed various imaginative worlds totally devoid of compeling female characters. I mean, seriously, two words: Larry Niven. oh, but what about Tollkien? laughs hollowly. though there are great women writers of science fiction and fantasy, to say that they are a small minority would be pretty much to understate things. I have always attributed the preponderance of male characters in these books not so much to malign sexism as to a certain amount of “write what you know”. many of my favorite sci-fi and fantasy authors are not actually good writers in some absolute sense (cf Niven, above), so much as they are creative minds who can imagine compelling alternate worlds. that their female characters tend to the cardboard cutout of a hot chick is something I often chalk up to social ineptitude and poor writing ability, as well as a dose of misogyny in many cases. (Gene Wolfe is an example of a superlative writer who has drifted off into misogyny at times; I am thinking of a story about brownies in a crashed ship–someone can help me out here.)
anyway, when a woman does write an amazing, sucessful fantasy novel, thus bringing lots of new female readers into the fold and inspiring would-be female authors—and there are still no strong female characters, and the single most plot-advancing, definite action taken by any of them is to accept a mirror from someone…well, I feel a bit tetchy, is all.


Steve 11.29.05 at 1:13 pm

To follow up (and to not be snarky-I promise). One interesting aspect of your complaint/observation is that, presumably, its not a complaint about the book per se-its actually about the ‘universe of books’ of which this book is one. In other words-if this book existed exactly as it is, with the one difference being that there were lots of alternate ‘feminist fantasy’ books out there to read, would you have the same complaint? If strong male characters were the exception in fantasy (rather than the rule), would this particular book warrant the same observation? I would guess not. Which is actually interesting-you are complaining about the writing of this particular book, not because of the way it was written (no female characters) but because of the way OTHER books were written (no other female characters, so this one ‘owes’ the readers a strong female character so to speak-this is why we don’t hear complaints about the lack of white males in The Color Purple, for instance).
And this in itself is very interesting. You are judging the work of this author based on the work of other authors! Is it fair to the author? Is it fair to the book**?
I assume there is some English Lit theory that discusses this, but if there isn’t, there should be.

(**I haven’t read this book, and have no interest in fantasy whatsoever).



Chris W. 11.29.05 at 1:27 pm

Actually, in response to the complaint about a lack of women magicians, in her short story “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” Susannah Clarke provides a picture of extremely powerful lady magicians. The eponymous ladies are presented as protectors of an ancient and powerful tradition of magic at a time when Strange is only just learning the ropes. So Clarke’s world is far from entirely devoid of powerful women sorcerors.


Jamie 11.29.05 at 2:19 pm

But it is so thoroughly how things go, particularly in the realm of “fantasy”, that I cannot help feeling a bit chagrined. (Similarly, why isn’t goddamn Harry Potter Hermione Potter? Why not?)

Don’t forget Lyra.


morinao 11.29.05 at 2:29 pm

My favorite narrator’s aside, that perhaps bounds the date of the text’s notional authorship (p.111):

Still the strange ships glittered and shone, and this led to some discussion as to what they might be made of. The Admiral thought perhaps iron or steel. (Metal ships indeed! The French are, as I have often supposed, a very whimsical nation.)


Sebastian Holsclaw 11.29.05 at 2:37 pm

If you want a good book with female characters (and an interesting alternate history of England) try the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 11.29.05 at 2:44 pm

Tolkien did have strong female characters; the problem is that they’re in the Silmarillion.

I mean, Luthien prevailed over Sauron in single combat, which is more than any jumped-up Numenorean heir ever did. But.


DJ 11.29.05 at 4:35 pm

and there are still no strong female characters, and the single most plot-advancing, definite action taken by any of them is to accept a mirror from someone
Well, I don’t agree! I think Lady Pole, Arabella, Ms Brandy, Miss Greysteel are all strong characters in their own ways. Maybe you forgot the scene where Lady Pole takes down all of Norrell’s bodyguards (with moves that would make Trinity jealous) and then shoots Childermass. Sure, she might have been aided by Faerie magic a little, but you’ve got to give her credit for standing up for herself. :)

It is true none of them are really plot-advancing, but I still think it just fits more with the time this book takes place that only rich white men are the ones with enough time to bother with magic as a profession. But I would argue that the female characters are much more than cardboard-cutouts, they all have very independent minds and strong personalities.


Heresiarch 11.29.05 at 5:21 pm

The Gene Wolfe story you are trying for is “The Ziggurat”, from the collection Strange Travelers.

Wolfe’s latent misogyny bothers me every time it surfaces. Brilliant, brilliant writer. But he can’t write whole women.


Kenny Easwaran 11.29.05 at 7:28 pm

Funny – the passage that convinced me that the narrator was female (rather than John Segundus) is one of the first talking about Ms. Brandy, describing her interactions with Stephen Black, and pointing out that the men will think she is tending poorly to her business, but the ladies will think she is minding her business very well indeed.


Another Damned Medievalist 11.29.05 at 9:12 pm

I never really thought of the narrator as being particularly gendered, but I think you’ve made a goos argument for a female narrator. In terms of why there are no women magicians in this world, though, I have to say I wasn’t disturbed by it. That at the height of English magic there were very strong female practitioners is abundantly clear. But the world inhabited by our heroes, if we can call them that, is more public than private. The theoretical magicians gather at what are essentially gentlemen’s clubs — rather than gambling and drinking at White’s, they discuss magical theory. I think it’s very telling that, once magic is again practical, and the practice popularized from the top of society down, we see more and more women drawn to it.

In a way, I think there’s an argument for the absence of women magicians being truer to the period and to the norms of female characters (in that part of society) in fiction of and about the period — women are doers, men (with the exception of those in the military and rogues) are thinkers.


anon 11.29.05 at 10:11 pm

Theodore Sturgeon, “The Widget, the Wadget and Boff”, great female characters (IMHO).


Tom Lynch 11.29.05 at 10:40 pm

Requiring a “good” fantasy novel like JS&MN to contain strong female characters is a form of backhanded praise. Contrast “this book is good, so why doesn’t it contain well drawn female characters?” against “these books are crap, one symptom of which is the lack of well drawn female characters”.

Old school “pulp” fantasy is excused from being judged on this axis. Rampant misogyny and a lack of interesting female characters are axioms of the genre in which Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, etc. wrote. Or Larry Niven writes (ugh, IMO).


Alison 11.30.05 at 4:18 am

I want to see interesting and important female characters. But I also want to see sexy male characters. Those are also sparse in conventional male mainstream literature. I think JS&MN is replete with sexy male characters (uh, not Mr Norell of course), and this aspect of woman’s voice, or woman’s vision, is something I really appreciate about the book.


sammler 11.30.05 at 6:51 am

If (as another post here suggests) the magical revolution in this book is based on England’s real industrial revolution, then the male character of magic would simply be a reflection of the male character of industry and engineering in the real 1800’s.


belle waring 11.30.05 at 11:30 am

the narrator implies strongly at many points that Mr. Norrell is being an ass for thinking that women can’t be magicians, taking Strange’s side in a dispute over whether some aureate magician was taught by a woman. this all just implies, to my mind, some future female magician laughing at Norrell’s foibles.


Fishbane 11.30.05 at 4:37 pm

Just another counterexample that proves the rule of sexism in SciFi: Vernor Vinge. Many strong, nuanced women (Peace War, Marooned in Realtime, A Deepness in the Sky, A Fire upon the Deep, Tatja Grimm’s World), and in some works, explicit characterization and speculation of economic and social pressures that cause sexism (Marooned in Realtime, A Deepness in the Sky).

It is a subtle but persistent theme in his work.


Tera E. 11.30.05 at 6:13 pm

As Chris W. said, “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” does feature powerful women magic-workers–but the problem is that even in that story they are “invisible” to the world of male magicians–even, until the end, to Strange. Clarke’s world has them, but if they’re invisible they won’t necessarily appear in JSAMN.

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