My thoughts on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Kate Nepveu: A thing about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell that you wish got more attention.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell got so much attention — surely far more than anyone could have expected for a gigantimous footnote-packed novel written in an authentic-feeling if not precisely authentic Regency voice* — that I struggle to think of any aspect I wish had got more attention!

One thing I do think people often miss is the wildness hidden in the core of the book. I mean, it is all about these starchy ladies and gentlemen going “Oh, I pray you!” and “To own the truth!”, and doing laborious academic magic, and Mr Norrell in particular maddens me because he is so fuddy-duddy, but that is the great thing about it because the book is all about how all of that is a thin skin of pretence disguising a great big wildness that is at the heart of England and English magic (which, in Clarke’s world, are basically the same thing). And the way the book uncovers that is just thrilling, and so well done. *_*

Within the book, I wish we spent more time with the female characters. The first time I read it I felt absolutely starved for more of Arabella Strange and Lady Pole and Flora Greysteel (but especially Arabella, who is my favourite). The Ladies of Grace Adieu remedies the imbalance a little bit, but it’s just not the same, sigh. I also wish we knew more about Stephen Black — I am very fond of him, but you don’t get very much of him before the Spoilery Thing happens and he gets all smooshed and depressed.

I’ve actually just done a big JS&MN reread, having not read it for years, and it is a little embarrassing how much I’ve obviously been influenced by it, from the elements that got into the book I’m working on (even though I’d forgotten most of these things at the time I was actually writing the book). Hopefully my book is not too derivative, but I can definitely see how in a way I was writing it in response to the gaps I perceived — I was making mine a story about the things I wanted more about. The negative space in a story is just as important as the stuff that’s filled in.

 

*I don’t mean this in a bad way. I think it’s best for modern Regency novels to be written in the author’s interpretation of Regency style, rather than the style an actual contemporary Regency author would have adopted. Patrick O’Brian is a dazzling example of the heights you can reach with that, and Susanna Clarke is another. It always puzzles me when people say how dull or impenetrable her prose is; it seems so clear and sparkling and light to me. Her sentences are also a lot shorter than most actual Regency writers’.

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