I must admit that I didn’t actually like Susanna Clarke’s hit novel, "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," when I first read it back in college. As a lover of fantasy in all forms, I expected the read to be more of a breeze and less of a slog, despite the enormously thick 782 pages (in the hardback version). Clarke’s breakout novel, which took her ten years to write, won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Historical fiction is also my jam, so it felt like a natural fit for my usual tastes. What I remember of my first read was that it had a very interesting premise, but lacked the narrative momentum such a lengthy story needs to carry the reader through to the end. When "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" showed up in my Netflix queue earlier this year, I immediately jumped on the chance to revisit the fascinating world Clarke had created to see if the streaming television format could do the story justice. I was extremely glad that I did.
"Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" takes place in England during the Napoleonic Wars. Beginning in the year 1806, the world of the novel is an alternate history wherein magic in England is real but hasn’t been practiced since the Raven King abandoned England in the 1500s. Instead, England only has a few “theoretical magicians” who study the lost art of “practical magic” - until Mr. Norrell enters the picture. A curmudgeonly fellow who hordes rare tomes on magic and spends all of his time in his ensorcelled library, Mr. Norrell’s fondest wish is to make magic respectable again. In order to accomplish this task, he endeavors to prevent anyone else from practicing magic without his blessing. Jonathan Strange, on the other hand, is an amicable, young fellow without direction in his life. He has a natural talent for magic that Mr. Norrell does not possess. Magic becomes Jonathan Strange’s calling, and Mr. Norrell takes him on as his pupil. Together, the two magicians make up part of a prophecy about the Raven King: “Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me.”
The villain of the story comes in the form of a gentleman with thistledown hair from the land of Faerie. In his quest to become an honored and valued magician for the government, Mr. Norrell has brought Cabinet Minister Sir Walter Pole’s fiancé back from the dead. To accomplish the task, he secretly does what he constantly forbids Strange from doing. He summons the faerie gentleman with thistledown hair to make a deal. Lady Pole is brought back from the dead, but at great cost. She must spend half her life, every night when she goes to sleep, dancing in never-ending balls in The Gentleman’s kingdom of Lost-Hope in Faerie. Sir Walter Pole’s black butler, Stephen, is also caught up in the curse and becomes part of the Raven King’s prophecy.
The bones of the story are extremely engrossing. In the transition from novel to seven-part miniseries on the BBC, any indulgent narrative excess is swept aside and the core story is allowed to breathe. If you are a fan of "Downton Abbey" or really any of the stellar content put out by the BBC, you know how well they put on a show. It’s no surprise that the quality of "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’s" foray into television is top-notch. The series itself premiered on the BBC back in 2015 and received rave reviews, 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 73/100 on Metacritic. Now that the series is available to binge watch in its entirety on Netflix, it’s a fantasy lover’s dream.
An avid binge-watcher myself, I was thrilled with the retelling of Clarke’s novel on Netflix. The paired-down version is cleaner and more coherent. The visuals are gorgeous. I can follow the adventures of Jonathan Strange on the battlefield against Napoleon’s army better than I could on my first reading of the book, and the side characters shine in ways I don’t remember them being able to do in the novel. This is thanks in no small part to an extraordinarily talented cast. Charlotte Riley and Alice Englert as Arabella Strange and Lady Emma Pole respectively became the very heart of the narrative, despite the ancillary role of female characters in both the novel and the time period. Marc Warren as The Gentleman was downright chilling, and Ariyon Bakare as his increasingly forlorn captive, Stephen Black, was perfectly cast. The standout for me, though, was Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange. Much goes awry for Strange as he delves deeper and deeper into the realms of magic, and Carvel portrays the character’s descent into grief and madness so well it just about ripped my heart out.
After watching such a beautifully done series and craving more, I went back to Susanna Clarke’s novel. On a second reading, I was more able to fully appreciate the complexity of her narrative. The novel’s tone is prim and full of dry wit. It has been compared to the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens because it has a similar style. Nearly 200 footnotes are included to educate the reader on the history of English magic and can be quite fun (though somewhat daunting) to read. The motivations of the main characters and the subplots of side characters can get quite muddled in the morass of style Clarke has made the focus of the novel, but, if you are looking for a strong fantasy read that’s more of a stroll in the park than roller coaster ride, this novel is for you.
George R.R. Martin summed it up on his live journal best: "I saw the BBC production of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell before I finally got around to reading Susanna Clarke's novel. In both cases, I loved the book and I loved the adaptation. It does not need to be one or the other. You might prefer one over the other, but you can still enjoy the hell out of both."
If you’ve seen the series or read the novel, we’d love to hear what you think! Share your thoughts in the comments below.