Done With Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

clarkeAchievement unlocked. After more than a decade, I have finally read this book, thanks to Keishon. It was an up and down experience, but overall I’m glad I read it. I’m also glad I’m finally done. Reading it steadily (30-40 pages a day) worked for this style of book, with its many descriptive passages and sections that seemed to go nowhere, but it’s not my preferred way of reading.

In the end, I can see that this is an accomplished book, and I understand why so many people loved it. For me, in 2015/2016, it’s ultimately not a satisfying book. When I was looking for reviews that talked about the book the way I was experiencing it (I didn’t find many), I ran across this seminar at Crooked Timber (I must have read it when it came out, because I’ve been reading the site forever, but I don’t remember it). I found Clarke’s response post very illuminating. She seems to have been writing as much to the 19thC novel world as to the 19thC world itself. She wanted to write a book that was in line with the world created by those novels. So of course the main characters were prosperous, privileged men, and the women, servants, and nonwhite characters played subsidiary and reactive roles (I wrote briefly about my discomfort with the Stephen Black character over at Booklikes). That isn’t the whole story of the 19thC, but it is what many novels emphasize.

I also gathered from her post that what interested her most was magic. So it is an idea book in a sense (what would happen if there were magic in England again after a long hiatus and how would it re-emerge). But while the idea drives the storyline and shapes the characters, it doesn’t interact with the other elements of the novel that well. Magic wins the Napoleonic wars, but that’s it for wars. It’s part of the government’s arsenal of policies, but we don’t see details. Magic shapes character behavior, but the characters themselves aren’t that engaging or deep, at least I didn’t find them so. I could see what Strange went through, but it stayed on the page.

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Reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, at last

clarkeWe have a print copy of Susanna Clarke’s lauded novel on our bookshelves. It’s been there for a decade. TheHusband read it soon after it came out, but I tried and failed at least a couple of times (probably more), mostly recently a year ago. My failure nagged at me; I wanted to read, enjoy, and finish it. It’s set in Regency England and is chock-full of all those characters and settings I love in Austen and Heyer. I’ve read Maria Edgeworth and Thomas Love Peacock! I’ve read detailed histories of Wellington and the Spanish Campaign. Why was this book such a slog for me?

An immediate, obvious reason is the faeries. I’m fine with magic, but I hate faeries. I know they’re important to British literary and historical culture, but I don’t understand or like them and I tend to run away from books where they play a major role.

However, this time with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell seems to be the charm. Keishon had been talking about reading it and then took the plunge, and we converged on a readalong, just to help each other keep going. It’s been slow; I’ve been reading it for at least a month, but I’m making progress, and more importantly, I’m actually enjoying it this time. It’s still awfully twee in places, but I appreciate the less tweet parts more than I did in the past.

But. Nevertheless. I still don’t entirely get this book. I’m now more than halfway through (nearly 500 pages into an edition that clocks in at 836 pages). This afternoon I asked TheHusband if there were underlying themes and meanings in the novel that I was just missing. I think my exact words were, “Is it about anything? Besides magic and the storyline, I mean? Is the whole magic thing a metaphor for something?”

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