Adventures in Reading


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Pt. 1
January 3, 2008, 7:29 am
Filed under: book reviews, fiction
“‘The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel it ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand;
The first shall pass his life alone; he shall be his own gaoler;
The second shall tread lonely roads, the storm above his head, seeking a dark tower upon a high hillside…'” From the Prophecy of the Raven King

One book that has made it into the new year from my “December’s Reads” list that I have yet to comment on is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. A few months ago I picked up Clarke’s short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, and I loved it. However, it is not my first time working my way through Clarke’s 1,000+ page novel. A few years ago, shortly after the novel came out, I checked out the audio version of the book from the library. After listening to roughly 2/3s of the book I returned it and I believe I thought it was an okay book, but nothing sensational, and certainly long winded.

While reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on my breaks I have had co-workers inquire after it and I have also had customers ask me if I would recommend it. Perhaps not the most accurate description, but I have asked people to imagine if Jane Austen had written a fantasy novel – and that is what Jonathan Strange is. I do not have a great deal of experience with historical fiction, though I suppose Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho does a surprisingly good job of summarizing what I am familiar with.

Radcliffe’s thriller novel is set 200 years before it was written; however, Radcliffe did not largely trouble herself with accuracy and from what I have read it seems reviewers and academics have been fairly critical of Radcliffe’s lack of historical correctness. In one of the introductions, Radcliffe’s historical perspective was described as being drawn from basic classroom lectures and popular books on history. Simultaneously, historical accuracy does not really seem to be an objective of Radcliffe’s. The novel that takes place in 1594 is written in the language of 1794.

For Susanna Clarke though, the historical placement of her novel is as important as any other part of her novel. I have read and heard accusations that Clarke tried too hard in her novel (though I am not entirely sure what that means), but now I can only applaud her for the wealth of research she committed herself to and for the accuracy she chose to pursue. Clarke’s book does not read so much as historical fiction as much as an early 19th Century novel. Are there flaws and discrepancies? I am sure if you are looking you can find them, but Clarke really did a phenomenal job with the delivery of her novel.

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