You write a great long book building up to the moment, is what. Surely Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of the most curious books lately to have been written. Once one begins to understand how much she is attempting just in terms of the plot, one begins to suspect the possibilities for meaning are equally great. It is a new work, but one that works with a great deal of tradition incorporating it and animating it with a faux-history that is not only charming, but coherent, and because it is coherent, rooted in reality . . . curiously enough.
One may look on it as a whimsical and charming book, but the whimsy and charm are of a deliberate sort–not in violation of the nature of whimsy and charm, but in keeping with our desire that such things be more than oddities and decorations. There is a great deal whimsical and charming in what is England, and it is in celebration of the abiding good these things grow out of that I believe Susanna Clarke writes her book. Because the book is English, full of an English sense of identity . . . curiously enough.
That was developed over the ages, it goes back and it goes deep; that identity and what informs it is not just something conjured up but an invisible reality which they have and hold and can put to good use, as Susanna Clarke does. It is also, because it is a shared thing, something associated at some level with the spiritual bond that the religion that gave them the church of England represents in that land of peculiar and stubborn traditions.*
There is also an ambivalence in the book, as if Clarke’s ideas are at war with her heart; something at the surface is being warned and tempered by something deep down. Kind of like Ursula Le Guin who was keen on progressive ideology but never enough to let it ruin a story. There are rules for good stories, there are canons picked up by good readers and lovers of stories about how they are satisfied by them, how persuaded, what makes them good. And Clarke is careful about her story, careful about all the imagined things: they cohere; she has a sense (a sentiment? an aesthetic?) of how things should be even though she has progressive ideas; she does not let the ideas overcome the story–they do not inform it at the deepest level.
The setting and diction of the book are important: the age of reason. In the polite and intelligent diction of Jane Austen, Clarke narrates a tale of the revival of English magic–and the term ‘revival’ is her own. It is a curiously well-thought magic that is revived, and must be. It seems slight at first, dissatisfying: we wonder if it is all there is going to be. Then it deepens and broadens as the plot does too, and ends up being something quite satisfactory in the end.
Roger Scruton has spent a lot of time studying and thinking about the Enlightenment. He has a very interesting chapter about ‘Religion and Enlightenment’ in A Political Philosophy in which he describes two waves of secularization. The first one was from the Enlightenment and did not destroy as much as the second. The result of that first was the Victorian age–see Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach.’ The second has left us what we have now and has been more thorough and destructive to traditional ways and religion especially. He says it has affected even how we experience the human body, and the human body has lost the appearance of divinity to that of “a natural animal rooted in the natural world and obedient to its dark imperatives.”
What I think appeals about Clarke is that her book is reaching for something secularization has obliterated. She reaches for something hidden deeper away and uncrushed because it is too deep in the consciousness of what England has been. Her story about the revival of English magic is a false history, but it has a true core: English folklore and English behavior. It is interesting that the Raven King, that figure which in the book is both historical and legendary, finally makes his single appearance at the end of the book and is described as looking like a Methodist minister. The suggestion is that he is the presiding benevolence restoring the strange, peculiar and the comfortable, the traditional ways a more-or-less medieval golden age bestowed on that isle. And while Clarke is not about to say Christianity (magic can be read as supernaturalism, the fundamental wonder which makes all interesting and gives life significance therefore making it bearable = interesting and comfortable), I think she is saying something very like what Scruton does.
*Part of what is going on here is informed by reading in Roger Scruton and I probably ought to wait to get England: An Elegy before I finish this, but I’m not going to wait.