Paul Bryant's Reviews > Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
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Apr 24, 2011

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bookshelves: really-big-timeconsumers, novels, modernvictorian

If a novel of nearly 900 pages can be summarised in one phrase then Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell may, I think, be described as a stately, sly, witty, intricate, comic retelling of Dracula, with digressions and very little blood.

Count Dracula takes life from beautiful young ladies, enslaves them, enchants them, enraptures them, steals them away, into his own twilight (oops, sorry) vampire world – they become something other than what they were, undead, not alive yet not dead, creatures which do his bidding (the company I work for does something quite similar so it appears to be legal). In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a fairy does exactly the same thing, but there's no blood involved, just a little magic. In Dracula it takes quite a while before the heroes realise what’s happening to their gorgeous young women (in both books the gorgeousness is emphasised, I do like that, you know, since they're imaginary why can't they be drop dead too? hmm, probably the wrong phrase). But compared with Mr Strange and Mr Norrell, the Dracula boys are quick on the uptake. Because we’re past page 600 before the penny drops in this one.


One of my problems with this giant enfolding fog of a book is the nature of magic itself. In Dracula Van Helsing lays out the rules about vampires for the readers – they can do this but they can’t do that; sunlight, shape-shifting; silver; crosses; all of that. He later wrote the Observer Book of Vampires (Heinemann, 1911) and it's all in there. The rules are the rules. Many young leary vampires have been struck off for thinking that they were too cool for rules.

Governing committee : You were seen buying maximum factor sunblock in Superdrug three Saturdays in a row.

Young cool vampire : Yeah well, my girlfriend wants me to go camping with her family next week.

Governing committee : Under section 3 subsection 2 paragraph B I hereby strike you off the official list of vampires.

YCV : But but

GC : Beat it, kid, don't waste our time. This is a serious business.

But there are no rules for magic - at least, none discernable. The rule seems to be - sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Mr Strange goes to war to help the English fight Napoleon Boney. In Portugal he is able to create good roads where only mud tracks exist for the English Army to march down. Later he is able to make magical hands arise from the earth and entangle the French troops; but he doesn’t do any magic to prevent the English troops being massacred by cannonballs and artillery – what, no magical winds available to blow the cannonballs off course? But pardon, Mr Strange, elsewhere don’t you say that weather magic is the easiest sort to do? So whyever not? Well, we are not told. He never thinks of doing it, never thinks of alleviating the English troops’ suffering. Susanna Clark says in an interview that she wished to show that people’s romantic or over-optimistic notions of magic were to be disappointed by the unsatisfactoriness of her version of magic. I take that argument, it’s a good one, but it does not solve the difficulty of arbitrariness and the lack of any rules or boundaries.
When anything can happen, and then at some other point, for unknown reasons, the same thing can’t happen, the element of tension simply disappears in a cloud of smoke – poof! As if by magic.


I thought that the villain in this novel was certainly suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Alas that the story took place in the 1810s, when mood stabilising medication had not yet been developed. If the gentleman with the thistledown hair had been prescribed Carbamazepine, Lamotrigine or Lithium I am quite sure the whole thing with the ladies would have never happened and the misunderstanding and antagonisms between him and the two magicians would never have arisen in the first place.


It has been said this novel is like Dickens. It is not. Those who say that have not read Dickens. Do not believe them.
It is said that this novel is like Jane Austen. Okay, with your left eye closed and your right eye squinched up and tilting the novel at a slight angle, then yes, it is. But don’t say it too loudly or Jane Austen fans might beat you lightly with their lace doileys.


The good news : the story definitely picks up around page 650. That is the good news.


For readers thinking about giving this one a go , you should know a few things. Half of this novel is quite a bit longer than most other novels, so unless you like slow, laborious build-ups (this is not the magical equivalent of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill), intricate fake-scholarly footnotes recounting mad details about non-existent books, people, folk-tales, all pseudo-erudite tomfoolery calculated to flesh out the magical world whilst at the same time giving the reader many large winks along the lines “aren’t we having some scholarly fun? Isn’t this a thinking person’s hoot?”; unless you like many pages spent fretting about whether Mr Norrell will lend Mr Strange a particular book (this will-he won’t-he theme gets a little tiresome, so I’ll let you know – big plot spoiler - he doesn’t – now you can skip those bits); unless you like your reading to be languid, leisurely, luxurious, learned, leavened with loopy legerdemain and long, long, long, this may not be the one for you.

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Reading Progress

April 24, 2011 – Shelved
Started Reading
May 1, 2011 – Finished Reading
June 19, 2011 – Shelved as: really-big-timeconsumers
June 19, 2011 – Shelved as: novels
June 19, 2011 – Shelved as: modernvictorian

Comments (showing 36-85)

Jackie "the Librarian" Oh, I hope you love this the way I did, Paul!

message 84: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant I'll be reporting back when I hit p 200...

message 83: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Moorhouse heh, well, try not to get hand cramps holding the damn thing

Kelly That definitely happened to me. Mostly because this was so good I forgot to stretch them out from time to time. So excited you're reading this Paul! I hope you continue to love it!

notgettingenough I'm so glad you are reading this. I'm hoping I can just do your review.

message 80: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant I may have to ask you to read it too! But last night I found a great quote which perfectly describes what we do here on Goodreads... very funny... I'll put it in my eventual review. It's a quote about book reviewing!

message 79: by notgettingenough (last edited Jun 01, 2011 04:43AM) (new)

notgettingenough Paul wrote: "I may have to ask you to read it too! But last night I found a great quote which perfectly describes what we do here on Goodreads... very funny... I'll put it in my eventual review. It's a quote ab..."

It's on the bookshelf at home. If I may judge a book by its cover, it looks like something I won't like. And really, why, why, why do we have to keep putting up with books where we start liking them after 70 (or in the case of Girl with Tatt, 150) pages? They are always painfully long books, can't somebody do their copy editing job and start the damn things at p. 70?

message 78: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant I'm sure the author thinks the whole thing needs a slow buildup or some such. Songs do it, symphonies do it, movies do it. What's slow to one person is going backwards to another. What put me off this one for so long is that it's incontestably about magic, which I dislike very strongly. So I had to put that to one side.

message 77: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Maybe the slow start is just hypnotising us without us realising it.
Otherwise I'm with you guys about slow starts.
My copy sits unread and, to all intents and purposes, uninviting on my downstairs shelves.
My wife hid it down there after she gave up, around page 70, I believe.

message 76: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant I am on page 225 and it's okay, I wouldn't say I'm rushing home from work to devote my evening to it but it's charming in a whimsical way - there's a slight twist on vampires in here which I wasn't expecting...

message 75: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian That's about where I am too, Paul, and I feel about the same. It's good. It's charming and whimsical like you say. But I don't think about it when I'm not reading it.

message 74: by [deleted user] (new)

I loved the slow build on this one, but I've certainly been frustrated with long books.!

message 73: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant I dis covered that you can click on the "recent status updates" link and see all the people who are currently reading the book and read their chunterings

I saw one which said "I have just come across a 4 page footnote!" - which I just also came across... I was amused to see that the villages named in this footnoted short story are ones a few miles north of where I am here in Nottingham... but really, now, I am wanting, nay demanding, something from this book other than whimsy with a hint of malice.

Girl With A Book On page 277; I have no idea why I am stll reading this book. Maybe there is some magic after all?

message 71: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye I'm glad that it picked up around page 650.
It reminds me of when Brian Lara scored 501 in a county game.
The batsman at the other end of the wicket when he passed 500 had been there long enough to score a century of his own.
When asked whether Lara had any weaknesses, he said, "Only the one that I saw - he tended to get incredibly nervous in the 490's."

message 70: by Paul (last edited Jun 20, 2011 04:32AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant another one of my damning-with-faint-praise reviews, I'm afraid (sorry Jackie!)

message 69: by Shovelmonkey1 (last edited Jun 20, 2011 12:08PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Shovelmonkey1 I bought this for one english pound at a bargain book store thinking to myself that should it prove to be deadly dull then at least I've got a new doorstop. Your review has tempted me to read it though, but I think I might just start at page 650 and go from there! ps for people who, like me, are objectionable to ridiculously long footnotes please see:

message 68: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Uh-oh, Shovelmonkey, I beg you - don't read my Paul Auster review! it may be the end of our friendship before it ever started!

Shovelmonkey1 Paul wrote: "Uh-oh, Shovelmonkey, I beg you - don't read my Paul Auster review! it may be the end of our friendship before it ever started!"

Haha - we'll see - which book was it? I'm sure your own (likely) witty take on Austers sometimes massive accounts of naval gazing can be appreciated on its own merits ;)

message 66: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant It was City of Glass... alright... I admit... it's here

message 65: by Trish (new)

Trish Did I miss the quote that you were going to use in your review? The one that says what we do on Goodreads?

message 63: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday wonderful review per usual, paul. but i am miserably forlorn that you did not like it better! sigh. i'm also one of those folks who often compares it to both dickens and austen (i've read both and love both)...and, er, i stick by that.

message 62: by Trish (new)

Trish And Paul disappoints yet another earnest reader. Don't worry, Mark. I'll never forget my disbelief when Paul dismissed Possession by Byatt. I began to think he was trying to raise a reaction.

message 61: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday mean, mean paul!

message 60: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Thanks Trish & Mark! I hack my way through the jungle of books, fearlessly honest, reputations mean nothing... blah blah... Possession is quite a splenetic review - but so also is the one for A Suitable Boy... I wonder what my nastiest review is... hmmm

message 59: by Stacey (last edited Jun 23, 2011 12:11AM) (new) - added it

Stacey There are things I adore about this book (so far,) and yet I've put it down to read at least six other books since starting it. I guess I just don't find the story very compelling, which disappoints me.

message 58: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant But see, it does get a but pacier around page 650! Actually i was expecting a Victorian acid trip and I got a pipe and slippers, a cosy fire and a ginger tomcat in the corner. Quite nice and all that, but it's not rock and roll.

message 57: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Stacey wrote: "There are things I adore about this book (so far,) and yet I've put it down to read at least six other books since starting it. I guess I just don't find the story very compelling, which disappoint..."

I've had pretty much the identical experience. Any time I decide to pick it up I enjoy it just fine, but then I inevitably put it down again, and before I know it I've read a whole other book before I pick up Strange again.

message 56: by C. (last edited Nov 07, 2011 05:15PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

C. I take your criticism of magic as it is portrayed in this book, but I think Clarke was trying to make the point that what limited them was not so much magic itself as their imaginations. i.e. the reason Strange didn't call up a wind to blow the cannonballs off course was simply because no one thought to ask him to do it. And it becomes clear by the end of the book (view spoiler) Much of this was not explained clearly, of course, but I found that to be a strength - understanding the rules which magic follow is interesting, but leaving those rules mysterious and partially-hidden can be just as interesting. To me, anyway!

message 55: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Alas, to a literal-minded geezer such as myself, mysterious and partially hidden just looks like the author didn't think the thing through. However, there's another older very different novel in which magic works haphazardly & lopsidedly. which I love - it's The Circus of Doctor Lao by Charles Finney, which I must reread...

message 54: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Missing like corrected.

Julie Davis I was able to get through this only by listening to the audio, which was so entertainly read that it carried me along. I tried several times on the written version and only pursued it because my daughter kept thrusting it upon me. All that said, it was an entertaining frippery but not one that I think is really worth the time if one doesn't have it to fritter away. :-)

message 52: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy Great review. Loved the part about arbitrariness. I have often thought the same. It's one of the reasons I didn't enjoy the movie 'Spirited Away' the first time (though on 2nd viewing I was able to relax and not care and actually enjoy the movie). But yeah that's a problem, if you're gonna have magic, the rules should be the rules!

message 51: by Mala (new) - added it

Mala Hi Paul you shd've given this book 4* just for the sake of the cool quote you got out of it.It has made your profile page so interesting!

message 50: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant oh yeah that is a cool quote. But like they say, one swallow does not make a summer.

message 49: by Mala (new) - added it

Mala What can i say,you are hard to please,a tough nut to crack etc etc

message 48: by Jude (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jude you may have washed away the last little twinge of illogical guilt I feel every time I see this in the audio books collection at the liberry and pass. I did try. once.
otoh, and somewhat bemusedly, her collection of short stories was absolutely delightful. makes me wish I could have hundreds of pages more- just not the ones on offer.

message 47: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant I wanted to love this one because this author comes from Nottingham, which is where I come from and still shockingly am living in.

message 46: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Moorhouse I like the arbitrariness of the magic. They're reconstructing it from various sources. If it always worked first time, that would not be convincing. Or interesting.

message 45: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant I'm not after a one size fits all government-issue magic, I'm after something you can actually follow and has a grain of logic to it. I don't like Harry Potter or Doctor Who for the same reason. No logic whatsoever.

message 44: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Moorhouse It's okay to prefer science to magic. But if magic behaves like science, then it ceases to be magic :).

Harry Potter? Yeah, kids' magic. Dr Who and the Magic Screwdriver? Sucky.

message 43: by Kate (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kate This is my favorite novel of the last dozen years-- both in the book and audio versions. I can't entirely account for the way I absolutely dote on it except that the language is so rich and elegant-- repeatedly offering that delicious reading experience of encountering precisely the right word (often a word that-- though known-- is not in one's everyday vocabulary.) I love the meandering footnotes. I am impressed by the fact that characters who seem sinister or unpleasant at the start prove likable,even admirable at the end (Childermass.) After several rereadings, I note that the women characters are exceptionally strong. The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair is an exceptional characterization-- totally, almost innocently amoral.
One route to loving JS&ML is to take the fat volume down from a bookstore shelf and idly flip to the page about Lady Peel's missing finger. Once I'd encountered that plot twist, I was totally in thrall until Lady Peel and Arabella Strange were safe. (And yes, that's a lot of pages to be in thrall... um, in.)

message 42: by Akash (new)

Akash Makkar Blowing their cannonballs with powerful winds would have hindered the English army too. It would have affected bullets too. Also, the weather magic can go wrong, I doubt he could have minutely controlled the direction of the wind. Magic is not precise in the novel and it often goes wrong.

However, I do agree with you that magic could have been much more strategically used, it is arbitrary and lacks guiding rules *(1), like magic in the Harry Potter series, but redeeming factor for me was that magic was not the central focus of plot. The drama was created by the characters and the tension created between them due to the idiosyncrasies and difference in their opinions. I felt they were complex and very well crafted.

*(1) Instead of shifting an entire city with the people in it, he could have shifted the English army. Also, water ducts would have created some complications. Underground pipelines even more, if they had them in the cities he shifted.

message 41: by Paul (last edited Aug 18, 2012 02:56AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Hi Akash - I hear you, and I think the many fans of this book love the atmosphere of it, and the carefully described characters, and the stately progress o the whole thing. It has a lot of good things going for it. I'm not rubbishing it in any way.

message 40: by Akash (last edited Aug 18, 2012 03:10AM) (new)

Akash Makkar I know that. It has many faults and I feel your review is very fair. One another thing I noticed is that themes like war, imperialism, position of women in the society, etc. are included but there's no commentary on them, they are always peripheral. Never mind the scholarly style, I feel this book was pure entertainment. A lot more could have been done in those 1006 pages according to me.

message 39: by Aquackworth (new) - added it

Aquackworth +1 for the use of the words "Napoleon Boney"

message 38: by Kate (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kate Yes, and Napoleon's nightmare. And how about the passage about children turning their FAVORITE toy soldiers into Wellington? So vivid and perfectly "period."

As far as women-in-society goes, I noticed upon rereading that the women characters in JSAMN are the strongest ones, much more so than the magicians. It sneaks up on you.

Beth A. It snuck up on me at the end if this is what you mean. I keep wondering what happens to Arabella...her house has disapeared set aside certain people of course.

message 36: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant I thought that I wanted a whole lot more of the faery folk (they were kind of sexy) and a whole lot less of book borrowing. But what do I know.

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