A society of magicians meets each month in 1806, in York, England. They can't actually work magic, but they study the history of the practice. When newcomer John Segundus joins the group, he asks a naïve yet pertinent question: Why is magic no longer practiced in England? The query throws the club into an uproar. Although they don't actually know the answer, the irate members respond defensively, asking Segundus why magicians must practice magic when it is their duty to study it.
One magician, Honeyfoot, sides with Segundus. The two seek out and visit a magician named Norrell, who is a stranger to the group. Visiting Norrell is a mysterious experience full of happenings the two men can't explain to the York group. But one message strikes home: Mr. Norrell can actually PRACTICE magic.
The group challenges Mr. Norrell, who strikes a bargain with them. He will prove he can practice magic or never again call himself a magician. But in return, they must do the same. All the magicians but Segundus sign the agreement. When Mr. Norrell (from the comfort of his own home) causes all the cathedral statues to come alive, he and Segundus become the only magicians left in Yorkshire.
Mr. Norrell moves to London in his quest to bring magic back to England. Segundus has written a letter to the London newspapers describing Mr. Norrell's amazing feat of magic. London society welcomes Mr. Norrell, but when he offers his assistance in the war efforts with France, he is rebuffed and told that magic is not respectable. That opinion is reversed, however, when Mr. Norrell raises a government official's fiancée from the dead. The British ministers immediately begin to argue over which of Britain's dead leaders Mr. Norrell should resurrect…until Mr. Norrell mentions the phrase "condition of the body." Oh, dear. On to Plan B!
Meanwhile, a young man named Jonathan Strange meets a street sorcerer who prophesies that Strange will be one of the two great magicians of England. On a whim (and mostly to impress the woman he hopes to marry), he announces his intention to study magic. Easygoing Strange becomes persnickety Norrell's pupil. An evil force is about. Norrell bargains with it, but it is Strange whose personal life is most affected.
When Strange joins the troops on the battlefield to lend a magical hand, the commanding officer, Lord Wellington, asks hopefully, "Can a magician kill a man by magic?" Strange replies, "I suppose a magician might…but a gentleman never could." Yet he assists the war effort in many sometimes droll and sometimes nightmarish ways.
Fans of Dickens and Austen will dive headfirst into this book, but I must confess that I found the beginning a long, hard slog. It is a hefty, dense and heavily footnoted text, and I initially found the authorial voice to be intrusive and annoying. However, somewhere before the 100-page mark, I fell happily in love with the story and greedily devoured the remainder. (Readers who stumble in the early chapters should consider forging ahead; I guarantee it's worth the effort.)
This is an amazingly detailed, ornate tapestry of a saga with shimmering moments of wry humor, threaded through with true tragedy. It is fantasy and historical fiction realistically combined and worth pondering, and sure to become a classic. I admitted that it was a slow read for me at the very beginning; after the middle, I dawdled for a different reason. I simply could not bear to see the end of the story approaching. There is a magician alive and well in England today --- Susanna Clarke, author of JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL. Long may she continue to enchant her readers!
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 22, 2011
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell