I wrote a review of sorts for the BBC series Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but it occurs to me that I have neglected to write about book by Susanna Clarke of the same name.
There are multiple book reviews for this 800 page novel on the web. Some brilliant, some dry, some which encapsulate what I believe to be the heart of the book and others which appear to miss it altogether.
There are also many critical interpretations: I’ve read essays which address social class, feminism, LGBT representation, historicism, religion, textual structure, folklore and nationalism.
I haven’t seen a Biblical interpretation (although I saw an interesting gnosticism one) and so I’d like to attempt that here. I feel, however, that I ought to state some disclaimers:
By analyzing JSMN from a biblical perspective, I’m not claiming that this is how Clarke constructed the text. I am simply doing what literary critics do and reading it with a specific framework in mind.
I’m also not claiming that ‘the Author is dead,’ and Clarke’s intentions don’t matter. I think that such a reading devalues the text. Nevertheless, the reader has a right to interpret to the extent that they can back their arguments with textual examples.
By reading JSMN through a biblical framework, I’m not claiming it’s an allegory. There seems to be the mistaken idea that reading something “with a Christian perspective” simply involves finding a Christ-like figure and pinpointing a resurrection – as if textual interpretation is some sort of bizarre Where’s Wally? Game. It’s so much more than that.
This post was written in response to someone who dared to suggest in my hearing that non-fiction trumps fiction. (Don’t worry, we’re still on speaking terms!)
My defence of fiction (firstly, let’s make sure we’re on the same page)
Firstly, we cannot include the Bible in this debate. I believe that the Bible stands alone as the Word of God, a sacred text, written by the Divine. It is Truth embodied.
Secondly, we can’t say one is better than the other. To do so is to misunderstand the debate. They are both literary genres. Neither is the exclusive bulwark of Truth, although both embrace it. Non-fiction does not have the exclusive rights to ‘objectivity,’ to ‘practicality,’ or to ‘clarity’. Neither does fiction alone protect the last vestiges of ‘creativity,’ of ‘beauty,’ or of ‘refreshment’.
Fiction fulfils a different purpose to Non-fiction, but it is of equal importance, and thus deserves equal attention. This is my proposition. These, then, are my arguments:
I am rather dismissive of allegories. As a child I found them profoundly disappointing. I’d begin reading what I thought was a “new” story.. Only to discover a quarter of a way through that I’d been “tricked” and it was actually an “old” story in disguise.
Allegories have their place… But generally not on my bookshelf. (Disclaimer: I say this having written allegories myself. Also, the Narnia series are not allegorical!)
While I dislike allegories, however, I really like “emotive directions”.
If you’ve never heard of such a term, relax. I made it up.
I’m forever on a quest to discover why I like what I like. This is part of my foray into ‘types’ of fictional characters and why we as readers like them.
Who or what are ‘characters who work undercover for the ‘good’ side’?
I’m not sure if this is a universal ‘like’, but it’s certainly one of mine. I really enjoy reading a book or watching a TV series in which a character has to hide their true allegiances from others.
These characters appear ‘less than’ noble, ‘less than’ dependable, and at times downright villainous to most of the other characters, yet are actually working for the side of ‘good’. If they are the protagonist they are likely striving to ‘help’ society or a faction thereof, if they are not the protagonist, they are often an undercover champion for the protagonist’s cause.
An extreme example of this is when an individual the protagonist believes is ‘evil’ is revealed at the end of a series or novel to have been working for ‘good’ the entire time.
This is an extreme and difficult example to plot for three reasons:
I’m forever on a quest to discover why I like what I like. Join me on a foray into ‘types’ of fictional characters and why we as readers like them.
Who or what are socially disadvantaged characters?
Socially disadvantaged characters are those who are oppressed by their society. They have little power to change the (sometimes horrific) world they live in. They are often children, poor, slaves or people of a marginalised race.
For all this, these socially disadvantaged are often the heroes of their tales. In ‘rags-to-riches’ narratives the reason for this is obvious, but there are many other stories where they play central parts – so why are they so popular?
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (BBC mini-series 2015; Netflix; my local library) is a regency era alternative history detailing the attempt of two “practical” magicians to bring magic back to England.
“We have channelled all of English magic into a butler and then we have shot him!”
Magic was common place in Britain during the era of the mysterious Raven King but for the last 300 years it has been confined to theoretical study only. The fussy, book-loving Mr. Norrell joins forces with the flamboyant, reckless Jonathan Strange to make English magic “Respectable” once more.
Mr. Norrell is aided, cajoled and protected by his mysterious man-servant Childermass, a former pick-pocket who is looking forward to the return of the Raven King.
Jonathon Strange is determined to make his wife Arabella proud of him, but is hindered by Mr. Norrell’s refusal to dabble in anything too outlandish.
Power hungry politicians, the Faerie realm, and the death of Strange’s wife tear the two apart. As they travel from France to Vienna and from Yorkshire to London in order to undo As magic returns and the ancient roads of the Raven King are re-opened the two must decide what is most important, and whether they really will sacrifice everything for a future they may never see.
Mr. Norrell: A party? I wish to go home and read a book.
As the High Court Children’s Judge, Justice Maye (Emma Thompson) must decide whether to give a Jehovah ’s Witness boy a blood transfusion against his wishes.
I entered the cinema expecting a clear-cut film condemning religion and extolling the power of ‘free choice.’ Instead I watched a gripping drama filled with flawed characters grappling with what it looks like to love their neighbour.
After visiting the precocious teen in hospital, Justice Maye rules according to the court precedent (“life over dignity”) and chooses to save his physical body, sparing little thought for his soul.
Yet when the disillusioned young man adopts her as his spiritual mentor and her own marriage begins to crumble, Justice May must confront questions such as:
How far should you be expected to go to save a child who is not your own?
Is it always right to separate your professional and personal lives?
What does it take to save a marriage when both individuals have committed betrayal?
This film explores the beauty of life, but also asks: what does it take to sustain it? Are we as Christians willing to give it?
“Here, though the world explode, these two survive.”
(Vincent Starlett, “221B”)
Sherlock Holmes vs. Shakespeare: which will last the ages?
If you’re at all familiar with the ‘English speak’ of High school English classes, you’ll know that a common phrase is “enduring appeal”. Shakespeare always has it. It grants the text an ability to transcend time and culture. It means that a story can still entertain an audience and challenge critics hundreds of years after it was first written.
Such is the case with Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet – they were enjoyed, are being enjoyed, and doubtless with continue to be enjoyed in the future.
I’d like to argue that the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories have this sort of enduring appeal. No other literary character has been so consistently appropriated, updated and represented. The collection of tales reluctantly written by a struggling medical doctor have spawned numerous books, poems, films and screen-plays – not to mention museums, monuments and societies.
The brilliant but eccentric detective and his humble but loyal biographer have permeated their way into popular culture, and demonstrate no sign of leaving anytime soon.
Why? What is it about this cannon of works that has generated such enduring appeal?