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.
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:
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.