Did you read Jane Austen in English class? Or even just because you wanted to? I know she’s not for everyone, but me, I’ve always had a bit of an affinity for Britishness. When I first started reading I worked my way through Enid Blyton’s entire catalogue, and our only TV for years was ABC (the Aussie one) which had, and still has, heaps of British stuff on. Plus, I’m technically half Pom.
My favourite part of Pride and Prejudice (aside from the romantic resolution – sigh) is where Elizabeth tells Lady Catherine (de
Bourg Bitchface) to get stuffed, in a no less effective manner despite remaining infuriatingly polite and all stiff-upper-lippy, which is quintessentially British. I wish I could do that to people who piss me off, because nothing would piss them off more.
Anyway this sort-of review isn’t about a Jane Austen novel at all, although it’s also set in the early 1800s and has a very familiar P&P feel to it.
Like Austen’s work, it is incredibly witty and full of social and cultural commentary, but with a more modern edginess; quite macabre in places. There’s even swearing! Well, not really; in keeping with the manners of the era author Susanna Clarke only uses one (mild) word, and puts the d_____ thing in as if it’s been bleeped out.
It was a bestseller way back in 2004 when I bought it at an Angus & Robertson but I did not read this forgotten treasure until now. Well, a few months ago now. This book moved interstate with me (twice!) and patiently waited, gathering dust in my bookshelf for a decade. I am so glad I did finally read it – don’t you just love it when a book you know nothing about turns out to be an absolute cracker!?
Anyway, here’s my 5 second sketch: it’s like Jane Austen wrote a gothic Grimm fairy tale in the guise of an early 19th century historical novel. It’s magical! Not just in a descriptive sense; while there’s the sense of realism of an historical novel, in this world magic exists, and northern England was actually under supernatural rule for several hundred years. Mr. Norrell is a recluse who turns out to be the first practising magician in centuries, and despite his antisocial and miserly tendencies he picks up a pupil, Jonathan Strange. Together they bring magic back to help England fight Napoleon, who is short and French.
She includes loads of footnotes with links to possibly real, probably imaginary books, histories and articles which embellish her world without interrupting the main action. It’s a technique I quite like and don’t find distracting at all; Terry Pratchett puts some great jokes in his. Whether they were duly researched, tweaked or completely made up doesn’t matter – she weaves historical fact and fantasy in such a believable way you just don’t give a crap. Her faeries are magical and mysterious all right, but utterly inhuman and dangerous… not a whiff of the house of mouse about them. Like if the fairy godmother went to help Cinderella but on a whim decided to give the dress, the glass slippers and the Prince to one of her cats instead. Then turned the Prince into a mouse and gave Cinderella a pumpkin head, just for a laugh.
What I like most about historical fiction is seeing the characters taking part in world events; in this novel they run parallel to actual history (except for the whole ‘England was invaded and ruled by a magician king for 300 years’ bit) and are tweaked most interestingly. We get to know a few historical figures – King George III (he’s still mad,) Lord Byron is hilarious, and the Duke of Wellington is…well, awfully dashing really. All of the characters are fascinating, and human and flawed and you care about them (well, all except one) which is testament to Clarke’s talent in creating realistic characters.
Neither magician is really ‘good’ in the usual sense; Strange is the more heroic character but he’s not perfect; quite a few times I wished I could reach through the pages and slap him across the head. Norrell is INSUFFERABLE; selfish, arrogant, spiteful and vain, and for more than two thirds of the book I hated his guts and wanted to punt him in the b__ sack, the g____ stupid f___ wit. And yet he’s not entirely unsympathetic … on one page he’s an irredeemably vindictive turd and on the next I found myself barracking for him to just hurry up and get over himself. But most of the time I just wanted to throttle him. (INSUFFERABLE!!)
Just discovered the Brits are making a miniseries out of this… it’s not out yet – you still have time to read the book as I’m sure it won’t take you 10 years. Sure the paperback’s 1006 pages long but it’s one of those brilliant reads that sucks you in and you never want it to end. READ THE BOOK FIRST – regardless of how good a job they do translating it to the screen, it’ll still be just a translation… and how often do excellent books get turned into crap movies/series? Pretty much all the time. And they’ll doubtless change it anyway. Game of Thrones, anyone? (Don’t get all hatey on me – I love both the awesome books and fantastic TV series, I’m just sayin’, they’re quite different from each other all right?)
The Prophecy; an important recurring element. Any epic story involving magic has to have a prophecy! It is known.
I feel like I’m lost in Austen. The manners…
And that edge I was talking about…
Even if Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had been any good, it still wouldn’t hold a candle to this book. At the very least I’m confident the comparisons I’ve made between it and Pride and Prejudice won’t have poor Jane rotating at high speed in her grave.
Clarke has a ball poking fun at the English.
She piles shit on the Scottish too.
And the French.
And cat ladies.
And her own characters, especially Norrell. She’s a bit of a stirrer, I’m guessing.
I totally, utterly love that passage; she paints her beautiful imagery directly onto my brain. I simply cannot fathom this was her first book.
Anyway, they’re filming! It’s happening! So start reading the book NOW!
…OOO!! OOO!!! While checking out who’s in the TV show I discovered one of the actors is in an upcoming TV adaptation of another book series I adore – Diana Gabaldon’s Cross Stitch!!! OMG! Look there’s a trailer already!!
Looks fantastic! The casting of Jamie and Claire has my (provisional) stamp of approval.
OK that’s it for exciting new film adaptations of books with a supernatural theme set in historical Britain. For now. Happy viewing! But don’t forget; read the books first!!
P.S. A brilliant fantasy author I deeply admire and enjoy, Neil Gaiman, also adores this book. Enough said.