The World of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is a book that needs to be read as the big hardcover tome that it is. Not only does it help give it the air of the early 1800s (at least more so than a mass market paperback or, egad, an ebook version), but the sheer weight of it is appropriate for the sheer depth of the world contained within. To me, the covers are like doors – the book is its own Narnian wardrobe. No other book gives me that sort of visceral, immersive satisfaction.
Like most people, it took me a long while to pick it up and take the plunge. Like most people who’ve read it, it took me a long time to read the first 200-odd pages before I suddenly felt fairly comfortable with the world, its language characters, and politics. From there I couldn’t stop myself and finished the rest of it in record time, the occasional four-page footnote notwithstanding.
Prompted, no doubt, but the seven-episode TV mini-series adaptation (severely abridged but so far brilliant), Neil Gaiman has written a short piece for The Guardian, in which he says:
I was right about how good a book it was, and how much people would like it. I was wrong about one thing, and one thing only, in that I had thought that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell would be a book for the few – that it would touch only a handful of people, and those people deeply, and when they encountered each other they would speak of Arabella, or Stephen Black, or of Childermass or the Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair in the way that people talk of old acquaintances, and bonds of friendship would be formed between strangers. I daresay they do, and they are, but there are not a tiny handful of them but an army as big as Wellington’s, or bigger. The book became that rare thing, a fine and wonderful book that found its readers, all across the world, and was garlanded and lauded and awarded and acclaimed.
I would be remiss if I’d neglected to mention Portia Rosenberg’s illustrations, as well. It is unusual for an adult book to be illustrated these days, but they fit so well; they’re reminiscent of George Cruikshank’s illustrations for Dickens. They are evocative of the era, slightly dreamlike in style, and even slightly surreal, and so much more effective in black and white than anything done in color. They are delicate and archaic, complementing Clarke’s style of writing.