My Novel Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
My TV Show Rating: 4 of 5 stars
I first found out about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in April 2013 after reading Five Golden Things, which is an article about an interdisciplinary seminar on 21st-century science fiction and fantasy at the University of Alabama. I added Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke and The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi to my “to read” list after reading the article. I didn’t really get around to reading about Strange and Norrell until now. My first motivation to pick up this novel and read it was the fact that the BBC made a TV show from the story in May/June 2015. My second motivation to finally pick up and listen to this book was that a blogger I follow regularly Hannah Heath reviewed it on her Hannah’s Novel Notions blog, which inspired me to dialogue with her.
To be honest, I’m generally a person who will always tell someone to read the book instead of watching the movie or TV show first. Unfortunately, in the case of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I would actually recommend the opposite. I was surprised to feel this way, but I actually enjoyed the TV show much more than the novel. The show was much more exciting and I found the characters more likable, which doesn’t happen too often. I loved the world that Susanna Clarke created, but I guess the writing style just wasn’t for me.
A bit about the story
The primary storyline revolves around “the restoration of English magic” and how the two magicians of the age Mr. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Gilbert Norrell struggle to learn magic and make being a magician a respectable profession. The secondary storylines revolve around faeries and enchantment, how they have not completely left England and revealing to the reader that faerie magic may not be the kind of magic one needs or wants.
There is a large cast of characters in the novel and all very English; the primary characters being Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell, both of whom are well rounded eccentric characters. Mr. Norrell is a introverted, bookish person who revels in his books, hoards knowledge, and is not very eager to share either with anyone for fear that magic will fall into unworthy hands. Mr. Strange on the other hand is an easy going, friendly person, skills he sets his mind to acquire come easy to him, which boars him easily and makes him fickle until he finds magic in which case he becomes a little obsessed and arrogant. There is Childermass, Mr Norrell’s man servant, who is witty and serves as the vehicle to tell the stories of the greater magical community and plays devil’s advocate for both Norrell and Strange. Then there are the enchanted characters: Stephen Black, Vinculus, Lady Pole, and eventually Mr Strange’s wife Arabella all of whom who have their own small role to play in the restoration of English magic and are full of life even though we don’t witness them very often in the novel — though we do see much more of Stephen Black than any other of these characters.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is told by a distinct storyteller; the audience doesn’t know who the storyteller is, but it is a distinct storyteller. As a result we are told everything that happens which turns into a double edged sword for the author. The voice of the narrator is proper, dry, but conversational so depending on your taste in narrators this could be a good thing or bad thing. The bad part of having a distinct storyteller is that there ends up being a lot of telling versus showing of action, which is something that is highly frowned upon in modern writing. Though I must admit that it worked and didn’t really bother me until I allowed my writer brain to turn on during parts that got a bit too dry and long winded.
One of the nice things about going through this story as an audiobook was that I was forced to listen to all the footnotes for the story, which I probably would have skipped had I been reading the story. Dude. If the information is really that important it should be woven into the story and not made into a footnote. Who puts footnotes into fiction? I don’t remember that when I read Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. The use of the footnotes felt like cheating to me, but only really worked because the writing style was like you were reading someone’s account or retelling of happenings.
Which brings me to the aspects of the book that I didn’t like. There were too many miscellaneous twists and turn in the story that I understood were supposed to be character building, but I wondered whether or not could have been shortened to cut completely. Like all the backstory about Mr. Segundus and Mr. Honeyfoot — half way through the book Mr. Honeyfoot seemed to drop off the face of the planet, but at least Mr. Sugundus survey some minor purpose to complete the plot. If I had read the book first I don’t think I would have had the patience to drudge through all the meandering tellings of the secondary characters. I only pushed through because I had a notion of where the story was going due to watching the TV show first and the fact that I was listening to an audiobook so didn’t have the luxury of skipping paragraphs or pages.
The downside of watching the TV show first was that I had bigger expectations of the female characters of the book, who played fleeting roles in the background of the actual novel, which was rather disappointing. The enchantment of the women and their struggles added to the suspense and excitement of the story. I was highly disappointed that Mr. Strange so obviously neglected his wife in the novel until he came to the revelation that he really did love her after he realized she was enchanted and not dead (and it took him going insane before he realized how important she was to him). The obvious love that Mr. and Mrs. Strange had for each other was one of the more compelling aspects of the TV show.
Overall, I loved the way the plot was woven and how all the main and secondary characters were essential to restoring English magic even though they didn’t realize it. I loved the sense of destiny versus free will that underlined the story. So I have to say that I was thoroughly satisfied by the end of the book, but it took a lot to get me there.
TV Versus Novel
As I stated above, if you do anything you should definitely watch the TV series; it takes all the best parts of the novel the deep characters, the complicated plot, and imaginative magical realism and makes you believe that magic could still exist if you look hard enough. There was more thought put into showing Lady Pole and Arabella, developing their characters and weaving their stories into the grander scheme of things. Stephen Black was featured in about the same intensity as the book, but under different circumstances. There were some big differences in his scenes but I believe that they served the same effect on the audience. Childermass and Vinculus too had changed scenes, but the purposes were the same.
I often wondered while listening to the novel why certain scenes were changed and others not to serve the purpose of the TV show. I never came up with any really good conclusions other than conciseness.
I liked the ideas of the novel – it’s the execution that I didn’t particularly care fore. In the end, the novel was about two men who struggled to be recognized by the other for their genius and the tools of an ancient spell they knew nothing about.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a worthwhile story to get to know. If you enjoy a more literary experience when exploring a new world and have the patients for long winded, meandering storyline read the novel or listen to the audiobook. But if you are more interested in content and want the reader’s digest version that still contains the great story and deep characters, I highly recommend the Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell BBC TV show.