In the dark, cold winters of the dawn of the nineteenth century, a mysterious visitor arrives at the venerable ‘Society of Magicians’, expressing a desire to ‘restore magic to England’.
The Society of Magicians – argumentative but mostly harmless elderly gentlemen who would no more practice any magic than they would ‘expect astronomers to re-arrange the Cosmos’ – are of course for the most part outraged at the very notion.
And so we meet Mr Norrell, his formidable book-hoarding habit, and his exploitation as a sort of travelling show by the dreadful Drawlight, who’s only in it for the money.
We do not meet the first titular character until ‘Volume 2’, with a portrayal of events in his family background reminiscent of Gormenghast. This episode appealed to me the most in the entire book, because it was among the few in which any character evoked any sympathy, or displayed anything but superficial motivation.
We constantly hear of the desire to ‘restore Magic to England’ – usually as a simple, bald statement – but nothing in any of the characters involved ever seems to bring out any deep reason for wanting to do so. Some of their actions, including one central to the plot in which Norrell suddenly decides, after all his disparaging comments about him and about the futility of the exercise, to take Strange on as a pupil, appear arbitrary and contrived.
I have to admit that with the exception of Lady Pole and slave/King Stephen, I found it difficult to care enough about any of the characters to read on through a thousand pages and find out what became of them. I couldn’t even get excited about ‘restoring magic to England’ in the end because nobody seemed to have any deep reason for wanting to do so, nor much of a personal stake in the outcome.
Indeed, too many of the characters seemed purely to be playing tricks on each other for no deeper reason than ‘because they could.’ Partly for that reason, the plot read more like a series of episodes than a rounded ‘story’. Even the end was inconclusive.
If you love the idea of getting lost in a book with prose as evocative as Dickens’, with landscape and buildings almost more real than the characters who move through them, and you don’t mind that the tale meanders along where it might ‘chuse’ to do, than Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is for you. If on the other hand you want characters who are more than just quirky, and you’re the sort who likes to follow people whose fate you care about, then there are better books to spend your time on.